Arguments Allowed: Debate Takes Off at Hutchison

“I’m really glad I took the debate class, because now I can argue my points effectively without feeling self-conscious. I initially dreaded public speaking, but halfway through the semester, I was so comfortable.” - Lauren Livesay ’16
That was how Lauren Livesay ’16 described her semester in the new Hutchison debate class, which was made possible thanks to a generous gift from Anne Orgill ’85 and her husband, Mike Keeney.

In addition to increased confidence in public speaking, Livesay and classmate Susannah Bland ’16 said that they sharpened their research skills, practiced arguing both sides of a point, and learned how to think quickly when rebutting an opponent.
Nick Simpson, Upper School Fine Arts/Social Sciences teacher, said it was a pleasure to see the girls grow during the semester that they took debate. “The girls who dedicated themselves to that will now go into their college careers with that sense of confidence, pride, and ability to stand up and have their voice counted in a way that’s going to be hugely beneficial to them.”

Susannah Bland agreed that becoming a polished debater took lots of practice, and she believes the research component of the class was invaluable. “You have to research your stance, but you also have to research the other stance to anticipate what they are going to say so that you can be prepared to make a rebuttal,” Bland said. “If you don’t have the statistics or the data, then you’re not going to do well in the debate.”

Bland and Livesay both noted how debate helped them look at topics, some quite controversial, objectively. While the girls gravitated toward topics that interested them, Simpson assigned the affirmative and negative stances to debate partners. That often meant making an argument that might run counter to your personal beliefs.

“Regardless of whether or not you agreed with your position, you had to know how to argue your position,” Bland said. She noted that Simpson decided the debate winners, but he didn’t do it based on his leanings. “It’s which side made the better argument. That was an interesting dynamic to get used to.”

Livesay agreed that sometimes arguing against your personal beliefs was challenging. “You have to look at the facts,” she said. “If you don’t personally agree with it, that’s not what it’s about. It certainly makes it easier when you’re trying to convince others using pathos and ethos if you wholeheartedly believe it. But you have to switch to a different part of your brain and say, these are the facts and I’m going to be as convincing as possible.”

Simpson said that there was another important aspect of debate. “The biggest challenge usually is not teaching people how to speak; it is teaching people how to listen. We work on how to be a good listener and about different types of listening. And hopefully out of that comes a respect for listening as a process.”

What’s next? Simpson says some girls will take debate in the 2016-2017 academic year as an advanced honors course. The goal is to mount a team for the spring of 2017, if he feels they are ready to compete. But first he’s interested in the process of getting there.

“I know that the process of debating has energized them, has given them the ability to frame what they want to say, and to perform in a way that will get their voices heard,” Simpson said. “I hope that eventually leads to some of these girls becoming politicians, community leaders, CEOs, lawyers, and doctors, seizing opportunities where they’ll meet people on a day-to-day basis who don’t necessarily agree with them.”

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Hutchison is the leading private girls school in Memphis for ages 2 years old through twelfth grade.