David Debates GoliathsGAMBIER, Ohio (November 19, 2003) In the world of collegiate debating, there are powerhouses that boast large rosters, coaching staffs, and travel budgets. And then there's Kenyon, a rhetorical David that bests many of the Goliaths through sheer talent, heart, and verve. "We are one of the best debate teams in the Midwest," says James Lewis, a senior from Cleveland Heights, Ohio. "But I think we have the potential to be great on a national level."
The small, self-coached Kenyon team came home from a parliamentary debate tournament at King College in Bristol, Tennessee, in early November with a garland of victories. Lewis and his debating partner, junior Shannon Leitner of Portland, Oregon, finished in first place, losing only one round during the entire weekend. Lewis won the second-place award, and Leitner fifth place, for overall speaker. Their teammates, senior Phoebe Cohen of Fort Wayne, Indiana, and sophomore Russell Sherman of Portland, Oregon, finished fifth overall and were recognized for being among the top 10 speakers at the tournament.
The team, which regularly beats opponents from well-established programs and holds its own against adversaries from top universities, is looking forward to the national tournament of the National Parliamentary Debate Association (NPDA), to be held next spring in Los Angeles, at California State University, Northridge. There, under the complex rules that make parliamentary debate an exercise in well-honed argumentation, eloquence, and creativity under pressure, they will have to take sides on an assortment of topics about which they'll receive no advance knowledge and for which they'll have literally minutes to prepare. NPDA topics can range from the political ("The United States should reduce its foreign military commitments"), to the intriguing ("Time is a great teacher, even though it often kills its best pupils"), to the whimsical ("This House would kiss the French").
"Debate is truly the only way for me to fully exercise my intellect," says Cohen. Leitner adds, "It's a great way to sharpen your ability to think about and understand all sides of an issue. We all have biases, but in a debate you may have to defend a position with which, in ordinary circumstances, you totally disagree."
Kenyon's debaters agree that debate is, above all, fun. But it also "gives students a chance to exercise the ideals we tout at Kenyon," says Lewis-"critical thinking, becoming a complete person, and using education to complete yourself."