Debate for me is a way to rocket students into the world of first principles (politics, philosophy and economics), have fun, and gain useful skills in the meantime. It is likely the best way to teach students argumentation, especially if you have well-trained and bloodthirsty opposition.
So what if you don’t? Well you have to create it. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do at QSI Tbilisi – offer the first English language debate tournament in the Caucasus. I’m sure there have been tournaments before this, but we are now the only English language tournament in the entire region open to all schools.
Georgia is currently transitioning from Russian as a second language to English. Most young people under 30 know some English, which is how I survive running errands and asking for directions. So this is the story of the birth of English language debate in Georgia.
Our first year at QSI debate tournament four years ago, there were 20 students who learned Canadian Parliamentary style, it was mostly our own students and it was nice to win all the medals. Our second year, 2016, more schools attended and I was very happy to introduce some students from Georgian public schools to the tournament. We had 50 in total in novice and intermediate categories, and we won all medals again. I’m very much looking forward to the day when we don’t!
Georgians who are good at debate in English are invariably university students who learn the skill abroad and bring it back. They just don’t have any opportunities or clubs for public speaking here. Public speaking in the post-Soviet world is generally poke-your-eye-out boring, and as teachers in public schools pass on their form of rhetoric, the cycle repeats itself.
Meanwhile I couldn’t figure out anything about Georgian high school debate. I mean zero. There was no information anywhere – schools would not return calls or emails. The only thing I could find online is that Armenia held a debate workshop in 2011. And the only connection I found for high school debate was Tinantin Tsertsvadze, who leads GIDE (Georgian Institute of Debate and Education). However, she does not speak English.
Over a meeting with a translator, I learned about how her organization awards public schools students to join her academy. Together with American Academy students, they have done well in Karl Popper policy debates, winning tournaments in Lithuania where she sends her top students every year.
In November 2016, Tinatin asked me to introduce Canadian Parliamentary debate to her students at IliaUni downtown. That was an experience in itself – being told to sit behind a large desk at the front of a whitewashed lecture hall, and speak into a microphone. I immediately stood up, started pacing, and asked for a whiteboard.
GIDE is relatively small (their latest tournament had 12 teams), and has funding from IDEA – International Debate and Education Association, which used to be and is now loosely affiliated with George Soros’ Open Society. Open Society, like many other NGOs, poured millions of dollars into the country in the 90s. In fact, so much money was spent and embezzled with no results, that it is difficult to get funding for debate today. IDEA does have bases in Macedonia and Kyrgyzstan, but that’s it.
Meanwhile, Eastern Europe is producing some fantastic debate teams and associations. With Open Society and Karl Popper organization funding, countries like Slovenia, Croatia, Slovakia, Romania are competing on an equal playing field with teams like Denmark and China. Slovenia has been hosting a debate camp for years now, led by the late great Alfred “Tuna” Snyder, of University of Vermont. He has acolytes now in Moscow, Istanbul, etc, who run regional debate camps. Croatia is hosting the World Schools championship this year.
The crazy thing is that because there is no English language debate in Georgia, we could just send a team to World Schools Championship with no competition. We sent a team to Prague Debate Spring last year, and they called us “Fake Georgia” – only one of our students was a native – the rest American (and Austrian), though we held our flag proudly for the group picture.
In Prague last February, I met Loke Wing Fatt on the train to our hotel. He’s the Chinese national coach – a wonderful, witty, and tough love coach whose students all get accepted to Harvard. He studied English for a while at the University of Winnipeg, and even took some philosophy courses from the same profs. Loke was like the god-father of debate in Asia – he immediately saw the potential of debate in Georgia, and thought of ways to help us out. At the coaches night, he introduced me to Sharmila Parmanand, the mermaid-like rock-star debater from the Philippines, who is doing a Phd in Cambridge and globe-trotting around the world adjudicating tournaments on Bill Gates foundation scholarship. She agreed to help us develop a program in Tbilisi.
Then in the summer, I emailed everyone in the region – all international schools, and tried to find all possible debate coaches. If we could form an association and hold meetings, we could gain some traction in hosting tournaments. I found some contacts from Buckswood, New School, and British International, and also Dianne Caskie of The International School of Baku. But Georgians are famously un-interested in long term planning of any sort, so this will continue to be a difficult task. It is amazing to me that principals put debate on the back shelf when it is such a fantastic and prestigious pedagogical tool.
Earlier I had tried to contact the English Speaking Union, which sponsors debate world-wide. After not having much luck, I was directed to Marina Tsitsishvili, president of the British based English Speaking Union, and head of British Corner in Vake park, where they hold cultural evens and teach English as a second language. Marina was fresh off of her honorary Member of the British Empire appointment in 2016. As a member of the commonwealth myself, I told of my undying allegiance to our queen. Alas, no possibility of funding (a common theme in Georgia) for a national team materialized, but we will be resurrecting the debate club at British Corner every Sunday, open for students from any schools.
Marina did put me in touch with Alexander Zibzibadze, one of Georgia’s top debaters who came in 7th in World Public Speaking championships, and is now a student in Ireland. He founded an organization called Georgia’s Future Academy, which has been advocating for debate for years. They just held a major university tournament and has recruited top debaters like Alex Just to do workshops. Thanks to a switch from Soviet style education, university students here are beginning to debate at a very high level, but as of yet, there is no English language opportunity.
Alexander is a fascinating guy – he’s a libertarian doing research comparing small-scale regimes who have liberalized: Georgia and Singapore. Still in his 20s, he remembers learning economics from a Marxist, who lectured about the proper way for a government to control resources. He then lived through the Rose Revolution, and saw the economic changes brought about by finance minister Bendukidze.
We met at Prospero’s coffee shop at 10am. After a hectic day running a university debate tournament, he stayed up till 6 am writing a grant proposal to the Georgian government who announced their willingness to fund, but in classic Georgian style gave them only a couple hectic days to plan and submit it.
To give you a picture of how Georgia is changing, Alexander said that one of the top teams in his university tournament this week was from the Police cadets. “This is a reassuring sign, that the security of our country is in capable intellectual hands,” he said.
I learned that there there was a tradition of BP debate in Telavi, but it was only in Georgian, and it has died out. Last year Alexander started a debate club at British Corner where kids would watch a movie, choose a theme, and then have a debate about it. It looks like it will be resurrected with the help of his university trainers.
Alexander now carries the torch, and could well be the “John Robinson” that puts Georgia on the map of world debating.
So lots of pieces of the puzzle started coming together. To my surprise, Sharmila Parmanand immediately accepted my request for help in Georgia, and now it looks like she’ll be training at our debate camp in Tbilisi, before heading to adjudicate the European University Debate Championships in Athens.
A lot can happen if you stick to your vision and develop the skills you need on the way! Before coming to Georgia, I had never hosted a tournament or coached a Worlds team. I’m just glad to be part of the story, and to be given the freedom to pursue it.