Students participate in a debate contest in February.
Members of the Whitman Debate Team participate in a house tournament. (Photo by Sydney Rollins '22)

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In today's world of "fake news" and political acrimony, the world is seeing less debate and more arguments where one side shouts over the other.

But at Whitman College, students are learning the critical role that well-honed arguments and careful listening play in the art of debate. Led by Lauran Schaefer, director of Debate and Forensics, and Baker Weilert, assistant director, the Whitman Debate Team is training students not just to argue, but also to listen.

"To be a good debater, you must set aside your beliefs in order to listen perfectly. You lose quickly if you ignore or miss the arguments of your opponent," said Reza Darvish '21, a member of the Debate Team. Darvish didn't have any experience with debate before enrolling at Whitman, but he had enjoyed his high school rhetoric and English classes, so he was interested in joining the group.

"It has made me more disciplined, because it's hard to pick up and respond to the implications of rapidly flowing ideas," he said.

Weilert and Schaefer believe that debate informs and epitomizes the liberal arts experience. Debate enhances skills such as argumentation, encourages the critical analysis of issues, and encourages students to be open-minded and receptive of different perspectives.

"Beliefs are formed through the interrogation of working through issue," Weilert said.

Whitman's debate team is unique in a number of ways from other teams across the country: the program is not housed in an academic department, and the debate instructors are not professors. The other major difference is a symbolic, and revolves around team culture.

"Baker and I do not see ourselves as these student's coaches. We believe we are educators, even if our work doesn't happen in the classroom, and mentors to the students," Schaefer said.

Whitman's Debate Team doesn't emphasis the importance of winning as much as it emphasis the importance of debate as a transferable skill. Schaefer said she wants to encourage accountability between players and within the larger community as a whole. When team members trust and believe in each other, cohesion increases and learning can take place, she said.

Allie McCann '22 was new to debate when she came to Whitman last fall. As a first-year student, McCann planned to major in psychology, but her exposure to new ideas through the debate program have shifted her academic interests, she said.

"This semester, I am taking a race and international politics class," she said. "I learned a lot about abuses that happen on an international scale through debate, and also about dehumanization on a global skill."

The Debate Team travels to regional tournaments, and also hosts local events to give team members a chance to practice. This semester, they hosted an in-house tournament that featured volunteer judges from the Walla Walla community. The tournament was more casual than a typical tournament, Schaefer said, with Whitman students as the only participants. She'd like to schedule future events that are open to the Whitman and Walla Walla communities.

"Lauren and I are working to incorporate the debate program into the larger academic and social space that extends beyond Whitman," Weilert said, including scheduling more public debates. "We're hoping these public debates facilitate conversation, encourages people to break from insolated views, and encourages people to listen to one another."