Debating matters to us all

Debate is the vehicle through which the world changes; if people don’t rationally defend their arguments, then the world would be governed by and ingenuity and creativity would be stifled.

British House of Commons in London. (photo credit: REUTERS)
British House of Commons in London.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Can animal testing ever be justified? Is space exploration a waste of time and money? Are megacities good or bad for the developing world? And is social media rejuvenating political protest? Students from all over Israel are getting to grips with all of these topics as part of the exciting and unique challenge we have in store for them tomorrow, the Institute of Ideas Debating Matters Competition Israel.
Weeks of reading, thinking and arguing in the classroom and after school will be put to the test in our unique schools’ debating competition for 16-18-year-olds, hosted in Tel Aviv University’s Capsule Building, at the Porter School of Environmental Studies.
So what is Debating Matters and why does debating matter? There are dozens of different debating competitions and formats across the world which reward a variety of different virtues. Debating Matters was instigated 12 years ago upon the belief that content was more important than style, and that in order to really change the world we all needed to be able to engage with both our own and other people’s ideas. Working in both the UK and India we have tasked young people with embracing this challenge.
Once dubbed “the toughest debating competition in the country” by The Times, Debating Matters features an X Factor-style panel of expert and often world-leading adult judges who interrogate the student’s arguments and ideas. Admittedly intimidating, they often pale in comparison to the fellow students who pull no punches when contributing from the audience. But the debaters always hold their own.
As national coordinator for a new major in Israeli schools entitled Diplomacy and International Communication in English, Jennifer Sternlicht notes: “Though Israeli students are used to expressing their opinions and arguing, learning how to engage in structured conversation that results in new understandings – that is a rare occurrence and a worthy goal.”
With recent elections in Israel and the UK, Debating Matters is evidence that young people are not apathetic and that their political participation extends far beyond the vote.
But Debating Matters does not take a person seriously purely based on their age. The demanding format requires thorough research and engagement with the ins and outs of the evidence. It also expects an understanding of the principles which govern the arguments on both sides, and we offer a broad range of debate subjects that are always contemporary, and sometimes controversial, but which avoid questions covered by national curriculums. From biomedicine to the law, if you have heard a debate in the news we have probably covered it. We produce bespoke resources, Topic Guides, to give students a starting point for research, but if they do not do the work they will be found out under cross-examination from judges and their peers in the audience.
This gets to the heart of why we value what our students say over how they say it, because, at the end of the day, oratory doesn’t change the world, ideas do. In-depth research and the ability to defend a position encourage a new way of thinking. They teach the value of looking beyond the headlines and sound bites and instill in young people the belief that if they know their stuff, then their opinion counts.
Which begs the question of why Israel? As Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas, states: “In the UK, there has been some new enthusiasm for academic and cultural boycotts of Israel. Sadly these are no longer merely the fringe preoccupation of student union and trade union activists, but are now attracting the support of mainstream academics and thinkers. This is an anathema to the Institute of Ideas, which champions free thinking and academic freedom. What a better way to counter that sort of closed-minded approach to sharing ideas and intellectual life than to bring our Debating Matters competition to Israel.”
Debate is the vehicle through which the world changes; if people don’t rationally defend their arguments and interact with each other from different perspectives, then the world would be governed by dogma, and ingenuity and creativity would be stifled. It’s how we make decisions in democracy and how people differ from the consensus in order to progress. Debate is the tool which will one day help to cure cancer or relieve poverty. By encouraging no-holds-barred discussion across international boundaries we hope to inspire the next generation of young people, in both the UK and Israel, to seize the initiative and offer new ideas and new solutions to the most difficult and problematic controversies facing their own societies and the world as a whole.
In partnership with the Anglo-Israel Association, the UK-based charity promoting links between the UK and Israel, and supported by British Ambassador Matthew Gould, Debating Matters is delighted to offer young people in Israel the chance to get to grips with these debates and our tough but rewarding format. I personally cannot wait to hear the robust arguments they have to offer.
The author is has a BA in Politics from SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.  The launch of the program will start with a welcome reception on the evening of Monday May 11 at the British Ambassador’s Residence in Israel, and the showcase itself will take place on May 12.