DEBATE AND THE ART OF RHETORICAL CITIZENSHIP
David C. Williams
(USA, Florida Atlantic University)
Joseph P. Zompetti
(USA, Illinois State University)
What is a good citizen in a democracy? Or, to reconstitute the question, what is an effective citizen in a democracy? We do not believe that there are any simple answers to this question, and we will not suggest any specific answers. However, we do start with the observation that, whatever effective enactment of citizenship in a democracy may be specifically, there is a growing recognition that in the United States, at least, the cultural enactment of citizenship is in trouble. As Hogan et al. (Hogan et al., 2018) delineate in the textbook Public Speaking and Civic Engagement
According to Roper surveys, there have been steady declines over the last several decades in the number of people signing petitions, writing letters to their elected representatives or local newspapers, giving speeches at meetings and political rallies, or writing articles for a magazine or newspaper. The proportion of the American public who engaged in none
of these civic activities rose by nearly one-third through the 1970s and 1980s. By the mid-1990s, 32 million fewer Americans were involved in these sorts of activities than was the case just two decades earlier. In 1973, most Americans participated in at least one of these forms of civic expression. By 1994, most Americans did not engage in any
of them. Significantly, the forms of civic engagement that have declined the most are those involving collaborating or talking with others, such as giving and listening to speeches at public meetings (Hogan, et al., 2018: 3).
Participation is no doubt suppressed at least in part because of grave deficiencies in public knowledge and understanding of civic principles and processes, including historical understanding of American “experiment in democracy.” Despite the overwhelming success of public indoctrination to Americanism, in which we pledge our allegiance to our nation and that for which she stands, we as a people appear to know little about that for which she stands, at least in a Constitutional sense: “In a survey conducted in late 1997, (National Constitution Center, 1997), more than 90 percent of Americans agreed that ‘the U.S. Constitution is important to me’ and that ‘I’m proud of the U.S. Constitution.” Yet at the same time, “(a)ccording to Mayor Edward G. Rendell of Philadelphia, current chairman of the Center, more than three quarters (83 percent) admit that they know only ‘some’ or ‘very little’ about the specifics of the Constitution.” The statistics are grim: “only 6 percent can name all four right guaranteed by the First Amendment; 62 percent cannot name all three branches of the Federal government; 35 percent believe the Constitution mandates English as the national language; and more than half of Americans don’t know the number of senators” (Branson, 2017). In the most recent report of the National Assessment of Educational Progress in Civics, “70 percent of U.S. eighth-graders could not identify why the Declaration of Independence was written. Seventy-two percent of high school seniors tested could not describe two methods a citizen might use to change the law” (Graham, 2018: 15A). And according to a recent report from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, fewer than 46% of the 7,000 American college seniors surveyed know that the phrase “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” comes from the Declaration of Independence (ISI).
Moreover, the deficiencies extend well beyond knowledge about civic and Constitutional matters: Many citizens also lack the fundamental rhetorical competences needed to function as citizens. A recent study conducted by the American Institute for Research (AIR) found that in the United States “(m)ore than 50% of students at four-year schools and more than 75% at two-year colleges lacked the skills to perform complex literacy skills.” That means that among other things “they could not . . . understand the arguments of newspaper editorials
. . . summarize results of a survey about parental involvement in school” (Feller, 2016. Emphasis added).
Although this data is specific to the United States, we believe that many of these same concerns about what we perceive as problems of citizenship are shared in democracies around the world (Williams and Zompetti, 2017 b; Zompetti and Williams, 2018). As Branson observes, “There is evidence aplenty that no country, including our own United States, has achieved the level of understanding and acceptance of the rights and responsibilities among the totality of its citizens that is required for the maintenance and improvement of any constitutional democracy” (Branson, 2017: 186). The growing acknowledgement that civic engagement and civic knowledge in the United States are not in robust condition has provided impetus to call for expanded civics education. We do not know if similar initiatives are underway in other parts of the world, so our discussion of civics education is limited to the United States; some of our observations, however, may be applicable to other contexts as well.
