Debate: A powerful vehicle for cultural dialogue and exchange

By Todd Fine Published here

In early January, with Qatar Foundation International’s support, I had the special opportunity to attend the “Fourth International Conference on Argumentation, Rhetoric, Debate, and the Pedagogy of Empowerment” in Doha, Qatar. As a long-time debate hand and current coach at Washington Latin Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., I am accustomed to debate coaches and scholarly forensics directors being unsung heroes of education, sacrificing long hours at tournaments and in practices with their students because of a passionate belief, not always understood by the outside world, that participation in scholastic debate is the most transformative educational experience. Hence, to see first-hand the commitment to this academic and professional development conference, and the respect held for debate and debate coaches generally, in Qatar was overwhelming. The three-day conference, at the new Qatar National Convention Center, was opened by Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser Al-Thani, was carefully organized with constant translation of all presentations into English or Arabic as required, and involved a high level of generous hospitality.

Through my affiliation with Washington Latin Public Charter School (whose Arabic-language curriculum is supported by QFI), I already had some exposure to debate in Qatar and to their “QatarDebate” national program, which helped facilitate the conference and is directed by Dr. Hayat Maarafi. For the last two years, I have worked with QFI and the Arabic instructor at our school, Alexander Porcelli, to coordinate debates by Cisco “telepresence” videoconference session between Washington Latin and several Qatari schools. Debate, because it forces participants to understand the positions of others and to switch sides on a topic, has demonstrated itself as a powerful vehicle for cultural dialogue and exchange. Yet, we learned quite early in this process that, at least in terms of debating skill, we would have to play catch up: QatarDebate, an organizational member of Qatar Foundation, has developed a sophisticated curriculum for training debaters and coaches, and it facilitates numerous tournaments and travel opportunities for its students. In fact, a strong case can be made that, since its founding in September 2007, QatarDebate has quickly become one of the best-organized and most advanced national debate programs in the world.

As a Vice President of the D.C. High School Urban Debate League, learning about the debate programs in Qatar, and in other countries in the Middle East and across the world, was especially enlightening and practically useful. I made many enthusiastic connections with international debate minds that will hopefully provide further opportunities for the students at Washington Latin and in the D.C. Urban Debate League. The presentations varied from practical considerations about deploying debate in the classroom to specific and fascinating academic analyses of debate as a feature of Islamic study and tradition. And even the new bilingual Arabic-English dictionary of debating terms, compiled by Dr. Abdul Gabbar Al-Sharafi and launched at a ceremony by H.E Dr. Mohammad Fathi Saud, President of Qatar Foundation, will be useful for the several Washington Latin Arabic language students involved with debate.

The United States justifiably has confidence in its long history deploying debate as a major civil society practice, but increasingly there are interesting and important developments occurring around the world that deserve notice. As a result, building connections to deploy debate as a vehicle for cultural exchange and peaceful dialogue, especially between the United States and the Arab world, has great promise. This special conference of 300 participants from 38 countries concluded with the issuance of the “Doha Declaration,” a strong appeal for debate exchanges and for the internationalization of debate programs. As a debate coach and a “true believer” in the power of the activity, I could not have been more touched or more impressed.

By Todd Fine, Founder of Project Khalid and Debate Coach at Washington Latin Public Charter School