'The Great Debaters': A Challenge to Higher Education

“The banquet of my Wiley years was the tutelage of Tolson.”
-- James Farmer, Lay Bare the Heart


January 7, 2008

“The banquet of my Wiley years was the tutelage of Tolson.”
-- James Farmer, Lay Bare the Heart

Over the holidays, many may have gone to the theater to see The Great Debaters, the major motion picture from Denzel Washington and Oprah Winfrey. The film tells the extraordinary tale of the 1935 Wiley College debate team, its legendary coach Melvin B. Tolson and his most famous student, Dr. James L. Farmer Jr. One of the “Big Four” leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, Farmer put his debate training to use as the architect of the movement’s strategy of non-violent protest and direct action.

Most of the attention lavished on the movie has focused on how it helps audiences reflect on the ways in which racism permeates society. But the film also creates an opportunity for – and poses a challenge to – colleges and universities to provide all students with the fundamental academic experience that is debate. In addition to offering audiences opportunities to reflect on the ways in which racism permeates human society, the film challenges colleges and universities to provide all students with the fundamental academic experience that is debate. At a time when higher education is simultaneously financially constrained and seemingly awash in projects to create centers of excellence (teaching, civic engagement, service learning, and deliberative democracy) The Great Debaters reminds us that academic debate is a proven investment in the core values of our institutional missions.

Washington, who both directs and stars in the film, has taken the lead by donating $1 million to reestablish the Wiley College team, which lapsed after Tolson’s departure from the school. Washington’s generosity is a testament to his belief in the power and virtue of a debate education and a wake-up call to institutions of higher education to make academic debate a part of any serious strategic plan.

We all value the skills of argument and critical thinking; intercollegiate debate teaches these – and much more. Indeed, there is no better vehicle for stimulating undergraduate research, fostering tolerance and open mindedness, instigating engagement with the issues of the day, promoting understanding of global connections and inculcating the method of interdisciplinarity. Debate constitutes a series of connected academic experiences and teaches students to ask questions and seek answers to serious academic questions. Participation in debate, at any level, is life altering and has real consequence for students and their institutions alike. The skills, knowledge and habits of mind nurtured through academic debate are on display every day in virtually every profession, not the least of which is higher education.

A few years ago, John E. Sexton, president of New York University, said that his four years in high school debate “were the educational foundation of everything I did.” “I'm saying the finest education I got from any of the institutions I attended, the foundation of my mind that I got during those four years of competitive policy debate; that is, 90 percent of the intellectual capacity that I operate with today -- Fordham [University] for college, Fordham for the Ph.D., Harvard for law school -- all of that is the other 10 percent." But debate skills are not reserved only for exceptional students like Farmer and Sexton. All students should have the benefits of a debate education.

Because audiences around the globe will see The Great Debaters, it gives higher education a rare opportunity to promote this fundamental activity and garner support for it. How can we in higher education see this film, understand its message, and not return to our campuses to make those opportunities available to students? College administrators should be rushing to build strong debate programs in institutions where none presently exist. Meanwhile, universities that already have such programs should exercise a leadership role by committing to reinforce and showcase existing programs.

Compared to intercollegiate athletics and other costly endeavors, debate is, dollar for dollar, an efficient use of institutional resources. It requires no multimillion dollar complexes, playing fields, stadiums or expensive equipment. All that is necessary are classrooms, coaches, office supplies and support for travel and research. Debate is an inexpensive, educational and effective way to both promote schools and enhance the quality of the academic experience.

The movement to rediscover debate has already begun. Urban debate leagues at the middle and high school level are flourishing under the leadership of the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues and The Great Debaters will undoubtedly cause demand for debate to surge in the coming years. However, these leagues cannot shoulder the burden of a nationwide debate renaissance alone. They need colleges and universities to take a leadership role. Specifically, higher education must do three things.

First, we need to create viable opportunities for high school graduates who seek to continue their debate education after high school. Creating new programs and reinforcing existing programs is essential.

Second, and equally important, we must recruit, train and produce a new generation of professional debate educators. There are many middle and high schools around the country eager to offer debate opportunities to students, but they are unable to find qualified teachers with debate experience because the demand for quality coaches far outstrips the supply. To meet this shortfall, our institutions must generate capacity by fielding debate programs that give students opportunities to learn the coaching craft through rich individual learning experiences. In addition, thoughtful consideration should be given to the ways in which such a commitment spurs curricular innovation at both the undergraduate and graduate level as well as educational partnerships of local, regional and state constituencies. Finally, the creation of new opportunities to join the debate teaching fraternity must move in lockstep with efforts to retain, reward, and renew our best debate teachers.

Third, as the nation’s longstanding incubators of free expression, innovative thinking, democratic deliberation and social change, college and universities must do more to promote the role of debate as a necessary component of a well functioning society. Strong debate programs are essential because they showcase best practices. Debate programs are and should be key players in efforts to foster civic engagement and democratic responsibility.

The Great Debaters reminds us that the values of debate are the values of the academy itself. Even critics will admit that debate’s insufficiencies are due as much as anything to insufficient institutional commitment to a debate education. To be true to our core values, we need to promote the activities that create better students and better citizens. Debate does this. An America where academic debate becomes a prominent fixture on every campus would be a better America. Every college and university has many James Farmers strolling the hallways and quadrangles of its campuses; but we must lay the foundation for achievement. There will be no better opportunity to bring this to fruition than the one that now lies before us . The time for debate is now.


Timothy M. O’Donnell is chair of the National Debate Tournament Committee and director of debate at the University of Mary Washington, in Fredericksburg, Va.


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