04/06
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Houston Sugarland Group

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Subtitle The Great Debaters


"The Great Debaters" is about an underdog debate team that wins a national championship, and some critics have complained that it follows the formula of all sports movies by leading up, through great adversity, to a victory at the end. So it does. How many sports movies, or movies about underdogs competing in any way, have you seen that end in defeat? It is human nature to seek inspiration in victory, and this is a film that is affirming and inspiring and re-creates the stories of a remarkable team and its coach.




subtitle The Great Debaters


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He keeps his politics out of the classroom, however, where he conceals a different kind of secret: He is one of America's leading poets. Although the movie barely touches on it, Tolson published long poems in such magazines as the Atlantic Monthly and in 1947 was actually named poet laureate of Liberia. Ironic, that his role as a debate coach would win him greater fame today.


The debates themselves have one peculiarity: The Wiley team somehow draws the "good" side of every question. Since debaters are supposed to defend whatever position they draw, it might have been intriguing to see them defend something they disbelieve, even despise. Still, I suppose I understand why that isn't done here; it would have interrupted the flow. And the flow becomes a mighty flood in a powerful and impassioned story. This is one of the year's best films.


And in its difficult subject: racial tension and the education and discovery of values by the three young debaters from Wiley College, one of the oldest colleges in America, it creates real excitement and interest.


In a recent article, Ronald Walter Greene and Darrin Hicks (2005) provide a careful reading of the multi-decade conversation in the United States about the merits of switch-side debating, the practice in tournament debate of requiring student debaters to argue both sides of a debate proposition. Greene and Hicks's account of this debate about debate illustrates how liberalism is transformed in the prevailing approach to contemporary debate pedagogy into a "deliberative theory of democracy" in which "communication becomes the field, instrument and object of cultural governance" (p. 121). We will not attempt to represent the complexity of Greene and Hicks's argument here, but their work nicely illustrates the attempts by which speech and its successor discipline, communication, have attempted, since long before our birth, to discipline the relationship between communication pedagogy and democratic praxis.


The connection between debate and democracy is intuitive--the subtitle of this journal suggests as much--so intuitive that by the critical assessment of this connection Greene and Hicks perform a valuable service in articulating a theory and practice of switch-side debating not always linked as favorably (and uncritically) as they are today. In a much more modest way, we hope to investigate the articulation of public speaking pedagogy and democracy, an articulation older than the speech/communication discipline in the United States, yet an articulation now examined only infrequently. In this articulation we would expect to find examples of what Greene and Hicks call a "discursive theory of citizenship" (p. 120). 041b061a72


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