Critical Thinking and Debating

Debating is a commonly used activity for developing critical thinking skills. The question that this post wants to answer is how debating develops critical thinking. This will be achieved through discussing the following…

  • Defining debate
  • Debating in the past
  • Debating today

Defining Debate

A debate is a process of defending or attacking a proposition through the use of reasoning and judgement. The goal is to go through a process of argumentation in which good reasons are shared with an audience. Good reasons are persuasive reasons that have a psychological influence on an audience. Naturally, what constitutes a good reason varies from context to context. Therefore, a good debater always keeps in mind who their audience is.

One key element of debating is what is missing. Technically, debating is an intellectual experience and not an emotional one. This has been lost sight of over time as debaters and public speakers have learned that emotional fanaticism is much more influential in moving the masses the deliberate thinking.

Debating in the Past

Debating was a key tool among the ancient Greeks. Aristotle provides us with at least four purposes for debating. The first purpose of debating was that debating allows people to see both sides of an argument. As such, debating dispels bias and allows for more carefully defined decision-making. One of the  characteristics  of critical thinking is the ability to see both sides of an argument or to think empathically rather than only sympathetically.

A second purpose of debating is for instructing the public. Debates for experts to take complex ideas and reduce to simple ones for general consumption. Off course, this has been take to extremes through sound bites and memes in the 21st century but learning how to communicate clearly is yet another goal of critical thinking.

A third purpose of debating is to prevent fraud and injustice. Aristotle was assuming that there was truth and that truth was more powerful the injustice. These are ideas that have been lost with time as we now live in a postmodern world. However, Aristotle believed that people needed to know how to argue for truth and how to communicate it with others. Today, experiential knowledge, and emotions are the primary determiners for what is right and wrong rather than cold truth.

A final purpose of debating is debating in order to defend one’s self. Debating is an intellectual way of protecting someone as fighting is a physical way of protecting someone. There is an idiom in English that states that “the pen is mightier than the swords.” Often physical fighting comes after several intellectual machinations by leaders who find ways to manipulate things. Skilled debater can  move millions whereas a strong solider can only do a limited amount of damage alone.

Debating Today

One aspect of debating that is not covered above is the aspect of time when it comes to debating. Debating is a way to develop critical thinking but it is also a way of developing real-time critical thinking. In others words, not only do you have to prepare your argument and ideas before a debate you also have to respond and react during a debate. This requires thinking on your feet in front of an audience while still trying to persuasive and articulate. Not an easy task for most people.

Debating is often a lost art as people have turned to arguing instead. Arguing often involves emotional exchanges rather than rational thought. Some have stated that when debating disappears so does freedom of speech. In  many ways, as topics and ideas become more emotionally charged there is greater and greater restriction  on  what can be said so that no one is “offended”. Perhaps Aristotle was correct about his views on debating and injustice.

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