Universitas Helsingiensis

I don't agree

I don't agree In Finland, debating is still a fairly unknown pas-time, whereas it has a long and distinguished tradition in the English-speaking countries of the world.

Two years ago, Richard Penny came to the University of Helsinki to study political science. The first thing he did was join the University of Helsinki Debating Society (UHDS) to continue the hobby he had started back home in England.

The fun of debating is more about the process than the outcome of a given de-bate. “Debating is about being able to think things through in your head and then phrasing what you want to say in a way that convinces your listeners. It is also about getting people’s attention, expressing your own ideas and destroying the arguments of your opponent – so it’s not really about whether you are right or wrong about a specific issue,” says Penny, who is now head of the UHDS, which was founded in 2001.

Debating is conducted under international rules derived from British parliamentary procedure. Almost identical rules are applied by debating societies throughout the world. According to the British rules, a debate has eight participants who are divided into two teams. The topic of the debate, called a proposition, is announced shortly before the debate and the teams draw lots to establish who is for and against. The teams are given 15 minutes to prepare before the start of the debate.

The activities of the UHDS are actually more similar to those of a sports club than of an academic society. “Like other games, debating can be dramatic, and participants need tactical flair and good teamwork skills. It’s a great feeling to passionately defend a proposition that you totally do not agree with in real life.”

Nuclear weapons and Santa Claus

It has been found that the best propositions touch on slightly unusual topical issues, rather than the eternal quibbling about taxation or whether war is ever justifiable.

Thus, recent debates have included whether women who smoke whilst pregnant should be prosecuted for endangering the foetus, whether Iran should be given nuclear weapons, and whether children should be told the truth about Santa Claus.

The idea is to avoid topics where extensive background information is useful; it should be enough to read the day’s paper.

“This is a skill that anyone can learn. For example, I myself started debating in order to overcome a fear of public speaking. I used to get very nervous and just rattle on when I had to speak in front of an audience. Now I can speak to hundreds of people without my pulse rate rising perceptibly,” Penny says.

He adds that the point of debating is to help team members find their public speaking skills. These are skills that prove extremely useful in other areas of life, too. “Take a job interview, for instance: you can use debating skills to show that you can communicate, think clearly and be creative – and those are the very skills that employers look for in new employees. These skills are useful in the academic world, too, since debating tends to augment your ability promote your own expertise. Then again, it is also a useful skill when you are trying to get you money’s worth as a consumer,” Penny says, in a convincing argument for debating skills.

“As the father of an eighteen-month-old girl, I am naturally hoping that my skills will come in handy when she reaches that age where children question absolutely everything,” Penny says with a laugh.

One of the aims of the debating society is also to promote debating in Finland. In an effort to do this, the members have visited many schools in the Helsinki area to tell students about debating. A debate between the schools in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area was also arranged, and it was a huge success.

Debating is generally just for the fun of it, but it becomes more serious at competitions where the teams debate in front of judges. The University of Helsinki Debating Society has taken part in competitions and has been very successful. Though Finns are traditionally perceived as taciturn and inhibited, they may have unforeseen potential.

“The University of Helsinki Debating Society is one of the most successful debating societies on mainland Europe at the moment, and we have even beaten teams from Oxford, Harvard and Yale. At the Euro Championships last August we were the best Non-British University overall, with two teams in the top 25, and one speaker as the 6th best in the English as a Second Language category. Considering there were over 160 teams and 320 debaters, we were pretty pleased! Hopefully with a bit more experience now we can go one better next year,” Penny says.

Arja-Leena Paavola