The Importance of Debate


Date of Publication: 30 December 2014

‘Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt’, or so goes a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln. Perhaps this is true in some contexts but my apologies America, I’m going to have to disagree with him where education is concerned!  

Debate, whether as an abstract construct or as the constructed exercise common in high school competition and politics with strict rules and format- introductions, opening statements, rebuttals and so on- is a useful and valuable tool. It is also the cornerstone of tutorials, of essays and of speeches, both at Oxford University, and at Oxford Summer Courses, as well as at the Oxford Union, an institution famed for its speakers and debates. Participation in debates enables you to become less narrow- minded, to look at all sides of an argument, to provide scope and structure to your work and in practice to develop the art of public speaking and rhetoric.  

In a tutorial at Oxford, and at Oxford Summer Courses, you will be encouraged to present your ideas and arguments in an essay and then to discuss them. As a general rule an essay should set all the different facets of an issue, structured in such a way as to form a clear and coherent theory, substantiated by evidence. It is then by debating the subject with a professor, and with other students, that our ideas can be developed and our arguments strengthened.


Our structured debate night takes place once a fortnight during the summer course. Our students are presented with a topic, and two volunteers take the proposition, and two take the opposition to the motion, examples of which include last year’s ‘Social Media sites such as Facebook are overwhelmingly destructive’, ‘Neuroscience should be taken into account in criminal trials’ and ‘Megacities are a “Good Thing”’. The preparation is a mixture of independent research and teamwork, and each student covers different aspects of the debate. Rebuttals are then offered in reaction to each debater’s arguments, and questions are posed by the judges and audience. Finally a vote is taken. The whole process encourages debaters and audience to be both firm and flexible in their ideas, to engage in an interesting and often controversial topic, to communicate clearly and to think and analyse quickly and critically.  

Interestingly, the format of the debates used today, in schools, college, the Oxford Union, British politics and at Oxford Summer Courses, is the same as that used in the series of the seven Lincoln-Douglas debates in Illinois in 1858. Incidentally, during these debates, it was when the future president began to speak out, and to go on the offensive that the contemporary reporters, and our historians, judge his losing streak began to take a turn. Perhaps he began to listen to the opinions of others on debate and speaking out. Here are a couple more…  

‘It is the mark of an educated man to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it’ – Aristotle  

‘A good leader can engage in a debate frankly and thoroughly, knowing that at the end he and the other side must be closer, and thus emerge stronger. You don’t have that idea when you are arrogant, superficial, and uninformed.’ – Nelson Mandela  

For more on the Lincoln debates:

Check out our International Relations courses, where debates are bound to occur: International Relations and International Relations and Politics

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