The _______ Society

Not exactly the time for goodbyes and thank yous, but I got one today from a student unexpectedly as I sat on the campus enjoying the evening.

He thanked me for opportunities and for the experience, but mostly for something he couldn't quite articulate. Something that went like this - "Although I didn't really win a lot of trophies or help the reputation of the team much, I feel changed and better off for it." As if a lack of competitive success and positive feelings were incommensurable.

I've said it before - here in New York I think we are up to something different. But when pressed to give details, it's hard to articulate. It's something about being trapped in a word, or around a word. What does it mean to be a debating society?

What are we up to? We are up to debating, but that's a pretense. That's what gets you in the door, so to speak. I wonder if we should call it a Debating Society at all. Today I got a call from the development office of my University asking me what to name the fund that people contribute to for the debate society. "Should we call it Debate Society General Fund?" Oh development officers, your creative sexy naming is second to, well, all. But I went with it because I couldn't think of anything better.

Perhaps it should be called the languaging society. Doesn't much seem like debate's the thing we remember. We recall amazing speeches in equally amazing rounds, but the debate is really a scene. Nobody praises the stage in a good theater performance, we praise what the actor did on that stage, in that role - or the director in hers, on down the line.

Debating is what we do not what we are or what we get from our involvement. We get a chance to connect to something a bit beyond debate, as such, to something a bit more central to out human existence. We get a chance to practice our relationship to language and to each other. We get to inductively create a theory of how to persuasively and invitingly share ideas with one another from practice, trial, and re-trial.

This is a rare thing, and should be handled well. In my office we have trophies going back to the early 1950s. The University was going to throw them away, but I kept them. But they are not that useful. They don't explain themselves, or why they are around. There's no way to determine who won them, how they were won - nothing valuable remains of them except the circular: "They are trophies, so they are valuable." They are in need of cleaning, but the narrative around them, their whole existence has been lost and cannot be recovered.

Trophies are important because of the "languaging"- best term we could come up with in the dusk on campus - for what it is that we appreciate about debating. The victories and other honors are nice, but the value comes from the stories, more specifically, the telling and retelling of the stories. If we can't tell stories well, or appreciate them when told well, then we live pretty impoverished lives. Debate connects us over and over again, in very challenging ways, to the necessity of language and the incredible insufficiency of language to meet up to our rather idealized demands.

Debate teaches many things, and I think those traditional skills are good. It's good to win. But it's better to be able to 'language' - for without that, hope for understanding the importance of those skills, or the personalities involved in those victories vanishes.

If there's one thing certain about debate it is that you will lose. Why did you lose? What will it mean? These questions in many ways are more important to answer, and a bit more challenging to answer, than any motion you face.