Debate Debacle

Student-led Debates Suck


Ben Rejab

Photo taken in-class

Ben Rejab, Editorial Board

Just like anything “student-led,” Socratic seminars at Mountainside are a complete circus, but it just so happens that this particular circus is consistently plagued with disorganization, large knowledge gaps between students on the same team, and worst of all, an overachieving student. The ones that always seem to be able to trumpet above eleven other people’s voices at once. 

In my Junior year, my writing and social studies classes have held more Socratic seminars than I’d ever seen in my Freshman and Sophomore years combined, and every issue I’d just mentioned surfaced in each one. However, as bad as I make these discussions out to be, it’s not just the lack of cohesion from the exchanges themselves that I take issue with, it’s also how our performance is evaluated and how the former inevitably affects the latter. 

I mainly take issue with how it makes the quality of our own performance so frustratingly ambiguous to even ourselves until grades are entered. Not only do we have to consider how we may think we performed, but we also have to take into account how the actions of others may have hindered our ability to participate. The result of this is that these “Socratic seminars” aren’t seminars, they’re debates. 

These debates don’t feel like they require much introspective thought or attention to detail, rather they feel like they require high volumes of absurd proposals in order to keep the conversation rolling. 

It’s almost as though these frequently held “debates” don’t reward careful planning or preparation, rather they incentivize students blurting out the first thing that comes to mind, regardless of how ridiculous or irrelevant those students’ notions may be. At that point, the activity becomes nothing more than a large-scale group project where you are now held accountable for the actions of others, while at the same time, running the risk of those actions hurting your own chances at success.

I believe that if Socratic seminars at Mountainside are to be a serious form of student discussion meant to expand our perspective on important topics, then there needs to be more moderation and structure to them. Socratic seminars are supposed to be a discussion of a text or idea, not a debate. The way things stand, there’s no real incentive to spend our work time formulating an air-tight argument/position when your group only gets 25 seconds of talking time and you end up being abruptly interrupted or shut down by someone trying to use the half-sentence you were able to say to ram through their own position. 

My first suggestion would be to go through whatever text or topic the class is discussing in a certain order, rather than talking about a very broad topic all at once. You can organize the discussion more logically and not risk compromising the flow of discussion. Groups are at lower risk of jumping around and leading the entire class on a tangent if everyone is tasked with sticking to one aspect of the text/topic for a specific, finite amount of time. Since other groups are, in a way, obligated to respond to a remark made by the opposition, whoever goes on a tangent first is the one sending everyone down a spiral. There’s less of a chance of a rebuttal coming completely out of left-field and knocking the flow of discussion off balance this way.

At the risk of contradicting myself, I’d like to assure you that I am aware that in some cases this philosophy/method would be completely useless, if not detrimental, to the overall debate. Especially when discussing topics that focus on a shorter text. In this case, it would simply be a waste of time to analyze it in sections rather than as a whole and it would be right to allow the discussion to remain less linear. 

Another suggestion I have is to not have students present in rounds. While on paper this two-round approach does sound like it would improve the concision and structure of the debate, it usually ends up derailing the discussion for those who are unfortunate enough to be selected to go up as the last group.  By some miracle, I’ve been selected to go up first during every debate. Although I’ve never personally seen what it’s like to have to go last, it’s very obvious just by listening that the discussions the second time around are much drier than the first. I’d assume it’s because after hearing the first group endlessly bicker for about forty-five minutes, the second group isn’t exactly left with anything new to discuss. 

Think about it, the first round of debates isn’t exactly sparking much groundbreaking discussion as is. Now imagine being the group of people who have to follow it up. Your small reserve of rebuttals and talking points are basically eaten up by the first wave, leaving the second group to either recycle their group’s same points or resort to much more obscure conversation. 

In conclusion, student Socratic seminars should be light-hearted activities that foster productive conversation, not a struggle for ideological dominance. How are we expected to succeed in these discussions when students have trained themselves to rely on violent screaming as their go-to strategy? If these exchanges are to be worth any of our time, they need more structure. Students should be encouraged to speak their minds, but not for the sole purpose of ensuring the box next to their name is checked off.