Debate teams take values into public square

Many Catholic colleges in the U.S. offer debate clubs for students, some that debate only among themselves and others that participate against other colleges in national competitions. Their existence is dependent upon student interest; when membership wanes the clubs may go out of existence for a time. But when the clubs have a healthy and thriving membership, participants say they offer invaluable skills to students as they enter a secular world that can be hostile to their faith.

More than right ideas


The Franciscan University of Steubenville debate society is in its second year of existence and currently has a membership of eight to 10 students who currently only debate among themselves. Its president is Daniel McNichol, who first petitioned the school to start the club. His reason for wanting the club, he said, is that “many Catholics have trouble successfully defending their faith and pro-family viewpoints. They may have the right ideas, but they don’t know how to put forth arguments that are persuasive or make sense.”

McNichol has an extensive debate background, having once participated in competitions at Harvard University.

Professors John and Concetta Pilsner serve as moderators. The club debates issues in the format of the pre-Civil War Lincoln-Douglas debates — presenting arguments, cross-examining one another and offering rebuttals to objections. Concetta Pilsner said, “Students must listen to one another carefully, learn how to argue and catch their opponent should he throw a ‘red herring’ at you.”

Such skills, she said, are a great training for presenting arguments in a law court.

Topics typically have moral and ethical dimensions; past topics have included the death penalty, gun control, religious liberty and the removal of Confederate monuments.

McNichol believes the club is helping his fellow students to develop “clear thinking” that will be a straight line to a rational conclusion.”

The club meets weekly for debates; participants must argue an assigned side regardless of their personal beliefs. John Pilsner said, “We’re teaching them to choose a value that would be appropriately applied to an issue, and to demonstrate why that value is applicable.”

Debate makes students quick on their feet, he continued, necessitating that they quickly analyze an opponent’s position and respond appropriately. Ultimately, Pilsner said, “It teaches you to argue with a balance of reason and passion.”

Such skills will help students to more effectively defend their Catholic faith in the public square, making them “a better witness to their faith.”


Lifetime skills

Belmont Abbey College in Belmont, North Carolina, has a debate team that meets weekly, which also has eight to 10 members. The students not only debate among themselves but also participate in national competitions. The team turned in a strong performance at a recent “Ethics Bowl” statewide competition, said Director of Debate Emily Mikkelsen, and is preparing for the prestigious Lafayette Debates in April, “the highlight of the year.”

The students spar over a variety of international and domestic topics; recent topics have included the best response for hurricane relief and addressing the opioid crisis. Mikkelsen said, “We encourage our students to watch each other closely, stating what each student does well, as well as offer criticism.”

David Williams, Belmont Abbey’s vice president of academic affairs, believes the debate team is an important offering of the college, as “learning to communicate and respond persuasively are lifetime skills.”

Belmont Abbey’s team is in its third year after “re-starting,” Mikkelsen said, “and we’re hoping not only to maintain but to grow the team.”


Ave Maria University in Florida has a St. Thomas More Debate Club with 16 members. It, too, was revived, and is in its second year. Ambrose Augustine Dean, a sophomore, serves as its president.

He said, “I’m a politics major, and I love reading, writing and working with words. Debate fits in well with my interests.”

The club meets twice weekly; recent topics have included net neutrality, the Electoral College and kneeling for the National Anthem as a form of protest. There is also the occasional topic to attract and entertain new members, such as a recent match arguing whether or not a hot dog should be classified as a sandwich.

The club primarily involves students debating one another but also has students travel to other colleges for competitions. Dean is also contacting local secular colleges to arrange debates on abortion.

Renew the discourse

Dean believes a good debate is of value because “it is engaging, it draws you into a topic.” The kneeling/National Anthem debate, for example, was argued in front of the entire Ave Maria student body. He said, “It really opened our eyes to both sides of the argument.”

Dean marvels at the poor debate skills of many who argue on the national stage, including participants in presidential debates. He said, “You so often hear ad hominem arguments, or when an argument is proposed, the responding debater won’t address what has been said. The content is so often lacking; it’s more about entertainment.”

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Dean believes he and his fellow Ave Maria students have much to offer in the political arena, especially with their skills honed by the debate club. He said, “Our students can go out and compete in the secular world while maintaining their Catholic values.”

John Pilsner added, “As a society, we’re increasingly arguing points based purely on emotion, coming to conclusions that are non-intellectual and irrational. A good debate club can re-introduce rational principles to our students and show them the beauty of reason.”

Jim Graves writes from California.

Read all College Special Section 2018 articles here.