In the United States, there has long been an association between education and the preparation of citizens. As early as 1819, “Thomas Jefferson declared that a primary purpose of education was to help Americans understand and exercise their duties and rights as citizens” (Graham, 2018: 15A), and the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Progressive movement, bolstered by John Dewey’s linkage of education and democracy, further emphasized the roles of both formal and informal, life-long education with citizenship development (Keith, 2017; Keith, 2014: 207-208; Murphy, 2014: 75-77). In more recent years, this concern has narrowed from a general curricular mission to the far more narrowly defined realm of civics education. It is from this realm that we mark our point of departure.
It is our purpose to advance the argument that training in debate and related deliberative skills as an integral part of civics education would animate that education in all of its aspects, and particularly within its civics skills dimension. But before we can turn to that claim, two preliminary premises need to be advanced: first, we view “democracy” as an inherently rhetorical process of self-governance that requires rhetorically competent citizens both in order to function at any given time and to renew itself through time; and second, civics education as it is commonly understood is both saturated with implicit calls for a “rhetorical turn” and, for the most part, seemingly deaf to those calls: civics education does not overtly or consciously recognize its rhetoricity. We conclude with our own call for enhanced debate education as step in the right direction in revitalizing civics education and animating democracy through greater enactment of rhetorical citizenship.The Rhetorical Nature of Democracy
«Democracy,» Branson notes, «is a dialogue, a discussion, a deliberative process in which citizens engage» (Branson, 2017: 26). Or, as John Dewey put it, «Democracy begins in conversation» (as quoted in Geyer, 2018: 10). This interpenetration of democracy and conversation, or discussion, or talk is not accidental; rather, it is the substance of democracy, and is so through design. Keith writes that «… one of the characteristics which the Founders consciously duplicated from classical democracy is a reliance on the role of speech
in democratic governance. Democracy is governance through talk» (Keith, 2017: 2). But it is also important to immediately add that it is not random talk; rather it is institutionalized within a system that both provides the space (physically, culturally, and politically) for such talk and requires
deliberative interaction as the means toward decision-making (Hauser, 2014: 6).
Williams and Young maintain that «´democracy´ must be understood as a culturally engrained communication system [what they call a «culture of democratic communication»] premised upon the competence of rhetors and audiences, as well as on guarantees of fundamental political freedoms» (Williams and Young, 2012: 8; Hauser, 2014). Political talk within such a system is part of an on-going exchange, a dialectical interplay interrupted periodically by ephemeral decisions that are constantly under process of revision. Frans van Eemeren offers a somewhat similar perspective: «Democractization is an act of institutionalizing uncertainty: of subjecting all interests to competition. It is inside the institutional framework for processing conflicts offered by democracy that multiple forces compete. Although the outcome depends on what the participants do, no single force controls what occurs. Here lies the decisive step towards democracy: in the devolution of power from a group of people to a set of rules» (Eemeren, 2012: 71-72). The specific rules are mutable; they are not givens, nor are they privileged as being outside of the «institutional framework.» The framework itself, however, is essential; without it, conversational voices would have no need to engage each other. The framework is what binds the democracy together as a collectivity that can move into the future together. Kenneth Burke, in a passage that encapsulates key ingredients in our perspective, writes, we «take democracy to be a device for institutionalizing the dialectical process
, by setting up a political structure that gives full opportunity for the use of competition to a cooperative end
» (Burke, 1941: 444. Emphasis added.).
