Pros and pros of logical argument

The two most useful things I did at school were learn to play the piano and join the debating club.

Playing the piano allowed me to emote openly, musically, without eliciting laughter from classmates. Debate, in turn, changed my life.

The timid little introverted primary school kid that I was quickly turned into a confident, analytical extrovert. The benefits of both activities refuse to leave me as an adult.

I have been reflecting on these high school experiences in light of our predictable annual conversation about the quality of the matriculants our school system produces. Even if we assume that the aggregate improvement in the national pass rate was genuinely 7,2% this past year, that does not mean the education system is on the mend.

Our obsession with statistics masks a persistent problem with the quality of matriculants who are let loose on society. Speak to university lecturers, for example, and it is clear that undergraduates are increasingly less well equipped to enter tertiary institutions than their counterparts 10 years ago.

I lectured students last year, at a local university, whose grasp of basic concepts was so poor that I had to spend more time doing remedial teaching than genuine university-level lecturing. Most of them entered university with weak writing ability, a lack of intellectual curiosity and virtually no problem-solving aptitude.

This is particularly tragic when we remember that these students are supposedly the minority of learners the education system deemed ready for tertiary education, many with shopping lists of A symbols in hand.

Encouraging debates
Competitive debating clubs, in my opinion, should be set up by the basic education ministry in every school across the country to help fill this disturbing pedagogical gap. This is why.

The dominant format of competitive debate in the world requires participants to imagine they are policymakers who are trying to fix a real-world problem. They have to come up with solutions that are desirable and feasible and have no overriding side effects.

Winners are decided on the basis of the best evidence-based, logically argued and cogently articulated arguments. Topics are formulated as motions that a government might try to pass in a Parliament, such as “This house would invade Zimbabwe”, “This house would withhold international aid from countries with anti-sodomy laws” or “This house believes that structural adjustment programmes have done more harm than good”.

Not only do high-school debaters acquire a much greater general knowledge of the world around them than their peers, they are compelled to develop a problem-solving paradigm when thinking about society’s challenges. Furthermore, courtesy of the judging criteria, they have to eliminate patterns of fallacious reasoning in their own thinking and research and oral argument.

I teach young debaters, for example, that personal attacks (“Jeremy Cronin is white so I don’t need to take him seriously!”), hasty generalisations (“All blacks are criminals!”), assertions (“Affirmative action just is wrong!”) and circular arguments (“The Bible says God exists and since the Bible is the word of God it must true then that God exists!”) are species of bad argument.

By contrast, arguments with true or plausible premises, that support a conclusion either deductively or through strong inductive inference, are more convincing examples of evidence-based, logically coherent reasoning. Through plenty of examples, practice and competitive debating events, these lessons are reinforced.

The benefits
The pedagogical benefits are obvious. A history essay about, say, the reasons the African National Congress decided to adopt the armed struggle is an exercise in writing a competitive debating speech that convincingly argues for a particular claim backed up by relevant and adequate evidence in a logically coherent manner.

Trained debaters write and reason better than their peers in academic work. It is unsurprising then that competitive debaters have been among the top academic achievers in the country in the past 10 years.

Many of the Anglo American Scholarship winners (an award for the top matriculant in the country) are products of our competitive provincial and national schools’ debate structures.

International scholarships, such as the Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University and the Commonwealth scholarships, are also awarded, disproportionately but unsurprisingly, to competitive debaters. Of course, other contextual facts also explain these learners’ successes.

These achievers often attend excellent, well-resourced schools and many simply have natural academic aptitude. However, they still do well within their own peer groups because of the competitive advantage gained from debating.

Similarly, those pupils from under-resourced schools who also take part in various provincial and national debating structures tend to outperform their peers from similar backgrounds.

This anecdotal evidence about the connection between competitive debate and academic excellence has been confirmed through academic research by former debater Eric Tucker, an American Marshal scholar who studied at Oxford University, and others such as Briana Mezuk, who examined the academic impact of intense participation in debating programmes by kids in poorer parts of Chicago.

In addition to these critical thinking skills, debate’s more traditional benefits endure: building self-confidence; developing effective communication techniques; and serving as a catalyst for learning to speak and write persuasively.

There are, to be fair, disadvantages. Some debaters can be rather recalcitrant, adversarial and so adept at rehearsing both sides of a debate as to be less inclined to develop a deeply held, personal belief.

But, quite frankly, in a country where countless politicians and policymakers cannot tell the difference between a fallacy and a sound argument, in which letters pages, radio debates and internet comment threads reveal a shocking lack of respect for the rules of logic, these disadvantages are hardly overriding. The arrogance of a trained debater can be reined in. It is more difficult, on the other hand, to undo a lifetime of poor reasoning in a member of Parliament too old to learn new ­conceptual tricks.

So, while we focus, correctly, on getting the basics right, like replacing mud schools with real buildings and putting a library in every school, let us not forget to focus on producing critical thinking in our learners. Debating clubs can go a long way towards realising this educational imperative.

  • Eusebius McKaiser is the 2011 World Masters Debate Champion
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