“If it wasn’t for debate, there’s no way I’d be where I am,” says Assistant Professor of Philosophy Eric Barnes, coach and adviser to the HWS debate team. It’s no surprise he feels so strongly about debate, given that for the past eight years he has led the Colleges’ team on a meteoric rise from a small group of interested students to U.S. National Champions of Worlds-style debate. At the same time, he cultivated the Round Robin Invitational at HWS, an annual tournament at the Colleges that draws many of the best debaters in the world. In this, its seventh consecutive year, the Round Robin will feature as keynote Lawrence H. Summers, Charles W. Eliot University Professor and President Emeritus at Harvard University.
Part of Barnes’ passion stems from growing up amidst the culture of debate; his older brother was already competing on his high school debate team by the time Barnes was in elementary school.
“I saw the culture, the friendships formed and I was already interested in pursuing it myself by the time I entered high school,” he says.
There were no collegiate teams when he moved on to college and graduate school, so Barnes stayed involved with high school level debate as a judge and coach and authored a book on the subject, “Philosophy in Practice: Understanding Value Debate.” When he took a position in the philosophy department at Mount Holyoke College, there was a team without a coach and the fact that Barnes had written the book automatically nominated him for the position.
When he joined the faculty at HWS, President Mark D. Gearan met with him and expressed an interest in creating a competitive academic debate team.
Barnes recalls that meeting. “I told President Gearan I wanted to take it slow and easy, to make sure the kids were ready to go before competing,” he says. “I was surprised by and impressed with how quickly they were ready to go.”
The team that first year was small- just a handful of students, some of whom had experience with debate in high school. Among them were Sandra Maroska ’06 and Will Cox ’06, who surprised everyone when they won the novice division at the Mount Holyoke Tournament, earning a chance to go to the World University Debate Championships.
Barnes took Maroska and Cox to Dublin, Ireland, for the World University Debate Championships with the goal of simply experiencing the single-most renowned debate tournament. However, they did much better than expected. “I remember we’d beaten all the Colgate teams and a majority of the other American teams,” says Cox. “Having had such a rough time at our very first competition, which was at Colgate, this felt like ‘Yeah, we’re HWS. Remember it.'”
Maroska and Cox also made some great friends from oversees and it was an Irish competitor who first mentioned -rather offhandedly-that the Colleges should host a tournament.
“It got me seriously thinking,” says Barnes. But it was too soon to put such a competition together for the spring of 2006. “We didn’t have enough debate history or clout yet.”
In 2007, students were eager to host a tournament and Jillian LaCroix ’08 suggested differentiating HWS’ tournament by taking advantage of the Colleges’ unique location in the Finger Lakes. She noted lakefront accommodations, great food and a $1,000 cash prize would attract competitors – and she was right. Highly competitive teams registered and Barnes and his team managed to host a small tournament.
“We showed we were very good at hosting such a tournament. We set a precedent,” explains Barnes. It was the inauguration they needed.
Soon after, a partnership was formed with the International Debate Education Association (IDEA) to co-sponsor the annual Round Robin Invitational at HWS.
“Having IDEA join us added legitimacy to the event early on,” explains Barnes. “All the while, the team was growing and getting better. The tournament and the team fed each other and it snowballed in a positive way.”
This marks the eighth year the HWS Debate Team competed in the World Championships; Amira Abdulkadir ’14 and Anna Dorman ’14 were one point shy of the 18 needed to make it to the elimination series in Berlin, Germany. At last year’s World University Debate Championship in Manila, Gerald “Buzz” Klinger ‘ 12 and William McConnell ’12 ranked 21st in the world.
“When I opened up the Pulteney Street Survey and saw that HWS got that level in Worlds, I knew how hard it must have been competing against Cambridge, Oxford, Yale, Middlebury, Dartmouth,” says Cox. “The success of the HWS Debate Team proves the Colleges’ academic merit more than anything else.”
It is the academic benefit that most attracts Barnes to debate. Within the philosophy department his focus is on applied philosophy, such as ethics, medical ethics, political theory and game theory. He knows the experience of preparing for and competing in debate helps students learn.
“We all want our students to be engaged learners because they will retain more,” he explains. “There is nothing more engaging than the competitive academic environment. Even if you lose the competition, you can remember the argument and rethink what you could have or should have said.”
Locally, Barnes and the HWS Debate Team recently began working with students in Geneva’s elementary and middle schools to provide them with this valuable tool. The Colleges also are now part of a small group of American colleges and universities that have embarked on a three-year project to radically expand the amount of debating in both English and Chinese in China.
“Saying something concisely in a high pressure situation, because you’re on the spot, is such a powerful thing to be able to do,” says Barnes.