The use of competition toward a cooperative end is a generative process in democracies. Competition is bounded by the institutional framework, and identifications with that framework - and with the process itself - create not simply what Burke would call «consubstantiality» among citizens but also a theoretical «constitution» that underlies the dialectical process, facilitating mutability and transformations while at the same time re-affirming the system (Burke, 1945: 20-23; Burke, 1940: 323-443). At the same time, the system is never finished: it is always in process. As Williams and Young put it:
. . . for Burke, dialectic does not lead ultimately to resolution: a static, stable, peaceful end is never attained, even in theory. Rather, the dialectic in language never ceases, and meaning is never totalized. By extension, democracy is never 'finished'; change (reversal and transformation) is not only systemic and inevitable, but also undetermined and indeterminate. Nor is democracy ever univocal: when society becomes univocal, it ceases to be a «democracy» (Williams and Young, 2012: 9).
In this context, the rhetorical arts can be seen as constitutive agencies of (and for) democracy: they are part-and-parcel of each other. «Democracy occurs in the domain of the uncertain; it is an exercise in choice in the realm of the probable rather than the certain – and the regulation of uncertainty through the exercise of ideas is the realm of rhetoric and argumentation» (Williams and Young, 2017: 1496).
This orientation is consistent with Dewey´s vision of democracy as «a personal
way of individual life» (Dewey, 1940: 148). In Burkean terms, democracy is the enacting
of a competitively-cooperative non-resolutional dialectic within an institutional framework. Dewey´s elaboration on democracy as a way of life resonates with our discussion here:
Democracy is the belief that even when needs and ends or consequences are different for each individual, the habit of amicable co-operation – which may include, as in sport, rivalry and competition – is itself a priceless addition to life. To take as far as possible every conflict which arises – and they are bound to arise – out of the atmosphere and medium of force, or violence as a means of settlement, into that of discussion and of intelligence, is to treat those who disagree – even profoundly – with us as those from whom we may learn, and in so far, as friends. A genuinely democratic faith in peace is faith in the possibility of conducting disputes, controversies, and conflicts as co-operative undertakings in which both parties learn by giving the other a chance to express itself, instead of one party conquer by forceful suppression of the other – suppression which is none the less one of violence when it takes place by psychological means of ridicule, abuse, intimidation, instead of by overt imprisonment or in concentration camps. To co-operate by giving differences a chance to show themselves because of the belief that the expression of difference is not only a right of the other persons but is a means of enriching one´s own life-experience, is inherent in the democratic personal way of life (Dewey, 1940: 151).
In this way, democracy normalizes habitual processes – it becomes a system of routine «give-and-take argumentative exchange» in the dialectic of difference (Williams and Young, 2017: 1497). Dewey (Dewey, 1940: 150) agrees when he writes that «democracy is a reality only as it is indeed a commonplace of living».
Dewey´s ideal of conducting disputes under the sign of cooperation requires the competent practice of rhetoric and argumentation. Van Eemeren, for instance, notes that «argument plays a crucial part in the management of uncertainty that is inherent in the exercise of democracy» (Eemeren, 2012: 82). Thus, it is clearly the case that in the western traditions of rhetoric, «the ability to argue in public and private domains» has been «linked with democratic process» (Andrews et al., 2015).
When considering the role of «citizen» in such an understanding of democracy, it is important to recognize that citizens are both constituted as individual citizens, equipped, empowered, and inspired with certain knowledge, skills, and dispositions, and «called forth» (McGee, 1975) or called into being as a collective at given moments in history. The first dimension focuses on the skills training of the individual qua
individual; the second has to do with the critical willingness of the individual to move into a specified «imaginary» of what a citizen should do, believe, or be like at a certain time (Keith, 2017: 9; Black, 2015). This second dimension calls for critical reflexivity on the part of the citizen: a critical self-awareness of the rhetorical processes at work in «calling forth» of a «people» collectively identified with each other, a leader, and a program or ideology (McGee, 1975) that better enables individuals to consciously resolve the decision to assent to or defer from the identification sought. It is a role that builds upon the «citizen-critic» persona posited by Eberly (Eberly, 2016: 1). Hogan, et al., elaborate on this notion of democratic agency: «Today, citizens must be more than skilled speakers. They must also have the skills necessary to evaluate the messages of others. Every day we are faced with choices that can affect our lives, and it is important that we learn to think critically
about these choices» (Hogan, 2018: 9; emphasis in original). That is, in «the ‘marketplace of ideas,´ we must learn to think for ourselves and be on guard against attempts to manipulate or deceive us.» We should «all be ‘citizen-critics´» in our «day-to-day world of democratic life,» and «we must, ready and able to make our own judgments about who deserves to be believed – and why» (Hogan, 2018: 9).
