SPARTANBURG, S.C. - The Lincoln-Douglas debates – in modified form and with Wofford College students in the spotlight – are echoing through the halls of the Daniel Building during Interim.
Armed with viewpoints on the question of the morning (“Should the drinking age for alcohol be lowered to 18?”), students in a class led by Dr. Kenneth Banks, assistant history professor, and Dr. Charles Kay, professor of philosophy, debated the issue in a format made famous by the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates. Over a series of seven debates in a race for the Illinois Senate, Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln challenged each other on the issues in a confrontation that boosted Lincoln into national prominence and, ultimately, to the presidency.
Similar stakes weren’t on the line in the Wofford classroom, but the back and forth between Darron Paschal, arguing the “pro 18” position, and Sam Larkin, taking the “anti” stance, illustrated the basic foundation of a form of debate that continues to be known as Lincoln-Douglas.
The “You Said What? The Debate Interim” is designed to help students develop critical analytical skills, Banks says. Lincoln-Douglas is one of four debate styles the class is examining.
“We want to help students hone their ability to put complex ideas into effective speech, think faster on the fly and, above all, listen to others,” Banks says. “Look at the Wofford Mission Statement. Debate enhances all the values we stand for: commitment to excellence in character (using logic and morality to think through different positions), performance (bringing their ideas into the light of fair competition between those ideas), leadership (expressing those ideas boldly but fairly), and service (we all benefit by understanding another’s position more clearly, even if we disagree). We certainly hope the impact of debate will be lifelong.”
The debate about alcohol made for a lively session, with Paschal opening with a four-minute talk, followed by a six-minute response from Larkin and a two-minute rebuttal by Paschal.
There were points about 18-year-olds not being mature enough to drink alcohol and then deal with the possible consequences, but, on the other side, there was an emphasis on the fact that teenagers can marry and serve in the military, so why shouldn’t they be able to have a beer?
Banks and Kay encouraged the other students to respond to the debate pair with loud approval – or disapproval, helping to push the debate along. Banks says the Lincoln-Douglas debates produced raucous behavior from the crowds, a pattern he and Kay were trying to duplicate.
The debate class isn’t as much about arguing as it is about establishing strong foundational ideas, Banks says.
“As Dr. Kay recently reminded us, it all starts with strong premises-- that is, smart, verifiable ideas and observations,” Banks says. “I would even say that ‘your ideas are only as strong as your weakest premise,’ to coin a phrase.”
Banks believes the current sour atmosphere enveloping national politics can be modified by the exchange of solid ideas and commentary.
“Debate cleans up the mess,” he says. “Debate is not just about arguing, but, as we stressed to the students from day one, it’s about inquiry. We use debate not merely to convince, but to explore the validity, the power and the limits of ideas.”
Interim frees students and faculty to spend the month of January focused on a single topic designed to expand the walls of the traditional classroom, explore new and untried topics, take academic risks, observe issues in action, develop capabilities for independent learning and consider different peoples, places and professional options.