Wednesday’s Blair Debate served as a reminder of how Williams can simultaneously succeed and fail at bringing speakers to campus. Those who went experienced a clean, honest debate of ideas between two equally forceful speakers. The absence of thoughtless partisan retorts and cliched metaphors was a welcome relief from the stream of illogical verbiage most political campaigns have been forcing upon the electorate the last few months. Even more appealing was Professor Tim Cook’s (the moderator) declaration that audience members confine themselves to questions during the Q&A period, instead of grandstanding to voice their own political message. This provided a forum where an honest back and forth flow of ideas was possible, where both debaters answered all the questions put forth by the opposition, where a description of a mental hospital could be used by both sides to argue their point. The one, small detraction from the experience was that few Williams students made decision to come to the debate.
With the Williams College Debate Union’s first event of the year happening today, we are concerned that the strengths of the Blair debate may be overlooked and its weakness magnified. Both E.J. Dionne and William Weld are known nationally, yet even despite Weld’s six-year stewardship of Massachusetts, only a trickle of students (many of whom had shared dinner with the two debaters earlier) managed to sit in the AMT. Alumni and former teachers were in attendance yet few students outside those of whom had received a free meal showed up let alone asked questions of the debaters.
Students should take an interest in the topic being debated. Most of us were active political members in high school and in theory would normally come to a debate merely based on the topic at hand. While this is normally the primary goal, experience shows that regardless of how fascinating a debate topic is, it is the popularity of the debaters that draws a crowd. Yet even the relative spotlight strengths of Dionne and Weld were not enough to overcome the lack of publicity given to the Blair debate beforehand and the rather congested schedule of events on Wednesday night. The upcoming WCDU debate used an all-campus mailbox stuffing to encourage people to come yet the posters for the event were not put up even a week ahead of the event, leaving one to wonder whether the administration might take a more active role in the promotion of student led debates.
President Payne has set his focus upon leadership and the skills involved with such, yet Williams students lack initiative to go to debates and ask questions. Q&A sections at each debate are dominated by Williamstown residents and faculty members. Has Payne’s vision fallen by the wayside, or is there still a way to get more students interested in the discourse of ideas possible at debates? We at the Record feel that the intelligent thoughtful discourse of this year’s Blair debate will be lost if the number of students continues to fall off at future debates. To that end, better publicity and higher profile debaters should set the standard for marketing the Williams debate scene. Also, with the proliferation of information about what is and is not happening on campus, the faculty needs to take a more active role in promoting these events. The topics covered affect not just political science majors, but every student on campus, and the faculty as a whole should advocate students attending debates, setting standards by attending themselves.
Yet in the end, the duty lies upon us, the students to attend what affects our lives today and tomorrow. No amount of faculty or administration intervention should be necessary to have large numbers of the student populace attend well organized debates. Given that the debaters and the moderators have gone to special care to ensure an appropriate forum for the exchange of ideas, the least the students can do is attend and ask questions. Listening is the first step, active participation the next. Until the student body can realize the importance of the debate of ideas in our lives, a process that will continue throughout our days (though probably in much less organized forums with many more inappropriate stereotypes inserted in as facts), no amount of administration cajoling can serve as substitute. We should attend, and have our debates once again belong to the students.