Democracy as an institutionalized dialectic of disparate voices engaged in talk, conversation, and deliberation is as vibrant as the voices that constitute it. This conception of democracy immediately calls both for consideration of the rhetorical competence of the citizens who inhabit it and for affirmation of an education process that improves that competence. And it should always be kept in mind that like democracy itself this is never a finished project, nor can it be. Branson explains,
Americans should also realize that civic education is essential to sustain our constitutional democracy. The habits of the mind, as well as the ‘habits of the heart,´ the dispositions that inform the democratic ethos, are not inherited. As Alexis de Toqueville pointed out, each new generation is a new people that must acquire the knowledge, learn the skills, and develop the dispositions or traits of private and public character that undergird a constitutional democracy. Those dispositions must be fostered and nurtured by word and study and by the power of example. Democracy is not a ‘machine that would go off itself,´ but must be consciously reproduced, one generation after another (Branson, 2017).
In this way, democracy-building can be viewed as an on-going process or pursuit as citizens are expected to dialectically engage with each other and the structures of governance. How
the citizenry conducts this engagement is where we now turn.Civics Education and the Call for Rhetoric
When citing the Center for Civic Education´s 1994 report National Standards for Civics and Government
, the Associate Director for the Center for Civic Education, Margaret Stimmann Branson (Branson, 2017), argues that civics education itself is constituted from «three essential components»: «civic knowledge, civic skills, and civic dispositions». In this section, we will show 1) that this construction of civics education is teeming with calls for rhetorical competence, and 2) that civics education, by and large, has not heeded this call to rhetoric.
We will look briefly at the descriptions of «civic knowledge» and «civic disposition» in order to reveal their respective «rhetorics within» before focusing in more detail on the delineation of «civic skills» commonly put forth by civics educators. This latter category, we will suggest, is bursting with rhetoric at virtually every turn.
Civic knowledge is concerned with such things as knowledge of «Constitutions and institutions of representative democratic government,» or the «History of democracy in particular states and throughout the world,» but it is also concerned with «Practices of democratic citizenship and the roles of citizens» (Patrick, quoted in Kirlin, 2013: 9). History, of course, is vital to the process of rhetorical invention, but the latter concerns with «practices of democratic citizenship» and the «roles of citizens» seem even more directly infused with an Isocratean spirit of rhetoric. The same is evident with regard to Civic Dispositions, where with emphasis is on ethical engagement, such as «Promoting the common good,» or «Participating responsibly in the political and civic life of the community» (Patrick, qtd. in Kirlin, 2013: 9). Just as Dewey sees democracy cultivated through our «habits of mind,» these civic dispositions can be understood, in the vein of de Toqueville, as «habits of the heart» (Branson, 2017). Here, the Isocratean echoes become amplified through the rhetorical orientations of Roman thinkers such as Cicero and Quintilian (for an elaboration of rhetorical aspects of civic dispositions, see Hogan (Hogan, et al., 2018: 9, 22).
There are thus interpenetrations between rhetorical theory and practice and the civics education components of civic knowledge and civic dispositions, but the category of civic skills is completely saturated with the rhetorical. Branson´s elaboration of civic skills should make this abundantly clear:
In addition to the acquisition of knowledge and intellectual skills, education for citizenship in a democratic society must focus on skills that are required for informed, effective, and responsible participation in the political process and in civil society. Those skills can be categorized as interacting, monitoring,
and influencing. Interacting
pertains to the skills citizens need to communicate and to work cooperatively with others. . . Monitoring
politics and government refers to the skills citizens need to track the handling of issues by the political process and by government. . . Finally, the participatory skill of influencing
refers to the capacity to affect the processes of politics and governance. . . (Branson, 2017; emphasis in original).
