Champions of Persuasion
It’s a story that a couple of undergraduates will likely savor for a lifetime: how they outsmarted reigning champion Yale University to clinch Tufts’ first national debating tournament.
The triumph happened on April 11 at the United States Universities Debate Association (USUDA) championship at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. Drew Latimer, A17, and Jeremy Chen, A17, of the Tufts Debate Society joined 400 debaters from 60 universities and colleges across the country for the contest; freshmen John Goulandris and Suntiparp Somsak also represented Tufts.
In the college debate world, there are two distinct styles: American parliamentary debate, which emphasizes preparation and speed, and British parliamentary debate, which is all about persuasion. Members of the Tufts Debate Society are adept at both, but as part of the USUDA, they followed the British format, in which a “motion,” or topic, is announced 15 minutes prior to each round. Four teams compete, two on each side of the issue. The debaters, who have no advance notice of the topic, each give a short speech, up to seven minutes long. Judges then rank the teams in order of persuasiveness.
Latimer and Chen scored the victory for Tufts after squaring off against Yale, Stanford and Harvard. Tufts Now recently caught up with them to learn more about these final rounds of the championship, and about what attracted the two of them to debate in the first place.
Tufts Now: Can you recap your winning strategy for your final question?
Drew Latimer: The motion was “You are the African-American community and you’re really underrepresented in the Democratic Party, so African Americans shouldn’t vote for Democrats until there’s proportional representation for black politicians in the Democratic Party.” We had to argue that they should not vote. Jeremy said, “We need to do something nobody would see coming if we’re going to win this.” He suggested we should say that the two-party system disenfranchises African Americans, and that we need to do away with it. I frantically wrote down everything I could think of about the two-party system, as far back as the 19th century.
Jeremy Chen: It was a strategic idea. We doubted that the other team would be expecting a focus on something like philosophical ideas and basic assumptions. The opposition had taken a very pragmatic approach in the first round, and by the time the second round came up, it was way too late for them to figure out how to respond.
When do you think you knew you’d nailed it?
Latimer: In that second round, I think when I said, “Well, if they won’t give you a seat at the table, flip the table over.” At that, everyone in the room started cheering.
What do your academic studies offer you in debating, and conversely, how does debating impact how you think and reason?
Latimer: Studying classics gives me a certain depth of perspective. The Greeks and Romans have such a different conception, for instance, of what goodness is—what is desirable for a person to be—compared with what our modern culture thinks. Once you’ve gained an understanding of this other viewpoint, it’s easier to see that just because things are a certain way, they don’t have to be. They haven’t always been this way, and they probably won’t be forever. I think some debaters assume that things are set in stone. I don’t think much of anything is set in stone. Things change—things that nobody ever thought would change do change.
Debating also really forces you to think in-depth about things outside your major, like feminism, policy, radical politics. It’s never boring. And you have to put yourself in different roles. You have to imagine what it would be like to be a different kind of person. One topic I had was: “As a feminist group, should you exclude women who are pro-life?” I still don’t know what I think about that. That’s a nuanced issue that I never thought that much about.
Chen: Being forced to defend viewpoints that I myself do not hold, and being exposed to topics and issues that I would otherwise ignore, has helped me to grow tremendously as a person. It has helped me realize that very smart people can hold views that are vastly different. My major is quantitative economics, and my minor is computer science. Economics classes have certainly helped me to debate issues. Debate has given me an appreciation for my professors who present different viewpoints and who are willing to point out the shortcomings in the theories and viewpoints that they agree with.
Is it difficult to be a successful debater?
Latimer: You have to think quickly and feel confident you know what you’re talking about. You only have 15 minutes before you go on stage to debate, and you can’t access the Internet for research—no outside resources are allowed. So a lot of what we do for prep is keeping up on current events, like reading the Economist, the Jacobin, every newsmagazine. I can get lost on Wikipedia. I’ll start clicking links and suddenly I’m reading about ancient Thai history. But I think you have to be that kind of person to do well at debates. You’ve got to always want to know more about everything.
Chen: Generally, it takes at least two years to master the basic skills—being able to consistently deliver quality speeches on a wide variety of topics is difficult. I’ve never had that much trouble with the “knowing things” part of debate—I’m a voracious reader. But there are two broad challenges in debate that took me many hundreds of rounds to master. One was knowing what questions to ask, like: Who is helped/hurt by this policy? What is my opponent implicitly saying? Is something my opponent cares about what we ought to care about? My second challenge was grasping broader principles. I struggled early on with having a lot of material, but not understanding how it all fit together. Figuring out which arguments are important and which aren’t takes many years to master.
What are the misconceptions about debate teams?
Chen: There is no singular “debater mold.” There is a misconception that all debaters study certain subjects, or that they all are interested in politics or are going to law school. Our team has an eclectic mix of majors, from classics to foreign languages, the natural sciences, computer science, economics. I would strongly encourage anyone to try out for the team in September.
Latimer: Yes, it’s probably a lot more diverse than people expect. We attract a lot of international students and a lot of people who didn’t do debate in high school. We are also very social—we spend a lot of time together. We meet twice a week to prepare, we spend weekends together at tournaments, and we spend time together just for fun. At the beginning of freshman year, I was just trying to make friends. That’s how I got into it, and then I was like, “Oh, well, if I’m going to do this, I might as well be good at it.”
Laura Ferguson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.