- Site Feedback
- IDEA Sites
- Digital Freedoms
- 2012 Presidential Debates Guide
- Asia Youth Forum
- Big Apple Cogers
- Debate Changing Europe
- Debate in the Neighborhood
- Debating and Producing Media
- Debating the Future of Youth in Africa and Europe
- Digital Debating Blog
- Free Speech Debate
- Global Youth Forum
- Global Debate and Public Policy Challenge
- International Public Policy Forum
- Online Mentoring
- The Freedom Series
- Youth and Sports Mega-Events
Youth in the 21st Century profile: Eric DiMichele
Submitted by Alexander Cavell on 26 July 2012
Over the coming week, idebate.org will be publishing profiles of some of the trainers and participants involved in this year's Central Asia Youth and Media camp. The series starts with the head of the camp's debate track, Eric DiMichele.
Eric DiMichele has been training debaters for over 30 years. His involvement with competitive speaking began at New York City's renowned Regis High School, where he continues to teach history and political science. Since DiMichele's arrival at Regis in 1983, the school's Hearn Society for Speech and Debate has competed continuously in a range of speaking formats, including public forum debate, Lincoln-Douglas debate, extemporaneous speaking, declamation, dramatic interpretation and humorous interpretation. DiMichele's students have secured 23 New York state championships in the last 30 years; Hearn Society alumni have won the US national college debate championships on six occasions. A former Regis debater was also part of the last United States team to win the World Universities Debate Championship.
For the last 17 years, DiMichele has also worked for the International Debate Education Association and the Open Society Foundations, instructing young people around the world in debate and human rights advocacy. He was involved in the inception of IDEAs Youth in the 21st Century programme and is currently leading the debate track at the second Central Asian Youth in the 21st Century camp.
Truth and knowledge
There are two themes, two ideas, that keep arcing across conversations about debating with Eric DiMichele, kicking out sparks and occasionally setting off small fires. The first is that knowledge, curiosity and critical thinking should be the focus of debate training. The formats, formalities and games the define competitive speaking in many parts of the world are secondary considerations. The second part of DiMichele's perspective on debate is truth. He sees debate as a tool for seeking the truth of a situation. The mind-set of a successful debater is one that “wants to know other worlds, one that wants to understand politics and history and economics and literature and culture.” Debate offers the best chance for arriving at the truths underlying these subjects; it gives debaters an incentive to search out the truth buried in a motion and the knowledge that lets us understand and share this truth.
“I would always root debate in substantive subjects. I'm not particularly interested in debate as a set of free-standing skills. I often say to debaters, 'to what end do we debate'? We presumably debate because we are interested in citizenship and political leadership, and because we have a respect for complex thought. I would see debate as a matter of civic instruction.”
DiMichele sees debating as having an important role to play in the process of education, a role that isn't always recognised. “Debate is broadly applicable across a range of disciplines, but the best way to prevent debate from promoting an argumentative culture- as opposed to legitimate argumentation- is to always cast it in the context of a search for truth. Whatever the discipline may be, once put in the context of truth, it is much easier to convince people that debate is a worthy set of skills and to motivate them to debate in the first place.”
Has a debate case ever convinced him to change his own views? He says that his opinions are constantly evolving, but that debate offers debaters the opportunity to develop personal convictions founded on close monitoring, intelligent introspection and a degree of public vetting – “I want to put my beliefs out there, vying in the public square. I want to see them battered in the public square. I want to see them under attack and to be able to re-establish those ideas in light of those attacks.”
Even if, after a debate, DiMichele's students hold the same ideological position they did before, they also gain a deeper understanding of the complexities it involves, and a greater respect for others' views on the topic. The knowledge gained through a debate is the purpose of the activity, the thing that should be the strongest motivator for debaters and trainers alike. “If the debate topic is well written and well balanced, debaters can understand others' arguments and their perspectives. But winning that debate is only the first step. Winning the debate doesn't just involve scoring points in the competitive sense, but convincing people to follow you down that path – and that's why the more broadly applied debate is to substantive subjects, the more likely it is that it's going to promote good citizenship and critical citizenship.”