Despite identifying these communication skills as fundamental, Branson displays no awareness of the rhetorical tradition. Branson is not alone in both stressing the need for rhetorical skills and ignoring the role that rhetorical pedagogy can play in fulfilling that need. Comber´s description of civic skills is, if anything, even more rhetorically framed than is Branson´s: «In order for citizens to be capable of fully engaging in civic and political life, they must possess a minimum of civic skills. Civic skills include personal communication skills, knowledge of political systems, and the ability to critically think about civic and political life» (Comber, 2013). Kirlin (Kirlin, 2013) cites the Civic Voluntarism Model as identifying «a series of ‘organizational and communication skills´ which allow the use of time and money effectively in a political arena». Specifically these authors define civic skills to include competency in English, vocabulary, writing letters, going to meetings, taking part in decision-making, and giving a presentation or speech. Verba, Scholzman and Brady (Verba, Scholzman and Brady, 1995) make a distinction between political behaviors themselves (writing a letter to a congressperson) and the skills necessary to execute these behaviors, such as the «skill» of writing a letter (as quoted in Kirlin, 2013: 5). In a call for what he terms «civic agency,» Boyte argues that in conjunction with «enabling environments» a pedagogy for civic agency requires «(d)eveloping the skills and capacities for self-reliant public action.» Yet «(c)ivics education today in the schools usually means knowledge about government (as in ‘civics courses´.» Even «service-learning, like civics courses, neglects the dynamics of power and politics» (Boyte, 2017). These, and other, delineations identify skills which are for the most part consistent with the rhetorical tradition, but there does not appear to be an awareness of that tradition. Kirlin´s explanation is revealing:
The notion that, in addition to knowledge, some type of ‘skills´ are required in order to effectively participate in public life makes intuitive sense. The logic of civic skills as an important factor in political participation has found its way into many disciplines, particularly political science, education and developmental psychology. In each of these disciplines, the idea of civic skill development is related to other requirements for developing citizens (Kirlin, 2013: 3).
In this way, the discipline of rhetoric is notable through its absence.
Thus, despite the omnipresence of rhetorical arts and issues in these constructions of the pillars of civics education, the movement for civics education has nonetheless been rather blind with regard to its own swarming rhetoricity. As Keith observes, «Contemporary civic education has been more focused on knowledge than communication skills, as the culture of oral performance has declined» (Keith, 2017: 11). Or, as Murphy laconically understates, «There is an obvious yet perhaps underappreciated relationship between communication education and democratic citizenship» (Murphy, 2014: 89). And, of course, for those familiar with the rhetorical tradition, the relationships are obvious. As Geyer points out, the skills of deliberation that are fundamental to citizenship include «critical thinking, gathering facts that can serve as reasons in deliberation, and discerning what is worth thinking and deliberating about» are the same skills that are «the foundation of the discipline of rhetoric» (Geyer, 2018: 10).
Approaching the question of civic skills from a rhetorical and argumentational perspective, we have – both individually and collectively – identified seven skills that we believe equip citizens to function effectively in a democracy. Zompetti characterizes these as «learning objectives» for citizens:
1.Learn to recognize and avoid arguments of coercion
2.Learn to research and reflect on civic issues of importance
3.Learn to be impassioned by means of reason to issues at hand
4.Learn to prepare and deliver effective arguments about the issue
5.Learn to refute oppositional claims and sustain credibility (Zompetti, 2016a: 177).
Interwoven into these learning objectives are basic skills in inventing and parsing arguments, in recognizing the nature, the presuppositions, and the structure of appeals. To these five learning objectives, Williams (Williams, 2016) adds two more objectives which emphasize more directly the consumptive dimensions of public engagement:
6.Learn to listen (and read) not only for comprehension but also for engagement with the content presented. This in turn implies,
7.Learn to engage not just as an advocate but also as a critic.
