Lincoln-Douglas Debate

In Uncategorized on December 1, 2010 at 12:00 pm

As a tutor with the Writing Program, I often hear people say that they feel as though they don’t know how to write a paper, that they never know how to start or where to end or how to make sure that their essays are clear. This is nothing to be ashamed of; we live in a culture where the length of our communiques and media grows ever shorter. But I’m here to tell you that decent academic writing – the kind that is clear, succinct, and makes an argument with conviction and purpose – isn’t as terrifying as it sounds.

I’m not a brilliant essayist by any stretch of the imagination (and don’t wish to present myself as such, which is why I’m not attaching my name to this essay). But I do happen to have picked up one important skill in high school that changed my life as a writer forever. That skill, believe it or not, is Lincoln-Douglas debate.

Lincoln-Douglas debates are short debates in which two opponents each attempt to convince a set of judges that their argument is stronger. Facts, if presented without a defensible source, are declared invalid; arguments left unattacked and unaddressed are allowed to stand. In order to win, you need to not only prove your case, but also explain why opposing views are inferior and anticipate critiques of your arguments. And everything – everything, everything, everything – must tie back to your central “resolution,” which we around here might know better as a thesis.

All this may sound rather involved for a five-page informational memo. But the thing to remember is the mindset and the organization – you have one idea, and everything you say has to connect back to that one idea and strengthen your case. Your facts have to be legitimately obtained and free of bias. And every paper you write here, to some extent, is a persuasive essay – even if what you’re trying to persuade your reader is simply that you’re telling the truth.

Is this universally applicable? No, but it’s a good basic model. And knowing how to use it – or a similar structure – is vital in the world of politics and diplomacy, where deliberate obfuscation is a way of life. If you know how to make a clear argument and anticipate what others will say about it, you will know how to parse other people’s claims and assess the way they fit in with your own worldview. And that ability will allow you to cut through the fat of rhetoric and bluster and do your work with the truth as you see it. (It will also make your Socialist responses more impressive.)

Introduction to the topic
Thesis (Resolution)
Background information
Contention 1 (think of this as Point 1)
– how it relates to your thesis
– evidence that supports it (and why you chose that evidence, if applicable)
Contention 2
– how it relates to your thesis
– evidence that supports it
Contention 3
– how it relates to your thesis
– evidence that supports it
Anticipation of critiques (or response to existing critiques)
– How you’ve addressed them or why they’re not relevant
– your contentions and how they tied back to your thesis


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