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10 Time Lines

ing the first Department of

Classical Rhetoric in the

country (at Harvard).

Classical Rhetoric suf-

fered an untimely death

at Harvard; its Classi-

cal Rhetoric Department

soon gave way to the study

of “English,” but Adams’



lived on in another form.

Colleges such as Princeton

and the University of Vir-

ginia, were home to famous

Debate Societies.

These Societies, such as

Jefferson at Virginia, and

the Whig and the Clio at

Princeton, became colleges

within colleges; made Clas-

sical Rhetoric the mainstay

of instruction and made de-

bate on major issues of the

day the dress rehearsal for

world leadership to come.

How they pushed the

limits, too!

In 1832, Jefferson Society

student Merritt Robinson

argued on campus in public

for an end to slavery. About

six months prior, Nat Turn-

er’s slave revolt had deeply

shaken the state of Vir-

ginia. The faculty at Vir-

ginia found that Robinson

had been “indiscreet” and

barred future public ad-

dresses on any policy mat-

ter. (The Society carried on

behind closed doors.)

In the 1870s, a youth by

the name of Woodrow Wil-

son would ascend to the

leadership of the Jeffer-

son Society and hone his

considerable skills in ver-

bal combat with his peers,

prior to the day when he

would be the first to lead

the globally dominant

United States.

By the dawn of the 20th

century, the fame of the

likes of a Jefferson Soci-

ety was receding. Gigantic

universities were replacing

the quaint colleges. Uni-

versities boasted scores

of student activities, thus

weakening the lure of the

Debate Societies. What has

come next in simulation

and debate circles may be


In 1914, the Jefferson So-

ciety made a bold move. It

convinced the state of Vir-

ginia to establish a high

school debate league. Other

states followed suite with

their own leagues. Today,

upwards of 250,000 youth,

mostly in high school,



in such leagues. These

leagues boast a variety of

debate formats. Moreover,

hundreds of Model Con-

gress and Model UN clubs

have emerged. And, in step

with the resurgence in mil-

itary reenactments in the

1960s, Model UN even add-

ed a “historical division.”

Simulations range from

the very latest crisis to the

Athenian Assembly during

the Peloponnesian War.

The simulation and de-

bate circuit of late has, on

the one hand, done much

good. Consider what is be-

ing learnt.

Participants have dis-

covered that fact is better

than conjecture, and that

there is more than one

side to an issue. Others

may also experience how a

bill is moved through Con-

gress, or how resolutions

are crafted in a particular

international body, or how

the outcome of a historical

crisis could have been dif-


Consider the raw num-

bers of participants in pol-

icy debate and similar ac-

tivities. The Romans only

involved several hundred

citizens. Early America in-

volved several thousands.

Nowadays, tens of thou-

sands participate.

For all that, the simu-

lation and debate circuit

should hardly rest on its

oars. Yes; participation has

grown. On the other hand,

only about 1% of the entire

high school population and

even fewer middle school

students are involved.

Practically no college stu-

dents participate, whereas

they were the mainstay in

early America.

Also, the question will

arise: Is enough being done

on the substantive side

of debate? Here is what

I sense. Classical critical

thinking and oratory is

regrettably generally not

taught. Debate topics and

resolutions, as a whole,

leave something to be de-

sired. Original sources

are generally not utilized.

There is an overreliance

on secondary sources, es-

pecially on the think tanks.

The think tanks, for all

their learning, are often

selective in the use of the


Still, government simu-

lation and policy debate

has come a long, long way

since the Roman suatoria.

Our version today is theo-

retically accessible to every

American youth. It is un-

questionably more benefi-

cial, creative and fun. May

more get involved in it, and

may we draw a bit more

from the approach of early

American debate. Then we

really will have something!

Editor’s Note--Dr Joseph

Arminio is Dean Of Faculty

at Statesman Debate Insti-

tute. The Institute, which

assists grades 4 to 12, col-

lege and adults, takes after

the Debate Societies of early

America. It offers classical

instruction and addresses

current policy and pivotal

history. Upcoming are its

Lincoln War Cabinet Simu-

lations. Follow the Institute