Together, these skills offer the conceptual equipment needed for genuine critical thinking, for being able to assess appeals, discern low probability arguments, recognize and contextualize emotional appeals, etc. These are not simply skills that can pull together the disparate strands of civic skills as currently constructed, but these are also the skills which can facilitate wise choices in the realm of uncertain avenues toward the future. And finally, these are skills outcomes that we believe can be attained through greater incorporation of debate into our education system.Debate, Democracy, and Rhetorical Citizenship
The association of debate with both the functioning of a democracy and with the training of its citizens is a strong one. In The Public and Its Problems
, Dewey declares that for citizens to begin to enact their potential in a democracy, «The essential need . . . is the improvement of the methods and conditions of debate, discussion and persuasion. That is the
problem of the public» (Dewey, 1954: 208). The debate process, as learned in classrooms and practiced in competitions, teaches fundamental skills of engagement. The process helps citizens and policy-makers alike as they face the inevitable prospect of «deciding what to believe or do under conditions of uncertainty» (Zarefsky, 2012: 80). Zarefsky continues, «The adversarial procedure is actually a means of quality control. Subjecting arguments to the critical scrutiny of an interlocutor helps to assure that the strong arguments will survive and that the weak ones will be discarded.» In this process, the «metaphors of debate» are «better understood as calling for careful choices consciously considered out of respect for one´s interlocutor and the desire to make the testing of ideas productive and robust» (Zarefsky, 2012: 80).
This debate pedagogy can be in traditional classroom (or competition) looking for later «transfer» to the civic/political arena (Rehg, 2012), or it can move students into public issues debate in more public settings, blending the domains of the civic and the educational. It can also function as a form of extra-curricular community penetration, as when students facilitate the debate activities of «ordinary citizens» confronting public issues. There are other possibilities as well.
Troy Murphy (Murphy, 2014: 86) elaborates on a Gordon Mitchell´s «argumentative agency» approach by extending debate pedagogy and its prospects for transforming citizens: «Recent efforts to expand academic debate into community settings, and utilize local community issues as the subject of activist and public debates, illustrate the importance of complementing the democratic skills learned in communication classrooms with experiences and perspectives culled from the associations of civil society». In this context, Mitchell´s «notion of ‘argumentative agency´ attempts to realize in practice the frequently articulated belief that competitive debate empowers individuals and cultivates the skills of democratic citizenship» (Mitchell, 1998: 41). Thus, instead of «debate students putting their skills to work only in competitive debate rounds, ‘public´ debaters are engaged with community leaders, social movements, activist groups, and an array of other local voices who are typically excluded from public deliberation on contemporary issues.» It is precisely argumentative agency of this type that «encourages in students the ‘capacity to contextualize and employ the skills and strategies of argumentative discourse in fields of social action, especially wider spheres of public deliberation´» (Murphy, 2014: 86, Mitchell, 1998: 45). Moreover, it is precisely this sort of argumentative agency that integrates essential civic skills and dispositions into «civic agency,» thereby imbuing civic agency with the sort of transformational power that Boyte (Boyte, 2017) envisions.
These encomiums to the empowering and transformative potential of debate provide us encouragement. But where is the proof? We conclude this essay with a review of some of the evidence that suggests that debate training is indeed an effective way of training citizens to better enactment the citizenship responsibilities concomitant with democratic self-governance.
That debate provides positive educational experiences seems clear, at least as a general proposition. In a review of 682 articles about competitive debate, Rogers (Rogers, 2014) determined that 667 of them suggested positive experiences by the debaters; however, he found that specific benefits were more difficult to document. A project on Computer Assisted Debate (CAD) in four middle schools in Atlanta´s (Georgia) Housing Authority communities, which are among the poorer, minority dominated areas of Atlanta, collected data from 184 students serviced by the CAD projects. The data suggested multiple positive educational outcomes associated with debate experience, including oral communication skills, knowledge of current event, school engagement, and overall stronger academic performance (Winkler, 2016).
