The views expressed in articles written by guest authors are the authors’ alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Stoa or the Stoa Alumni Committee.
I occasionally found myself missing debate last year, after graduating high school. Though I enjoyed my time as a college freshman, I toyed with the idea of starting a collegiate debate club with a fellow Stoa alumna to continue my previous competition experience. But while I stoked my nostalgia and daydreamed, I stumbled across a fourteenth-century letter that made me rethink my attitude towards debate.
Petrarch, a scholar and poet from Italy, wrote “against old dialectic cavilers”—somebody who “cavils” argues pettily, sometimes just for the sake of arguing. In his letter, Petrarch argued that, despite debate’s merits, we should not make debate the goal. He perceived debate’s potential not as an end but as a tool which “sharpens the intellect, marks off the path toward truth, and teaches how to avoid fallacies.” Most Stoa alumni could name similar advantages they gained from debate. I certainly benefited academically from my forensics experience. When I write an essay for a college class, I use the argumentation skills I developed through debate and frequently rely on the research abilities I honed from brief-building.
Petrarch goes on to qualify his praise of debate. He says that “there is nothing so ugly as an old man who is a dialectic debater.” That is, despite the usefulness of debate as an educational tool, it belongs properly to a certain age, a certain stage of life. Particularly, debate best belongs to adolescence—when we most actively prepare for adulthood.
Yes, debate promotes skills essential to modern Christians: we have a calling to defend Jesus, Truth Incarnate, which makes the ability to argue well of the highest importance. Competitive debate is artificial though. Topics are pre-determined, judges often share your worldview already, and arguments frequently stray into the abstract and theoretical. Artificiality can aid training but, at a certain point, we are called to use the skills we have developed—rather than just develop them unendingly. We need not cavil.
To quote Petrarch again: “where we pass with honor, we do not stay with praise.” As alumni of Stoa, we should view competitive debate as a stepping stone that lies behind us. We need to use the persuasive and rhetorical abilities that we developed through debate practically—in real-life situations. For instance, I recently canvassed for a pro-life organization, the Susan B. Anthony List, and asked undecided voters questions that I could not have phrased correctly without my cross-examination experience. Looking back, I have no doubt this opportunity was far better for me than returning to debate would have been.
Though a person might have good reason to extend their time in debate (perhaps to become a trial lawyer), I think we should leave competitive debate to high school-aged students. Even lawyers don’t debate for debate’s own sake but practice a profession. For this reason, I urge my fellow alumni, when returning to a tournament or coaching young debaters, to do so for their benefit and training—not to simply re-live the “gotcha” moments of your glory days. As Christian adults, we ought to give up “childish ways,” as St. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13:11. Our training was a blessing but, in response to that gift, we now have an adult responsibility. We ought to grow up and move out of that which we find comfortable. We must not remain hidden away in competition rooms; we must take hold of our calling to speak boldly in real life.
The Renaissance Philosophy of Man. Edited by Ernst Cassirer, Paul Oskar Kristeller, and John Herman Randall, Jr. The University of Chicago Press. 1984. “A Disapproval of an Unreasonable Use of the Discipline of Dialectic.” Francesco Petrarca.
Though thoroughly acclimated to the warm weather of her home state of Texas, Theresa Ramsay is currently facing much different temperatures at Wyoming Catholic College. At her school, she is a sophomore, president of the politics club, and the prose editor for a student-run literary journal (the Pigeonhole). She competed in speech and debate for a total of six years and, in Stoa, her favorite events were Apologetics, Team Policy, and Parliamentary Debate. She has had previous work published in the Pigeonhole and by the Foundation for Economic Education.
An Instrument of God
By Samuel Durand
“Soli Deo Gloria.” “Jesu Juva.”
Translated from Latin, these two statements read, “Glory to God alone,” and “Jesus, help.”
Johann Sebastian Bach, the monolithic Baroque keyboardist and composer, would often start and finish his pieces with the initials for these short sentences. Scribbling the letters “JJ” at the beginning and writing “SDG” at the end of the piece indicated his focus on God as he composed. He wrote music with the help of Jesus and for God’s glory alone.
I am a professional pianist, and the music of J.S. Bach forms a cornerstone of the repertoire musicians study and perform. Researching composers and music history is part of our discipline, and I often find myself in deep admiration of the example that Bach set for all of us.
A devout Lutheran, Bach established himself as a foundational figure in the history of music. Recognized as a master of technique, he played a large role in developing the modern method of fingering that we pianists and organists still use today. During his lifetime, he composed over one thousand pieces. Musicians today still stand in awe of his music and marvel at its ingenuity, beauty, and difficulty.
But what makes Bach so special to many is his deep commitment to his faith. Bach’s relationship with God appears in his music in many places. One of the most tangible indications stems from his lifelong habit of always ending his pieces in the major. Pieces in minor keys beautifully captivate your feelings and create despair and hopelessness, while major keys liberate you and triumphantly declare you redeemed. Even Bach’s most remorseful pieces end in a major chord, demonstrating his hope in salvation through Jesus Christ and his belief in life after death. Hearing our Christian theology in the music reminds me of the shared hope that we have and truly comforts me.