Whatever the recommendations of debate strategists, it seems that DiMichele's approach works. The implication isn't just that debate should be broadly applied to substantive subjects, but that substantive subjects should be broadly applied to debate. Debate is a process of acknowledging the complexity of the wider world, guided by the weird collaborative spirit that a lot of us encounter at competitions – the delicious sense of 'what next?' that hangs in the air when your own speculative arguments are demolished by a chain of clearly explained facts.
Debate has changed significantly in the 30 years since DiMichele took charge of the Hearn Society. Over the 17 year history of IDEA's Youth and Media camps, international debating has become fused with the British Parliamentary speaking format, competitive debate has boomed in popularity Central Asia and Latin America and the quality of public political debate throughout the western world has plummeted. The stand-out shift in debate culture for DiMichele is rise of a game-playing approach to competitive speaking – a trend that sees debaters relying heavily on the mechanics of debate and argumentation to win rounds, rather than making attempts to share their knowledge with judges and opponents. DiMichele compares 'meta debating' and 'critique debating' to post modernism – both are approaches to discussion and debate that question truth and our ability to communicate truth.
“There's a sort of riotous scepticism that almost eviscerates the purpose of debate. I'm aghast at what Lincoln-Douglas debate has evolved to in certain regions of the United States. I think this approach is profoundly dishonest on some level, because it's about winning by being on the cutting edge of debate.
“There are a lot of rationalisations that take place where people convince themselves that because they're on the cutting edge of the debate they're closer to the truth, but in fact they're undermining the purpose of debate. There was a debate at the national championship where a speaker claimed 'we can't know justice, we can't know truth, we can't know anything'. Presumably, we couldn't know what that speaker just said. This sort of radical moral relativism is deeply problematic.
“Truth is contested. Debate recognises that. Sometimes history needs to be revised, but history is revised according to evidence. That parallel between debate and the broader historical dialectic is important.”
What are his recommendations for preventing debate from becoming too self-referential? “Ask why we debate. To what end? The debaters, the judges, the audience should leave a debate with a clearer understanding of important social, political and economic issues. Everything should be in service of that. Anything that becomes an end in itself, that fuels the more competitive aspects of debate and doesn't use competition to galvanise reflection and promote research should be discarded.”
Debate and journalism
IDEA's debate camps have been a significant part of DiMichele's career, and of IDEA's global strategy for promoting open, transparent democratic debate around the world. The Youth in the 21st Century programme is unique in placing an equal emphasis on training in journalism, media and structured speaking – what does DiMichele think that debaters can learn from journalists? What can journalists take from debate?
“The most important thing that journalists can learn from debaters is the ability to be sceptical. The number of journalists who become stenographers for government officials or for corporate executives is astonishing. They're not asking the hard questions or doing the deep investigations. Newspapers are partly to blame, because they can't easily monetise investigative reporting, which serves the public interest more than anything else. Very little independent fact-checking takes place anymore, either. Journalists should be there to test the claims of competing candidates and politicians.
“In terms of what debaters can learn from journalists... They can learn, fundamentally, why we have journalists. It's about the search for truth. It's about objectivity and accuracy and the ethics of how you search for the truth. Debaters have to understand that as well. They have to understand that their principal motivation should not be winning a debate round, but recognising that the debate yields a better understanding of the complexity of the world.
“Debaters will also become better consumers of the news, because they develop the skills that will let them assess the mass of information that exists out there.”
Toader Mateoc, this year's Spirit Award for Coaches winner, talks to us about the award and the Youth Forum in Mexico.The Spirit Awards, awarded...
With a public debate on the topic “Absolute power”, part of the project “Debates_mk”, the Macedonian NGO Diversity Media in partnership with IDEA...