But what about animating the role of citizen? Does debate help? Again, the data is broad but suggestive, and in many instances it depends on the question of «transfer»: will skills learned in an academic, competitive, or extra-curricular context transfer to the arenas of civic and political engagement? Zompetti (Zompetti, 2016 b) makes a strong structural argument, based on models of listening, that debate training, particularly when coupled with international debate experience, should be expected to improve participants´ listening skills. And as Lee Shulman (Shulman, 2017) notes, «Indeed, one of the tests of political formation is development of the capacities and dispositions to listen carefully and respectfully to the opinions of others, especially those with whom one disagrees. Such listening is a necessary condition for engaging in the dialogues and debates that are the intellectual backbone of the democratic process. This is where the political and the pedagogical intersect» (xi).
In additional to actual student practice in debating, the pedagogical possibilities associated with debate include not only Mitchell´s «argumentative agency,» but also critical/analytical projects like DebateWatch and participation in candidate-citizen interactive debate possibilities such as the recent «YouTube Debates» in the U.S. and elsewhere. DebateWatch has the potential to become an exemplar of incorporation of analysis with civic and political affairs with argument criticism. As an example, argumentation or debate classes might become DebateWatches in themselves; alternatively, the classes could sponsor campus-wide and/or community DebateWatches in which the students would serve as discussion facilitators (Williams and Zompetti, 2017 a). Such endeavors could provide a good example of the potential for integration of argumentation and debate skills in a civic engagement initiative. As Pickering (Pickering, 2017: 221) notes, «Argumentation scholars also can educate DebateWatch participants about the argumentative process. Argumentation concepts can be explained and examined in a real-world setting of a political debate.» She elaborates by suggesting that «with careful training, discussion facilitators can help viewers identify and evaluate a candidate´s evidence, and thus can assist viewers to become more critical consumers of argumentation. Examining issues as competing policy claims can help create a more educated voting public». As Williams and Zompetti observe, «By extension, a public with greater argumentation savvy about public arguments might in turn, and in the long run, demand more cogent, better evidenced, and more reasonably articulated public arguments» (Williams and Zompetti, 2017 a: 268).
The recent YouTube political debate experiments provide yet another avenue for synthesis of the rhetorical and political in a pedagogical project. Zompetti et al. (Zompetti, 2018) report that international students engaged in a Ben Franklin Transatlantic Fellows Initiative at Wake Forest University in the summer of 2008 studied argumentation and debate and the U.S. Presidential race. They focused and integrated their study by systematically preparing, formulating, and submitting questions for the primary debates that employed the YouTube format. Zompetti, et al., conclude,
The students in the BFTFI program who generated CNN/YouTube questions were largely international students, aged 15-19, many of whom lacked a native understanding of U.S. political processes. Yet, when equipped with research skills, strategies for sound questioning and a ‘moment of access´ they became players in CNN/YouTube´s deliberative process. Via the Internet they produced questions of discernible quality, questions that framed issues in fair yet challenging ways and, when accessed by others (such as candidate Bill Richardson´s senior communications advisor), expanded the public voice. Also, the students, as consumers of the questions chosen by the CNN ‘newsmakers,´ were able to provide consistent and reasoned critique of the mainstream media fare» (Zompetti, et al., 2018: 19).
Even with the recency of this project, there is already some evidence that the skills and sense of empowerment learned at the BFTFI debate program may transfer into the realm of greater civic and political engagement: «One BFTFI student directly illustrates this empowerment. Returning to his home country following the summer program, this student found the Greek national television channel adopting the YouTube model inviting questions for their presidential primary debates. The student, possessing the skill to research and draft questions combined with the confidence of having successfully done so already, submitted three questions. Two of his questions were selected and aired in the Greek presidential debate» (Zompetti, et al., 2018: 19).
