Public Debates

It started at the Slug and Lettuce. Well, wait. For me it started at the Slug and Lettuce, jet lagged and grinning, straining to hear all the words spoken at the table amid the joyous din of the pub. Five American students (my daughter and her friends) were letting me into their life at Oxford University this semester, and in their words I caught a glimpse of something I think we need. But let me back up a bit and tell the story more clearly.

Before I flew here to visit, I read about the history of Oxford University. As early as 1096 teaching was occurring in this place, accelerating rapidly in 1167 when King Henry II banned English students from attending the University of Paris. Tensions erupted in the 13th century between those who lived here and the students who came to study, actual fighting and killing between “town and gown”. For students’ protection, residence halls were quickly built that then evolved into the separate colleges which still make up the entirety of Oxford University today, colleges with walls around quadrangles, enclaves of safety.

I had read that, but when you are actually here and walk cobblestone streets with walls keeping you from the towering spires and stained glass that you can glimpse, you realize the separation and seclusion between everyday life and the world of academia. My bus left me at Gloucester Green about 12:40 pm on Friday, Natalie met me, and we ate and walked and I drank it all in. That evening, we walked down a dimly lit street, walls rising high on both sides. We came to a gate, and that’s when it happened–she pulled her magical Bodleian Library card from her purse, swiped it through the reader, and lo and behold the gate opened and I…middle aged, visiting pastor that I am…I was ushered in where few in the world can ever go.

For these weeks, Natalie is a member of the Oxford Union, and we were now walking through its tree-lined courtyard. As we entered the reading room, pictures spanning decades covered the walls, each one with a dozen or so lucky students sitting with visiting dignitaries. I saw Mother Teresa and Madeleine Albright, the Dalai Lama and Ronald Reagan. But then the reading room itself! Lofty heights of dark paneled bookshelves, stained glass, Arthurian legends painted high on the walls and ceiling. Exquisite.

One of the main functions of the Oxford Union is to host wide ranging debates with leading thinkers in all kinds of fields and on many diverse topics. And that pulls me back to the Slug and Lettuce late on my first night in Oxford. I realized with amazement and joy that these Azusa Pacific traveling students are taking full advantage of this privileged experience. I heard them talking about going to debates at the Union as nonchalantly as they would speak of catching a movie or a concert. They are in every sense of the word taking pleasure in learning.

If you’ve never been to a debate before, or if, like me, you were a debater yourself and didn’t really understand the concept, it goes like this. There’s a statement that’s being argued by one team, and the other team is doing their best to present facts and arguments which take it down. No middle ground, no compromise. You make a compelling case for the proposition, or the opposition shreds it apart piece by piece.

As a Belgian waffle smothered with ice cream and caramel melted in my mouth, I heard them talk about a debate on transplants of human organs. I later discovered the proposition being argued was “This House Would Legalize The Sale Of Human Organs.” Around the table, I discovered there had been a divide in opinion for these APU friends, and the banter light heartedly kicked in again.

A key feature of going to these debates is that you don’t get to stand in the middle and ride the fence. You listen, you engage, you learn, and then as you leave you must choose the “yes” door or the “no” door. You visibly vote with your exit, so you also are very aware when you and your friend come down on the opposite side of an idealogical divide. There’s no hiding.

“I’ve learned a lot at those,” Natalie told me later. “Like that one on human organs. I went in thinking that seemed like a good idea, that selling organs would provide more incentive for people to do it and it would help a lot of people. But then I heard how messed up our current volunteer donor system is with much fewer people than they would expect if money was involved. Plus I hadn’t thought about the pressure and the potential injustice of taking advantage of the poor. Listening to the debate changed my mind.”

Even with a tired and foggy mind, even having to concentrate to follow the conversation at the table, a picture came together in my mind. These friends (and hundreds of other students) are regularly listening to different viewpoints, each given by someone qualified to put their side in the best possible light. After listening, each one must make a choice. They must choose one of the doors, they must risk publicly disagreeing with people they care about. But then, without fail, the friendship picks up on the other side, and soon they are smiling and laughing across a table in England’s living room, the pub.

How we could learn.

We, with our Fox News and CNBC enclaves, with radio dials and social media tuned always to the voices we want to hear. We, who make ourselves feel better by destroying straw arguments and doing our best to avoid the thoughtful ones on the other side. We, who too often lower our eyes or even cut off relationship once we catch a whiff of a difference on whatever today’s defining issue is.

So in honor of my new friends here at Oxford, I propose this for debate: “This House Would Require Each Town in America To Create Regular Public Debates; And One Hour Of Debate Attendance Is Required For Each Hour Of Partisan Media Consumed.” I’m arguing for the proposition.

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One thought on “Public Debates

  1. Thanks for this reflection on your time in Oxford. I resonate with the point your making, and also with remembering the beauty and charm of the City of Dreaming Spires. The din of the pub, I suspect, is an essential complement to the quiet of the cloistered colleges. Glad you were able to experience it!

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