Haldane team strives to see both sides
In this age of vitriolic arguments, are school debate teams a polite anomaly?
The students on the Haldane High School debate team would argue that question. In fact, they’d argue both sides, backed by copious research.
The team, which has seven members (Colin Hopkins, captain Helena Kottman, Gabe Lunin-Pack, Simon Pieza, Keira Shanahan, Owen Sullivan-Hoch and Marc Firpo), is guided by Helena’s father, Paul Kottman. It was created as a club in 2017 by his older daughter, Sophia, who graduated in 2021 and is now a student at the University of Chicago.
When Sophia decided to create a team, she was unable to find a faculty sponsor. That’s when her father, who teaches philosophy and comparative literature at The New School in New York City, stepped in as a volunteer.
“I know what an argument is, but I had never heard a debate,” he recalls.
The team meets for an hour on Friday afternoons at the Butterfield Library. They try to meet outdoors whenever possible, in part, Paul Kottman says, so “they can tumble down the hill and then stand and orate.” The club met during the pandemic over Zoom, which was “not so bad for debate, but they missed the entire social, personal side of things,” he says.
For the uninitiated, there are multiple debate formats. The one used by Haldane is called “world schools,” which Kottman feels is the most flexible.
After brainstorming and calculating and prioritizing arguments from both sides, the debaters are split into two teams of three. In a timed response, a student provides the strongest, most detailed advocacy, followed by another student addressing the opposite viewpoint.
These are followed by two other students who lobby for and against in a less comprehensive way. Another student provides a rebuttal and one designated the “whip” sums up the debate. The students can’t pick which side they represent; that’s done with a coin toss.
“What’s unique about world-school format is each speaker has their own moment in the spotlight,” says Helena Kottman. “That is valuable for practicing skills in a friendly setting, especially for kids in the younger grades.”
At a recent Friday meeting, the topic under debate was whether Puerto Rico should be granted U.S. statehood. Shanahan, the first speaker, provided an overview of the arguments for Puerto Rico to remain a territory, citing the advantages of self-governing and invoking everything from racist ideology to “if it was going to happen, it would have happened already.”
Sullivan-Hoch advocated statehood, naming the benefits of cultural diversity in the U.S., better security and political stability. Lunin-Pack and Helena Kottman then presented “second speeches” advocating one view, then the other.
At the conclusion, Paul Kottman offered a critique, saying the rebuttals had been fine but that the students needed to anticipate what arguments might arise.
Helena, who is a junior, says the experience has been invaluable. “Debate is misinterpreted as passionate conflict between two sides,” she says. “But it’s not about how much you believe what you’re saying, it’s how you argue it. There’s value in knowing what both sides believe.
“There are no practical applications, just a lens to view and critique what’s going on in the real world, but to be able to develop that critical thinking skill is valuable in any setting,” she adds. “There are effective ways to rebut. You learn that it’s too easy to take a not-very-generous interpretation of their argument, but as an effective debater you take the most general approach you can and go beyond that.”
Her father agrees. “Students at this age seem more ready to handle issues that have two sides to them, have opposing ideas, not just win an argument,” he says. However, he adds, “we discovered that not every topic lends itself to debate. For example, topics that have incompatible viewpoints, such as gun rights or abortion, may be too in conflict with one another.
“We want to get them hearing themselves and each other, not just talking but listening,” he says. “They’re better listeners than six months ago. They’re learning to have dialogue, not just two monologues. They’re taking into account what the other person says.
“They also learn to think through a problem they may not know much about, doing research to gain evidence. There’s plenty of collective brainstorming, coming up with arguments using influential reason and persuasion, as well as logic. It would be a good activity for any age to practice, but especially at this age. I’ve enjoyed it more than I thought I would, considering it’s an age group I’m not used to teaching.”
During this school year, the team has hosted teams from Arlington, Poughkeepsie and Dover for scrimmages. On March 3, it will participate at an annual middle- and high-school tournament at Bard College, tackling three topics chosen by the school. The team hopes in 2023-24 to attend more tournaments, courtesy of a PTA grant, and it also would like to encourage the creation of a middle school team.