The Art of Debate

19 December, 2016 CGE USIL Uncategorized, no comments

Sixto Gonzalo Ramos Vásquez
Debate teacher, Colegio Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Colegio Reina de los Ángeles schools, Lima Teacher of the Introduction to Public Speaking course, Center for Global Education (CGE), Universidad San Ignacio de Loyola, Lima.

In 1992, Timothy (Tim) Boyer, the Principal of Colegio F. D. Roosevelt, asked me to start a debate club. My answer was, “Tim, I don’t know the first thing about debating.” He replied, “Why don’t you take it on as a challenge?” That made it a matter of pride, so I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.” Thanks to that brilliant educator, I discovered debate, an extraordinary educational tool. Somewhat blindly, the following year I attended the 4th World Schools Debating Championship (WSDC) in Canada. I was so impressed at how high school students from fourteen countries debated about politics, economics, science, philosophy, sports, etc. that, upon my return to Peru, I was determined to work hard in this wonderful field I had discovered. Since then, I’ve taught and promoted debate at the high school and university levels, both nationally and internationally. In 2002, I founded the Asociación Peruana de Debate (Peruvian Debate Association); in 2003, I organized the 14th World Schools Debating Championship, in Lima, which was attended by 26 countries; in 2006, in Wales, I was elected as a member of the Executive Committee of the World Schools Debating Council; and in 2007, in South Korea, I founded the Pan-American Debate Organization. I have been the national debate coach since 2002 until 2012, and I’ve had the good fortune to attend 16 world championships and 5 Pan-American championships.

What is debate?

“Debate is a formal contest of argumentation between two teams or individuals. More broadly, and more importantly, debate is an essential tool for developing and maintaining democracy and open societies. More than a mere verbal or performance skill, debate embodies the ideals of reasoned argument, tolerance for divergent points of view and rigorous self-examination. Debate is, above all, a way for those who hold opposing views to discuss controversial issues without descending to insult, emotional appeals or personal bias. A key trademark of debate is that it rarely ends in agreement, but rather allows for a robust analysis of the question at hand. Perhaps this is what French philosopher Joseph Joubert meant when he said, ‘It is better to debate a question without settling it, than to settle a question without debating it.’” (IDEA: International Debate Education Association)

Debate is as old as Western civilization itself. This fantastic activity began in Ancient Greece (in the city of Thales), where debate was part of democracy. The Greeks publicly debated matters of collective importance: the meaning and value of democracy, the importance of justice and authority, the rights of citizens, the meaning of war, etc. In the city of Athens, Socrates made debate his main tool for convincing people, especially young people, to get to know themselves and always seek the truth. Plato and Aristotle used debate in the classroom to propose important ideas about being, truth, justice, beauty, morality, wisdom, knowledge, God, etc.

Over time, debate acquired importance in other places, especially in Rome, from where it would spread to other European countries. Later on, the Anglo-Saxons incorporated debate in their educational curricula, with extraordinary results. Today, debate flourishes at schools and universities in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, North America, Oceania and Latin America, although it took longer in the latter. Public speaking has been more widely cultivated here, while debate has been and continues to be a privilege of the few. Fortunately, in Peru debate is becoming more widespread in schools and universities, as many educational authorities have discovered its great benefits to students and teachers.


In Peru, the absence of debate in school curricula impedes offering our students the benefits of a very important academic tool. Debate is often associated with the incongruous, sometimes pathetic, discussions we see on television. Fortunately, this is not the type of debate that can and should be taught in schools and universities throughout the country. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to discover this wonderful educational tool are convinced that education in Peru would improve enormously if we were to use it in the classroom. Debate can be used in almost every grade of school and in every course. Students do not need special personal qualities, but they do need a teacher who knows how to initiate his or her students in this activity that is so necessary in the life of a student or professional.

Basic pillars of debate

Debate to learn: Debate is an activity geared toward teaching important skills, which are necessary for success in a democratic society. Therefore, the basic principle of debate is to learn. The idea of learning has priority over the idea of winning. Debating only with the idea of winning is an error, because this can be achieved using any method. Learning, on the other hand, means improvement, honesty, competitiveness and conviction.

Debate with honesty: Honesty is the foundation of everything that happens in debate. As an activity, debate stimulates people’s innate curiosity. We are all interested in knowing the truth. For example, was the invasion of Iraq a pretext of the United States to take that country’s oil? Are genetically modified foods unhealthy? Do humans cause global warming? These questions have to do with the past and the present, but they are all focused on finding the truth. A debater’s responsibility is to be honest in his or her arguments, in the use of evidence, and in the answers he or she offers. Lying in a debate makes no sense at all.

Debate with respect: Debating is not about rating people. Therefore, a debater should not minimize, ridicule or demean an opponent simply because he or she has a different point of view on a topic. Attacking a person who is presenting an idea will not destroy the idea; it will only be a distraction. Ideas must always be challenged with ideas, with reasoning. When debating, one must not only respect the adversary, but also his or her ideas.

Benefits of debate: Debate builds skills for:

  • Arguing coherently
  • Communicating ideas clearly and persuasively
  • Defending a point of view
  • Using language properly
  • Listening to opponents
  • Gaining self-confidence
  • Respecting adversaries
  • Working as a member of a team
  • Seeing problems from different perspectives

Debate styles

A number of debate styles are used, depending on the number of participants and length of a debate. The ones most used at the high school level are Lincoln-Douglas (1 vs. 1), cross-examination (2 vs. 2), Popper (3 vs. 3), and World Schools which is used in all world and Pan-American championships (3 vs. 3). At the university level, the Parliamentary style (2 vs. 2, North American format, and 4 vs. 4, British format) is used. In university competition throughout the world, the British format is used.

Evaluation of a debate

There are 3 criteria for evaluating a debate: style, content and strategy.

is the manner in which the speaker talks to the audience and the judges; it includes visual contact, voice (volume, inflection and tone), gestures, posture, correct and appropriate use of verbal language, and confidence when speaking.

is what the speaker says in his or her speech; it includes the definition of key terms related to the topic, arguments, evidence in favor or against the topic of discussion, and answers to opponents’ questions.

includes proper speech structure (introduction, body and conclusion), use of the time allocated, and level of understanding of the topic of debate.

Lima, May 6, 2016.

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