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Discussing discourse

  • Published at 04:22 pm January 5th, 2019
WT_Jan 5, 2019
Photo: Bigstock

The benefits to reap from debate and MUNs

Debating, as a choice of extra-curricular activity (ECA), stands high and steady on the list of options as generations of students come and go. More recently, the Model United Nations (MUN) craze has also made it a worthy contender on the list of popular ECAs. When you ask frequenters of debate tournaments or MUN regulars what they get out of it, they’ll likely cite ‘gaining confidence’ as the number one pro. In order to understand why these activities may be effective, it’s not unusual to find yourself asking: What exactly are the benefits of discourse on these platforms?

Dissecting the confidence claim

Confidence in this regard comes from the successful completion and repetition of a task - in this case, public speaking. An aspect that many teenagers struggle with and work to improve, public speaking is an Achilles heel of sorts for a large fraction of teens. 

Debate tournaments and MUN conferences do a good job of pushing participants well out of the radius of their comfort zones. And once they see that they can function, and occasionally thrive, outside of that zone, the reassurance they feel about their abilities segues into confidence. 

As participants are evaluated on the quality of presentation, those who excel understandably feel validated. The flip side to this participation is the consequent embarrassment from not being able to express oneself as intelligibly as one would have preferred, and that in turn can shred to pieces whatever confidence they walked into those rooms with in the first place. To preach optimism, this initial inability is simply a natural stepping stone to personal growth. Debating circles, in particular, have been places of tremendous self-improvement forged amidst intense, competitive atmospheres and any debater who has been at it long enough will tell you as much. 

The highlight reel of benefits

The nature of these ECAs requires participants to do copious amounts of research. Such a prerequisite helps students develop the tools to look for and organize information, a skill that will undoubtedly prove to be useful throughout their tertiary studies as well as professional careers. Perhaps one of the most noteworthy lessons to be taken away is the ability to discern credible sources of information from unreliable ones, since both activities only allow material from reliable sources to be presented. This is especially important for teenagers in an age where they are bombarded and inundated with information, regardless of factual accuracy. 

Both debate tournaments and MUN conferences serve as crash courses in critical thinking for participants. As students are presented with agendas having varying degrees of complexity and controversy, they are able to construct their own stances with a foundation of logic.  

“The most impressive impact of debating is that it makes people better at thinking. I’ve seen a lot of people get over their inner biases because of debating. I’ve seen a lot of people change their stances on social issues,” says Nayara Noor, a first-year university student who has been debating for four and a half years. 

Debaters and delegates are better able to organize their thoughts, and are articulate in their expression of those thoughts. In the case of MUN conferences, the emphasis on strategic thinking and diplomacy encourages participants to work on honing their communication skills. 

These are not activities done in isolation, and so socializing forms a sizeable portion of both. Debaters must work in teams, playing to each other’s assets and covering for vulnerabilities, and delegates in committees must ally together to reach a consensus. This helps participants to work efficiently in teams and builds a sense of camaraderie.

In MUNs, the benefits participants stand to gain are often overshadowed by the casual socializing that many teens use the banner of ‘learning experience’ as an excuse for. However, this distortion of a learning opportunity reflects more on the lack of guidance and organization than on the nature of MUNs themselves. 

To summarize, debate tournaments and MUN conferences foster an environment conducive of critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity, and civic awareness.

Correlating the pros with leadership skills

In order to understand what participants stand to gain in terms of leadership skills, it is important to understand what the traits of a good leader are. 

Leaders are considered to be a cut above the rest in their communication and creative abilities. They are able to manage themselves and those around them efficiently. They have a vision, and they are determined and driven towards achieving their goals. These traits are mutual with the ones honed in the process of participating in debate tournaments and MUN conferences, making them experiences where students learn through action. 

Currently a student at an Ivy League, Umran Mustafa says, “MUNs teach you leadership, and that has helped me in all stages of my life, be it organizing a school event or campaigning for university elections at Cornell. They were my primary ECA during college applications, and I found that I could draw from those experiences while composing my thoughts, and express myself better through words.”

It goes without saying that posing an argument at 200 words per minute or diplomatic conversations in controlled committee rooms may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Ultimately, any extra-curricular that one finds themselves passionate about is a worthwhile pursuit, and it need not be either of the two in discussion. However, these activities directly address the public-speaking phobia, and that alone should be reason enough to test these waters.