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Anthony Badami '11: A forum for intellectual pugilism

Call me pugnacious, but I believe in argument for argument's sake. Sit me across from someone with a remotely interesting political opinion, and I will have to challenge it.

National health care? "Necessary but not sufficient."

Legalization of marijuana? "Not in our lifetime." 

Israeli-Palestinian conflict? "Oh, do get me started." 

What can I say; it's one of my more splendid habits.

And it's a habit I wish more would embrace. Unfortunately, opportunities to exercise one's polemic muscle during the school year are few and far between. The occasional Janus debate may whet one's appetite, but it can never satiate one's hunger for dispute like a full-on, multi-hour, verbal tug-of-war. I get excited just thinking about it. 

The value of argument cannot be overstated. It is the cornerstone of philosophy and politics. It is the pacemaker that keeps the heart of the scientific method beating. It is the fuel for risk, for experimentation, for Galileo, for Einstein, for Nietzsche, for Rawls. 

Yet, the most I can expect during the semester is a once-a-week discussion section, which, more often than not, devolves into an inane bull session with each student trying to assert his or her frivolous opinion. If you can't tell, I'm a bit perturbed. 

So, it is with the utmost seriousness that I propose that Brown should institute a yearlong debate league, open to all undergraduates, that pits student against student in arguments over school policy and other pertinent subjects. 

This is not unprecedented. The Brown Debate Union hosts a very similar contest. Students enter the debate unaware of the specific topic, which is later selected by a coin flip. One student is given time to prepare a short opening speech affirming or negating the prompt, and his or her opponent must respond, engaging the arguments directly and possibly proposing alternatives. Doesn't that sound delightful?

I don't fault Brown completely for the lack of argumentative encouragement. Rating-hungry anchors and over-zealous pseudo-pundits saturate American daytime news talk with hackneyed and colorless "commentary." Indeed, the only colors they seem to see are red and blue, and the only nuance they seem to understand is us versus them. 

In the United Kingdom, there exists a constitutional convention requiring the Prime Minister to sit down for thirty minutes each week and answer questions before the House of Commons. In Canada, a similar mandate known as "Question Period" puts the Prime Minister in front of the federal Parliament on a daily basis. In this country, the President is simply an actor in a rehearsed performance, unaccountable and, for all practical purposes, inaccessible. 

Thus, it is not surprising that American campuses share this frictionless behavior. Would subjecting Ruth to weekly questioning really be so novel? We didn't elect her, but we do pay her salary. A campus-wide debate league would be yet another avenue of communication between students and the administration. 

Of course, times are tough economically. Is a debate league financially feasible? I think so. Students could moderate the debates; I would venture to guess that a fair number of undergraduates find these sorts of activities intellectually and academically stimulating. And it certainly wouldn't be compulsory. 

Another guess: Brown would be able to finagle the necessary classroom space. Walk past the Main Green after seven and you are sure to see plenty of lonely, darkened classrooms. Can't we provide them some company? Remember, the source of light is heat!

The specifics of the league are up for discussion. But if I had my druthers, the competition (if it were competitive) would culminate in a grandiose wrangle, center stage in Salomon. Like the BDU contest, a panel of faculty members and administrators would adjudicate. Peers would look on, cheering and jeering their classmates when appropriate. It would be truly a celebration of the cerebral, an exaltation of the logos.

Perhaps it is a lofty idea. However, it is not without warrant. The job market is a tricky place, but graduating seniors who can communicate confidently, articulately and persuasively will be better served. As the league develops, so too will Brown's reputation. We will be considered a truly liberal arts institution, known for producing Renaissance men and women capable of vivacious, dialectical argumentation. 

To end, I recall the words of Michel Foucault in a 1982 essay entitled "The Subject and Power." He writes, "Thought is freedom in relation to what one does, the motion by which one detaches oneself from it, establishes it as object, and reflects on it as a problem."

Critical awareness is the root of education. Questioning ideology, making our thoughts the object, rather than the subject, and taking for granted nothing, will only elevate the collective intellect of our school. Brown must institute a debate league.


Anthony Badami '11 is a political theory concentrator from Kansas City, MO. He can be reached at anthony_badami (at) brown.edu.




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