It is becoming increasingly clear in today’s political climate that people seem to be forgetting that freedom of speech means that there are individuals out there who will disagree with you. Rather than actually discussing points of debate with those of differing opinions, many would now simply rather avoid any kind of argument altogether.
I was recently speaking to someone who referred to ‘debate’ as a process which implies that a fact is potentially incorrect. Indeed, many would argue that debaters often deploy ‘facts’ in their arguments that vary from cast-iron to as flimsy as pound shop shelves when it comes to accuracy. But a debate isn't some objective admission that a fact is either entirely true or utterly false. This demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of debating.
A debate is both an incredible expression of free speech and also a classic British pastime. Coffee shops in the eighteenth century would host individuals from across the economic spectrum (or at least those who were literate enough), establishing a debating tradition which continues to this day. What debating represents is the ability to research, construct and then attack or defend ideas in such a way that both sides walk away with a newfound perspective of an alternative viewpoint.
What we are now encountering is an increasing intolerance of the other side, as it were. In my experience, this has been more prominent on the Left, where it has a tendency to descend to the point of irrational argument and naked hostility. This is referred to as 'Political Emotion'. Now whilst it's endearing to see the emotional investment people have towards politics, it's in danger of wrecking our system.
It is because of this that I believe we must encourage debating in schools.
It was an incident in Bradford that caught my particular attention. One primary school recently took measures to ban ‘unhealthy’ food from school, with teachers even going so far as to 'encourage' children to open their lunchboxes and show them what they're eating.
While I'm all for 'encouraging' students to make healthier eating choices, this annoys me for two particular reasons:
1. 'Encouraging' could very well be the teacher emotionally pressuring the child to show them their food. That's not encouraging, that's emotional bullying.
2. It is utterly condescending and demonstrates the authoritarian nature of the school’s policy.
The second point is what irritates me most. I don't like kids (anyone who knows me is fully aware of that) but even I accept that children are incredibly receptive to information. Research by the Universities of Chicago and North Carolina found that even those as young as four and a half were capable of complex forms of reasoning.
Impressive, right? So either teachers are oblivious to this, which is possible, or they are completely resigned to just hammering in the 'because we said so' routine to make their pupils 'compliant'. Not the best way of preparing the voters of the future. How helpful can it be to teach kids to simply abide, rather than to question?
But that's not all to come out of Bradford in recent months. In September the National Secular Society discovered that two schools were enforcing a 'Compulsory Hijab' policy. Naturally parents, teachers and campaigners immediately launched into a clear-cut Yes/No debate, something from which the actual children in question were notably absent.
In a statement, Ishtiaq Ahmed, Spokesperson for the Council for Mosques, said: “We have to accept that Britain, and a city like Bradford, is a multi-faith society, and faith is an important part of people’s identity. It is about tolerance and respect. And making efforts to understand people’s different way of life. People should have choices without the fear of being criticised."
Sara Khan, CEO of Inspire, added: “They say it is to respect religious sensitivities, but there is no requirement in religion for young girls to be wearing a headscarf.”
And yet, throughout the entire article (which can be found here), there was no mention of how to properly teach students about this issue. It was just an argument between two opposed ideas with no pupil input. It's insulting.
The fact of the matter is that a debate can do a lot to heal divisions and promote a student’s intellectual understanding. Researching, structuring and instigating a debate allows a pupil to process and use complex information in more innovative ways than via regurgitation education.
This is a form of learning that will remain invaluable in later life, regardless of what the child ends up doing. Being made to research and explain a topic allows for a deeper level of intellect, one which seems tragically absent in many adults.
For children, debating has the added bonus of improving confidence and self-esteem (albeit this varies depending on their starting level of confidence). Underprivileged schools even utilise it as a means of increasing the student's future prospects. As Avril Newman, Headteacher of Sir William Burrough Primary School in East London, puts it: "It's the only way to help equalise the life chances of children from less privileged backgrounds. It's the confidence and the commitment and the manner of their speaking which is going to make that critical difference for them."
A student who has participated in debates will know that ideas can be tested and changed, that a sceptical mind is better than a closed one. So here's a controversial thought for those seeking to suppress argument: let the children hear both sides and come to their own conclusions.
Maybe then they can eat their pies at lunchtime in peace.