Last week an editorial appeared in the Record criticizing the Williams College Debate Union for inviting two members of the Williams class of 1997 to fill the “student” roles in the winter debate on free speech and the Internet. The editorial also argued that these roles should in the future be filled with students who are not members of the debate team. I too would like to find a way to expand the circle of students involved in the WCDU.
I disagree, however, with what seemed to be the underlying premise of the editorial: that the primary goal of the WCDU is to get current students involved in debates, and that therefore the use of alumni represents a troubling retreat from the Union’s founding purposes.
One of the primary goals of the Union is to foster civic engagement and debate within the Williams community, a community that, in my opinion and in the opinions, I think, of the other co-founders, includes current students, faculty and alumni. This goal of civic engagement and discourse is best met not by rigidly adhering to a format that requires one current student, one faculty member, and one invited speaker on each side, but by combining the talents and resources of Williams students, faculty and alumni (in various combinations) with those of the “experts.”
I think the editorial was correct, however, to suggest that it is important, indeed vital, to the continued success of the WCDU to involve students from outside the debate team in its events. But this task is far more difficult than the Record editorial imagines. While it is true that students often use debate skills in class, a Williams education, as it is now, does not adequately prepare students for the experience of a parliamentary debate with faculty and professional speakers in front of an audience of 400+. What the Williams community has seen current and former students do in the past four debates is a lot harder than it looks, and to prepare students without much public speaking experience to perform at that level, we on the Debate Union need some help. So here’s what I propose: next fall or winter study, someone should teach a course on rhetoric. Such a course, I think, would be valuable not only to students interested in participating in Debate Union events, but also to anyone interested in sharpening his or her public speaking skills. Students from that course who expressed interest could then learn the parliamentary style from those in charge of the debate team and participate in a Union debate.
Again, let me be clear. I do not mean to suggest that students on the debate team hold a monopoly on the skills required to participate in Union events. I simply want to remind the Record and everyone else that the students who have participated so far have all had years of parliamentary debate experience behind them, and that preparing students without such experience for a Union debate is a big job. Offering a course on rhetoric would be a viable first step in a concerted effort on the part of the College to offering this necessary training.