Oscar Handlin proffered this challenge over a half a century ago: Our troubled planet can no longer afford the luxury of pursuits confined to an ivory tower. Scholarship has to prove its worth, not on its own terms, but by service to the nation and the world. As we experience what some have labeled the third academic revolution in American higher education, universities look to meet the increasing demands of political relevance and accountability (Bergstrom and Bullis, 1999, p. 25). Current domestic public policy concerns include: an inferior educational experience for children in kindergarten through twelfth grade, a degraded environment, rural and urban poverty, inadequate health care, and a compromised Social Security System.
The intercollegiate debate program is an ideal vehicle to provide an engaged form of scholarship. Service learning is an educational experience that affords students the opportunity to apply what is learned in formal academic environments in community settings. The benefit of service learning is that it provides students with practical experiences consistent with the evolving mission of the University while reinforcing moral and civic values (Erlich, 1995). An intercollegiate debate program is an obvious device that the Communication discipline should use to facilitate service learning. The characteristics of developing advocacy skills and identifying solutions to significant issues of public policy are the very skills that leadership institutes and service programs identify as program goals. While these skills can be found in other academic sites, including argumentation classes and Model United Nations Programs, the intensity and longevity associated with participation in intercollegiate debate are unmatched in a university environment.
The forensic community needs to be cognizant of the fact that others in the academic community are looking to community engagement as a way to meet a service commitment. If a program is sufficiently staffed, programs should undertake a serious program of public debates to supplement the competitive experience. If a program is short-staffed, a proposal for a public debate series may serve to justify additional hiring in the debate program. By look to the oratorical tradition, in the form of a competitive debate program, Institutions of Higher Learning would find a vehicle that can engage a variety of populations in a problem solving context. The debate program would train students in the art of argumentation, and students could sharpen that skill in a variety of public settings. Students of debate attend to a recurrent set of ethical and moral questions that are grounded in public policy resolutions. By focusing on such questions, debaters often participate in political controversies during their period of matriculation and in later life.
At the core of the third revolution in the American academic system is a renewal of the commitment to serving the communities in which we live. Justin Morrell’s educational vision of the Land-Grant institution endures as we come to the close of the first decade of the 21st century. The role that a competitive debate program may play in the University in the coming years is currently is an undefined one. Hopefully, forensic educators can contribute in a serious fashion to the service functions of our academic community.
(This post was adapted from a 2003 ALTA paper I wrote on the subject)
Bergstrom, M., & Bullis, C. (1999). Integrating Service-Learning Into the Communication Curriculum at a Research University: From Instutionalization to Assessment of Effectiveness. In D. Droge & B. Murphy (eds.), Voices of Strong Democracy: Concepts and Models for Service-Learning in Communication Studies. (Pp.25-35). Washington D.C.: AAHE.
Erlich, T. (1995). Taking Service Seriously. AAHE Bulletin, 47, (7), 8-10.