Posts Tagged ‘debate’

What I’m reading

Selwyn House

Coaching debate has its perks. Last weekend I attended the Oxford Cup nationals at Selwyn House, Montreal, whose alumni include Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor and journalist Jonathan Kay. I chaired a couple rounds of debate as a judge and found the top teams to be exceptional. I always come away from these tournaments inspired by the display of intellect and spirit.

I’m lucky to be learning from the best – Winnipeg’s own John Robinson has led his students to win 17 out of the 25 international public speaking championships. Brian Casey, the venerable coach of Sacred Heart in Halifax, believes his team can edge into the top 10 at British Nationals this year (by some odd historical coincidence, Canada and Australia are both able to send teams to the UK nationals).

At Selwyn house, I noticed in the hallway of the middle school that one of their TV monitors displayed “what the staff are reading,” which I think is a great practice for any school. Hopefully I’ll be getting back to the purpose of this blog, which is to review books, but for now here is what I’ve been reading this Fall:



Part of the intellectual ferment of debate stems from the need to learn basic political philosophy. At West Point Grey Academy in Vancouver (home of this year’s Oxford Cup victors), Sandel’s Justice is required reading for debaters. I’ve also used it for my philosophy club in the past.



My family rolled their eyes when I spent my summer vacation mulling over grim statistics of the Bloodlands. I had re-discovered my great-great grandfather’s dairy from southern Ukraine, where he was branded as a Kulak (He was killed by Makhno’s bandits, and his relatives somehow survived the Holodomor.  It was fascinating to cross-reference events and get into the psychology of well-off Mennonite farmers near Crimea).

This is an important book – it does a good job of humanizing the 14 million who died in Eastern Europe while meticulously cataloguing various crimes. Snyder’s analysis of Soviet and Nazi cognitive dissonance is shattering.

tony judt - reappraisals

These essays by Tony Judt may have been just re-printings of journalism and book reviews, but they are elegant and insightful. He argues that we are in “an age of forgetting,” where the meaning of struggles that defined the last century are no longer understood. I really like his character sketches, especially of Marxist historian Hobsbawm, and Leszek Kolakowski, the Polish ex-Communist philosopher whose criticism of French Marxist thinkers remains unpublished in France today. Kolakowski’s “How to be a Liberal-Conservative-Socialist-Anarchist” is a classic that would really mess up students’ preconceptions of the political spectrum.

how children succeed

I randomly met my superintendent at a garage sale, and bought his desk and this book. I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of it as an AP Psych teacher, and it is one of those books that ties together many important strands of research, including Michael Meaney’s experiments on the biological effects of early attachment (better stress-regulation and life-long health benefits), Martin Seligman’s Virtues catalogue, Angela Duckworth’s Grit scale, Carol Dweck’s framing effect, and James Heckman’s repudiation of the cognitive hypothesis – that IQ matters more for success than character. I feel that this book is launching me toward my master’s thesis, and will also change my views of parenting.


aristotle emotions and education

Aristotle, Emotions, and Education. Kristjian Kristjiannson is the director of the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham, UK. As Michael Sandel explains with such lucidity,  in order to resolve ethical disputes about the role of education, it helps to ask what kind of thing education is in the first place. Responding to the surge of virtue ethics in the last couple decades, Kristjiannson presents competing versions of Aristotelian education and tries to clarify what the “philosopher” really said. Is education really all about habituation in the early years? Etc. I’m looking forward to experiencing the clash of positive psychology’s “virtues” and the classical account.  I also like that he is trying to have both feet in philosophy and the social sciences.


Au revoir.

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Students in Gr. 9 often see issues in black and white, so what better way to introduce the ambiguities and complexities of everyday moral dilemmas by covering the political spectrum through debates on controversial topics? Debate forces students to take a side (even when they don’t agree with it) and focuses on the reasons behind decisions rather than simply individual opinion. And, it’s often fun, especially when you have an excuse to hammer the tables in agreement.  My first go at it was OK, but next time I would prepare more examples in current events and think more about the 4 dimensional quality of the spectrum, rather than placing libertarian and utilitarian on a right/left scale….

Understanding the Political Spectrum Through Moral Dilemmas

Big Idea:

Civil discourse is enhanced by finding that you agree with your opposition in some areas. Taking stances on various moral dilemmas will give us a greater understanding of our common belief in the competing claims of freedom and equality across the political spectrum. It also enables us to foster democratic discussion by building:

a) agreed upon vocabulary
b) opinions supported by reasons
c) a willingness to be convinced by good reasons

Unit Overview:

(I used a version of this for Gr 9, but you could adapt this for any SS course)

1. Watch Michael Sandel’s “Justice” dilemmas clips and discuss/journal

2. Introduce the Political Spectrum and vocabulary

3. Research and Debate pros and cons for three current issues

4. Use informed opinions and common vocabulary to kickstart an inquiry project, discuss multiculturalism, or start a Gov. unit

1. Michael Sandel – Harvard “Justice” course videos (Youtube)

Sandel’s Harvard course is a great exemplar for students of civic discussion among young people. Each example from the episodes below might take 25 min to watch, discuss, and then journal.

  • Episode 1 lecture 1 0-12 min mark

Introduces trolley car example
Forces students to choose between rights of one person or the good of many (would you kill 1 to save 5 people?)