More direct evidence of skills transfer from debate training to citizenship enactment is available anecdotally. Zompetti, who does debate training for the International Debate Education Association (IDEA), relates the following:
The main example I would like to use in the paper concerns an IDEA-trained debater from Slovenia. He, of course, learned the skills of public speaking, argument-development, research and advocacy through IDEA tournament competitions and IDEA Youth Forums. One day, during a school break, he went home to the small, Slovenian town where his family lives. While there, his family and neighbors were complaining about the amount of pollution occurring. What happened while he was away was a large coal plant had taken residence in the town. To make matters worse, the town is placed in a valley, meaning that the smoke of pollutants from the plant was trapped inside the valley. The debater decided to use his advocacy skills to try to do something about this coal plant. After organizing public debates, securing radio time on the Slovenian National radio station, directing local marches and protests, etc., the coal company buckled under the public pressure. They eventually left the town and moved to another part of Slovenia, where the impact of their production was less severe.
In this example, skill sets learned in argumentation and debate training ‘transferred´ to non-academic political engagement» (Zompetti and Williams, 2018).
And in a recent study of the debate community in Albania which focused on examining political «transferability» of debate-learned argumentation skills, Mitchell, et al. (Mitchell, et al., 2016) found that debate training has significant potential to revitalize even a nascent public sphere. They conclude,
Participants in public debates in Southeast Europe have set a deliberative tone capable of expanding the political imagination of an otherwise cynical and skeptical public to see the possibilities of change. As the political gains directly linked to public debates continue to accrue . . . such groups can then move on to subsequent political engagements with enhanced political capital. The initial process of engaging in public debates has energized a whole swath of civil society in Southeast Europe – the actions of a few citizens have resulted in a rippling outwards of deliberative vigor (Mitchell, et al., 2016: 80).
Or, as Zompetti puts it, «Skills
, not just ideals, can help propel citizens to become better citizens» (Zompetti, 2016 a: 178. Emphasis in original).
We do not claim that debate should operate alone as a pedagogical means toward the end of rhetorically engaged citizens. Too often debate has been placed in opposition to discussion (or, more recently, other forms of discursive dialectical interaction designed to wash out the competitive win/lose slant of debate). We do not view them as oppositional, but rather as complementary. Nor do we necessarily argue that debate should be emphasized in every circumstance; clearly context, prior experience, motivation, and desired situational outcomes will help dictate the degree to which debate and discussion-oriented skills should be emphasized. Discussion features the cooperative; debate, the competitive, though the margin of overlap between them is considerable, just as it is between cooperation and competition. The tensions between the «cooperative» orientation of discussion and the «competitive» orientation of debate are evident in Keith´s discussion (Keith, 2014: 207). A parallel tension between the competitive and the cooperative is noted by Fontana, Nederman, and Remer as an informing feature of democracy and perhaps especially deliberative democracy (Fontana, Nederman, and Remer, 2014: 4, 13). Rather than attempt to efface the competitive/cooperative tensions in the respective arts of debate and discussion we would rather celebrate them, for we believe that students negotiating that tension is itself preparatory for democratic citizenship.
Taken together, debate and discussion provide a broad array of rhetorical and argumentative skills that can empower enactments of rhetorical citizenship. Debate and discussion are counterparts in the project of producing citizens. And there is no more important challenge in sustaining or renewing a democracy. As Margaret Branson (Branson, 2017) puts it: «There is no more important task than the development of an informed, effective, and responsible citizenry. Democracies are sustained by citizens who have the requisite knowledge, skills, and dispositions. Absent a reasoned commitment on the part of its citizens to the fundamental values and principles of democracy, a free and open society cannot succeed.» It is for these reasons that, in the words of Harry C. Boyte, «Developing civic agency is the greatest challenge and promise of the new century» (Boyte, 2017).
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