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The Importance of Debate

‘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 we’re going to have to disagree with him where education is concerned!

From improving speaking and listening skills to building self-esteem and rounded knowledge of a specific subject or topic, debating remains an important aspect of many educational systems, both in the classroom and at prestigious university settings like Oxford and Cambridge.

Find out more about classroom debate; its traditions in the educational system, and why it continues to play a hugely important role in the modern world.

What does it mean to debate?

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.

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.

It is also the cornerstone of tutorials, of essays and of speeches, both at Oxford University, at Oxford Summer Courses, as well as at the Oxford Union – an institution famed for its speakers and debates.


Why is debating good?

Learning how to debate has many benefits for school and university students, with the skills you learn being crucial for modern life.

With political events continuing to remind us of the importance of persuasion and great oratory which can spark to our emotional and rational parts of our brain, we need to be equipped to understand and sympathise with those whose free speech we often disagree with.

The art of debate involves mastering skills of obvious intrinsic value: the confidence to speak in public; construct logical arguments; and perhaps, most importantly, learn to hear others’ arguments and respond to them with accuracy.

In this respect, starting to lay the foundations of the importance of the debate in classrooms at a young age is essential so that students are equipped with the skills and confidence needed to understand and respect free speech from a young age.

Debating at Oxford Summer Courses

In a tutorial at the University of 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.

During this, students are presented with a topic, where two volunteers take the proposition and two take the opposition to the motion, examples of which have previously included:

  • 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.


The History of Debate

Interestingly, the format of the debates used today, in schools, college, the Oxford Union, British politics and on our summer school programs here in Oxford and Cambridge, 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.

Take at a few other notable figures in history and their views on debate:

‘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 information on how the Lincoln debates were considered the turning point for him as a presidential contender, take a look at this website.

Interested in finding out more about our summer courses?

Come and discover the importance of debate in the classroom for yourself on one of our summer school programs.

With debating lying at the heart of many of the subjects we offer, such as Law, International Relations, Politics, and Philosophy – we also host debating nights for students on our other subject programs.

Take a look at the full list of summer courses we currently have on offer.

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Wondering what the Oxford debate is? Learn more about what it involves and discover the importance of debate in the classroom today.

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