  • Episode 1 lecture 2 28-40 min mark Cannibalism case

Students asked whether if shipwrecked, they would kill and eat a sick crew member in order that 2 others might survive (real law case – R v Dudley & Stephens, 1884).

These clips set up the vocabulary of utilitarianism and libertarianism which are helpful keys in understanding the difference between Canadian and American politics. The Canadian tradition of the “common good,” in its conservative or liberal forms, is contrasted with individual liberty enshrined in the US constitution.

2. Political Spectrum:

The political spectrum is often portrayed as a spread between economic equality (communism) and freedom (neoliberalism) on one plane, and social equality (authoritarianism) and freedom (libertarianism) on the other.


There are many versions of political spectrums with political agendas, (such as the libertarian “Smallest Political Quiz”). Be sure you know what it is saying. The above spectrum comes from Political – it would be good to know how the Canadian Conservative party was placed much farther up the “authoritarian” scale (perhaps Harper’s personal leadership style?).

In any case, the goal is to focus on what unites the disparate views. I focus on Modern Liberalism as our “common denominator”:

The current view of justice in Western society, based on the idea that we have rights by nature. Liberalism emphasizes the rights and duties of individuals. You have the right to liberty and equality, in return for your allegiance to the state.

To understand how liberty and equality are often at odds with one another, I use the vocabulary of utilitarianism and libertarianism, following Sandel. While students will want to pick one or the other as a point of identity, the idea is to introduce students to the spectrum in between these extremes, which will come out in the debates.

Utilitarianism: a view of justice in which the rights of the many outweigh the rights of the few (maximize utility, ends justifies means, etc.).

Libertarianism: a view of justice in which individual rights are the most important. Government should not infringe on individual liberty.

eg. Modern Liberalism

Equality  – Utilitarianism – Health Care

Freedom – Libertarianism – US gun laws

3. Debate

Debate forces students to take more than one side of an issue. They must argue for resolutions they may not agree with. It also makes them think about how to define the terms of discussion. (Info on how to set up a debate, and exemplar videos can be found on the Manitoba Debate website.)

I introduce examples of liberty and equality which create controversy in current affairs:

Social equality: Quebec Charter of Values, illegal euthanasia

Social freedom: censorship, legal marijuana, freemen on the land

Economic equality: Health Care, Social Assistance

Economic freedom: Bangladeshi sweatshops

Formulate three resolutions.

Be it resolved that:

“this house would legalize euthanasia”

“this house would force religions to be equal”

“this house would censor the Internet”

Form groups of three – two debaters and one “brains of the operation” researcher. Place them in debate teams for each resolution. You may have two pairs of teams for one resolution. Government must define the resolution terms.

In order of speaking:

1.PM Alex,  2. Leader of the Opposition Joe,  3. Deputy PM Sharon,  4. Shadow minister Amanda, 5. L. Opp rebuttal, 6. PM rebuttal.

Each team must come up with 5 arguments for, and 5 arguments against their resolution. Use a day or two to research.

Debate sets up the Government unit well, and you can show clips of Question Period. Once they get their feet wet, students enjoy the controversy and understand better the challenges of being an MP.

During debates, I act as the Speaker and ham it up with dramatic introductions for speakers.  During each debate I write the main arguments on the board as they unfold. Engage all students by encouraging them to stand and give Points of Information during the debates. Students are very interested in who wins, and this will motivate them to research both sides of the argument. As an exit slip, all students must judge each debate and give reasons why the teams won, and whose arguments were better.

One of my goals is also to have students incorporate some of their journal material into their final paper on Canadian identity.  (For more on why writing academic papers may be a good thing, check out this Atlantic thread:

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bloom republic of plato - picForgive my writing, for I have just completed anecdotal report cards.

Hi – it’s been a while. I’m back teaching AP Psych, Spanish, and Social Studies, with a side of Debate, so things have been jumping around here.

One of the biggest highlights of this semester was travelling to Montreal for the British Parliamentary high school debate tournament at McGill University. It was truly inspiring to see so many passionate and rigorous thinkers do battle. The McGill trophy has been dubbed “the Stanley Cup of debating” since they continue to add names of winners to the trophy. Six rounds of British Parliamentary style debate is a gruelling exercise of practical and theoretical intelligence. The winners were (believe it or not!) under 15 years old, were champions in Cambridge as well, and are coached by a lawyer.

While in Montreal, a couple of my friends presented at this year’s PD day for Social Studies in Manitoba on the topic of Philosophy in the schools. My contribution (aside from organizing the session) was my experimenting with Gr 9s this year where I linked moral dilemmas to debate topics in order to introduce the fundamental challenges of Modern Liberalism. Sounds like a tall order, and well, it’s a work in progress.

Perhaps the most inspiring thing this year was reading Plato’s Republic seminar style with four other students throughout the summer. We had the advantage of knowing what we were in for – the highschoolers did not. Still, we  took the plunge and read the entire book, meeting almost every week. Mark Ingham a graduate of St. John’s great books program in the US, did a fantastic job of bringing the text alive in today’s day and age, with ample knowledge of ancient greece and the history of ideas up until modernity. I came back from every meeting reinvigorated and also bewildered at the dedication and earnestness of the students. On Book 10 we were left with the Myth of Er, Plato’s sneaky way of reminding you that poetry has not been banished in the practical world … only in the ideal “city in speech”.

Perhaps soon there will be a Summer Institute of Great Books in Winnipeg…

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