by Annabel Cuff,

Research Support Officer, Faculty for Social Wellbeing

 

Debate is the art of discussing opposing views in a respectful manner.  This is ingrained in our Faculty for Social Wellbeing ethos.  This lies at the core of the ethos of the Faculty for Social Wellbeing. Given the number of discussions in the personal or public spheres that degenerate – sometimes rather quickly –  into the personal and vitriolic, debate is an activity that should be far more widely engaged in than it currently is. It is with this aim of encouraging and promoting positive engagement on controversial issues, that the Faculty for Social Wellbeing has instituted a yearly debate, known as the Dean’s Forum Debate, in which four teams come together to debate topics of current interest in the area of social wellbeing. The winning team will take home €1000, however in reality this is not the main motivator for the teams preparing for this debate. The benefits to them personally are so much larger. In the two and half months from the selection of the teams to the actual debate at the end of February, the participants will test their understanding of what it means to debate as opposed to merely argue. Besides deepening their understanding of the topics up for debate, they will improve their critical thinking, creativity, team work, research and strategising, and hone their ability to speak well and persuasively. The process forces them to examine their own opinions and to engage with the other side of the argument, irrespective of their personal beliefs.

 

Debate as a form of public engagement has been around since ancient times. In Ancient Greece, Athenian men (seems they were not so advanced after all – only men were deemed worthy) were expected to take an active part in municipal life by joining in the communal debate of laws and important civic issues in the Agora, the central public gathering place. So highly regarded was this form of public engagement that they had a word for those citizens who did not engage in this public debate: “idiotes“. From these civic-minded origins to the debating societies of 18th Century London, that opened up public commentary to different and often politically unrepresented sections of society, to the modern student debating organisations that nowadays exist all over the world; debating is an important means of allowing engagement and discussion that might not otherwise take place.

 

Engaging in debate hones one’s ability to think critically, to disagree with a stated opinion in a respectful manner, to probe for holes in the logic and structure of an opponent’s argument, while remaining cool, calm and collected throughout. Good debate is about not letting one’s emotions take-over, it is the ultimate form of intellectual communication. Practice in debate teaches how to think on your toes, it is the art of convincing others, turning them to your point of view, of valiantly defending even points of view that you may not personally agree with – all of which are valuable skills in life, both on a personal, as well as a professional plane. This is why several top Universities across the globe give huge importance to debate and why it is so highly regarded.

 

However, bedsides the general advantages, participation in debate brings with it other, more personal, benefits. The American Debate League states that high school students who join debate clubs, even if they only experience one or two debates, score better on ACT and SAT tests, get into better colleges and perform better once in college. Barak Obama’s Secretary for Education, Arne Duncan, said that competitive debate is one of the great equalisers for minority accomplishment and educational opportunity. The skills learnt through engaging in debate and public speaking encourage a more civil and connected society. We learn to examine our attitudes towards social contexts in relation to general thinking, to evaluate our stands and to consider opposing views rather than instantly discrediting them because they are not in line with our own beliefs. In a world where increased access to media and personalised searches might lead to our isolation within an intellectual filter bubble, any encounter that alerts us to views that do not align with our own is deeply enriching. Allowing “the other side” a voice also upholds one of the most well known human rights, that to freedom of speech. These three words are often used to justify expressing unpopular opinions, however in essence freedom of speech means allowing everyone their voice, even those we disagree with, and being allowed to disagree, so long as the disagreement remains respectful. In the end, engaging in argumentation, debate, persuasive communication and public speaking skills benefits everyone.

 

The Faculty for Social Wellbeing is invested in improving the personal and civic skills of its students through the Dean’s Forum debate. Through this process participating students expand their public speaking and persuasive skills and forge new friendships with students from other disciplines within the Faculty.

 

This year’s Forum, held on Thursday 20th February, was no exception. This informative evening was exciting and well attended. Four provocative topics were selected and opposing aspects of each were then debated on the evening. Given that some aspects of the topics up for debate were pretty contrary to mainstream opinion, the teams did very well in valiantly covering all aspects, including the unpopular viewpoints. For the first heath, the topics up for debate were: Partisanship in Politics – Doom or Bloom, and Masculinity without Toxicity – Does it Exist?. The two topics for the second heath were AI: The Unpredictable Future and Big Brother is Watching: Protection or Infringement of Privacy? Congratulations to the winning team, and well done to all the participants, as they were all extremely well prepared and the spirit of the evening was one of vibrant competition and lively discussion.

 

If interested in reading a course with the Faculty for Social Wellbeing or you would like any information contact us on socialwellbeing@um.edu.mt or on FB Page: um.socialwellbeing/