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The Art of Debate at Oxford Summer Courses

The debate is one of the hallmark traditions of Oxford University, well-known due to the prominence of the Oxford Union and the Oxford Guild. Debating, with its emphasis on intellectual questioning and eloquence in a formal setting, is an amazing way of learning and part of what distinguishes Oxford from its contemporaries. It also happens to be pretty fun, as our students found out –

On the fourth day of their course, the students of group 8 got a taste of debating first hand in the fabulous setting of Somerville Chapel. A selection of topics was decided beforehand, with those to be debated decided by a student vote. Group 8 proved themselves ready for a challenge, choosing two of the most contentious topics to discuss. The first was ‘This House believes that the Arts are more important than the Sciences’.

Our students study a diverse range of subjects, with mathematicians and computer scientists alongside economists and law students, so there was a wide range of ideas and personal experience to draw upon. From the point of the view of the student helpers, this particular topic was guaranteed to provoke controversy; between us, we encompassed the whole spectrum of arts to sciences, with a chemistry graduate, an anthropologist, and a musician.

They split into even groups, and had five minutes to form coherent and persuasive arguments. The points from both sides were thought provoking; those defending the sciences took a strong stance by pointing out how far the human race has progressed as a species due to advances in housing, industry and technology. Praising the sciences for encouraging flexibility of thought and problem solving, Team Science asked how anyone could argue for something as useless and impractical as the arts?

Team Arts rallied with their own points however; flipping the scientists’ argument on its head by positing that it is actually impossible to live and progress without the arts which bring meaning to people’s lives and shine an unflinching light on our society. Among many great examples were Beyonce’s Lemonade and the role of music and art as tools for bonding and healing. The competition was tight, but in the end the debate came down not so much to content but to presentation – Team Science laid out their points clearly and articulated them very well, winning them this round.

Team Arts wasn’t going to stop without another try though. The next topic was ‘This House Believes that the Monarchy is Irrelevant’, and the team launched themselves into it with renewed energy. The number of ideas being thrown around was through the roof. Both teams demonstrated an all-round improvement with strategy refinements that kept the competition tight; but this time it was Team Arts who came out on top.

At this point, we decided that it was time to switch to some lighter topics. Over dinner earlier that evening, a very important question had been raised, to which no clear answer had been reached: if you were stranded on a desert island and only allowed to have one item of cutlery, would you prefer to have a fork or a spoon?

It was time to take it from the dinner table to the debating floor, and it was here that the creativity of responses went wild. Very persuasive points were made on both sides, including a (possibly dubious) argument that the spoon could be polished to act as a concave sun reflector and magnifier to start a fire. Spoons seemed to take the victory, but there still remain unpersuaded students advocating the fork. Ultimately it had to be concluded that without any first hand evidence, the question could never be truly answered.

To close the debate off, we revisited a classic: cats or dogs? Unfortunately given my strong bias towards cats, I couldn’t possibly comment on the eventual conclusion of this debate. It’s safe to say, though, that a lot was learned all round about the value of a rigorous debate. Everyone ended up enjoying themselves immensely, getting to know each other better, as well as having a chance to debate in a city for which they are truly iconic.

Posted: September 5, 2017

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