[Viewpoint] Learning there’s no right answer

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[Viewpoint] Learning there’s no right answer

Recently I attended a college debate contest as a judge. It was a great experience for me to listen to young students making arguments and trying to convince the other team. After the competition, I also attended the after-party with the participants and organizers.

But I am going to write about my own experience there, not about that of the lawmaker who is under severe criticism for having made inappropriate comments at an after-party with other contestants. And I was actually listening to the debate, not looking at the contestants’ faces.

Last week, the quarterfinal round of the College Debate Battle was held. It was a special summer event organized by Baek Ji-yeon’s Extreme Debate on cable channel tvN. On that day, Pusan National University battled it out with Chonbuk National University, and Myongji University faced off against Ewha Womans University.

The topics were “21st Century Foreign Policy: the United States or China” and “Are the Rich Sinners?” Although the contest was just like any other debate competition, where two teams argued the pros and cons of one topic, this one was especially noteworthy since they actually chose topics that have strong supporters and opponents. The battle was very much like a game of soccer, 40 minutes given to the first and second halves with 15 minutes at halftime for strategic planning.

First of all, the two topics, which cut to key philosophical differences on foreign and domestic policy, were issues that were not going to yield 100 percent approval or disapproval. In the first debate, the college students fought fiercely with arguments based on the circumstances on the Korean Peninsula and in the region, as well as trade and historical experiences.

In the next, participants argued the pros and cons by citing the course of wealth accumulation and social responsibility in the world. A student discussed the historical development scheme of communism but had to reverse his argument after contradicting his own logic.

But even he provided a refreshing moment in the debate. After the debate, the judges chose the winner, and a few students on the defeated team were in tears. I thought about what I would have done if I had participated in the debate as a member of the team. Frankly, I am not so confident that I would make a good debater.

Just like any member of the older generation, I hardly received any formal education in debate. Even in my career, I rarely have had a chance to make arguments.

When I was young, children would quarrel and end up shouting or screaming absurdly when we didn’t know what to say. Some kids would just end the wordy conflict with their fists. Even if we thought what the adults instructed us to do was unreasonable, we were expected to be obedient. A good student was supposed to “relive the brilliant teachings of the ancestors.”

At the time, a television program called “Scholarship Quiz” became very popular. (Now that I think of it, the controversial lawmaker Kang Yong-seok was also a contestant on the show.) Scholarship Quiz was a show for high school students, testing only their knowledge by asking for bits of information on a wide variety of topics.

So you did not need profound insight or communication skills to be successful on this quiz show. The winner was chosen simply based on how many right answers one could produce on multiple choice and short answer questions. There was never a question asked that did not have one clear answer.

In real life, you encounter far more questions that have no solution. Those of us from the “quiz generation” found out only after we entered society that the world is not just made up of right and wrong answers and that there are so many things that one short answer cannot explain.

We cannot let the younger generation and today’s college students be so unprepared. We need to give them chances to learn how to tackle questions with no correct answer or with many answers, how to think by themselves and how to persuade others with logical arguments.

Being willing to be persuaded by other people’s good arguments is another important intellectual ability, as crucial as persuasion. On the international stage, the ability to find middle ground in a confrontation and reach a great compromise is especially celebrated. And the college debate contest is a perfect occasion to enhance the ability.

I asked philosopher Tak Seok-san, a fellow judge at the competition, his impression. “Today’s college students have ample potential,” he said. “But the problem is that they still use the antiquated debate technique of just offering what they prepared.”

I couldn’t agree more. We need more debate events for college students to train them. Hopefully, the young “debate generation” will be able to be reasonable leaders of this polarized country.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Noh Jae-hyun
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