As a pianist, I both incredibly enjoy and intensely hate playing Bach’s music. It is so difficult to play! When I practice Bach’s music, I must be totally engaged – musically, mentally, and emotionally, which tires and challenges me. When I do not make the effort to completely focus, the music loses its life and becomes a waste of my time. The members of the audience do not care about just the notes. They desire and deserve the story behind the piece, and unless you throw all your energy into bringing the piece to life, it will feel dead. But, interestingly, when I engage in Bach’s music, I feel more connected to his music than to that of any other composer. The technical and musical challenges combined with the emotions inherent in his music make successful performances incredibly satisfying.
This is not an accident. Bach’s theological beliefs manifest themselves in the character and flow of his pieces. Many of his preludes take the form of a prayer put into sound as he takes us on a journey of repentance and sorrow. We can imagine Bach describing with music the feelings that we all have when confessing our sins.
I am a new Stoa alumnus, and I am currently studying at the Longy School of Music with Lithuanian pianist Andrius Zlabys. Although intensely focusing on music is good and necessary for music schools, most of them do not acknowledge the creator behind the music. Even though learning the music of Bach remains an important part of my musical training, the most valuable thing I see in Bach’s life is the fact that no matter what our vocation is, we should call on Jesus for help and seek to glorify God in all we do. Continually searching our lives and ensuring that we are committed to doing God’s will helps us to become more focused, satisfied, humble, and secure. I do not have to worry about the mistakes I make while performing (which inevitably happen), as I do not play for my glory, but, rather, I play to glorify God through his creation of music. Taking the spotlight off of me and putting it on our God has been a long journey that is still continuing, but it is absolutely worth the time and effort.
Whose ‘initials’ are on your work? I challenge myself and all of my fellow Stoa alumni to consider the ways that we can publicly witness and testify for God in the sphere He has given us. We do not have to ‘initialize’ everything we make, write, or create; but, we should follow Bach’s example in asking God for help and glorifying Him alone. When we turn our focus on God, it takes the stress out of our lives. It gives us purpose behind what we do, and, most importantly, we begin to fulfill the task that God created us for.
We were created to glorify God. God is the one who guides and strengthens us. We should give any credit we receive to Him. May our vocations and our lives be His instruments. As Bach would say to us, in summary:
“In nomine Jesu.”
Born and raised in central Arkansas, Samuel Durand studied piano from a young age at the Searcy Community School of Music under Dr. Scott Carrell. A recent Stoa graduate, Samuel was a member of SOAR, and qualified for NITOC in Original Oratory, Apologetics, and Demonstration. He enjoys playing in all styles of music but is especially drawn to that of the Baroque and French Impressionist periods. He is currently studying with Lithuanian pianist Andrius Zlabys at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In addition to playing the piano, Samuel conducts and composes music.
The Value of Simply Trying
by Laura Williamson
“If they’re not going to win, maybe they shouldn’t compete.”I heard this statement from the father of one of my students who was struggling to perform at tournaments. I know he meant well, but I believe the father’s mindset betrayed a lack of understanding regarding the educational value of speech and debate. Unfortunately, I encounter this mindset frequently in parents and alumni coaches.
A young man I knew competed for five years but never walked on stage for any event until the last three tournaments of his senior year of high school. Several of my students competed in debate from the ages of 12 to 17 before they advanced past preliminary rounds. Although I won a few trophies, I was not a “natural talent” at speech and debate. I lacked the required charismatic personality and confidence, and it took four years of tournaments for me to achieve competitive success.
Should students like me stop competing because they are not winning trophies? Absolutely not.
Persevering in spite of failure is important. Just ask Thomas Edison. He went through a thousand versions of the light bulb before he was able to produce one that worked. Even if students never have their proverbial “light bulb moment” of competitive success, they will still learn critical skills simply because of their participation.
Some of the most important lessons my students learn are about dressing professionally, getting their facts straight, and presenting themselves like composed adults—even if they are sick, sleep-deprived, or upset. Learning these lessons does not mean that my students will win trophies, but they will have an education that even college graduates may lack.
When I participated in a debate at an Ivy League university, I saw elite, college-aged students show up with their suit pants tucked into their socks (no, I am not kidding.) Many wore mismatched outfits that looked less professional than anything I have ever seen students wear to a Stoa tournament. Most of the debaters argued claims that were supported by few—if any—facts. More than one gave stammering speeches because of their nerves.
Even if a Stoa competitor never wins a trophy, they will leave our forensic league with better developed professional skills than what I observed at college tournaments. Even as high school students, they are more workplace-ready than some of their college counterparts.
Trophies are nice but have no intrinsic value. Many alumni have to throw their medals and trophies away when they move as adults. However, the grit of perseverance and the life skills that students learn from competing in speech and debate are of incalculable and enduring value.
As I write, I think of Proverbs 21:3 “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord.” We can prepare ourselves to win but whether we win is not up to us.
Students cannot compete in Stoa without having meaningful learning experiences that will distinguish them from their peers. Merely trying is invaluable, no matter what happens. The acts of trying to wear a professional-looking suit, trying to provide proof to support one’s claims, and trying to speak clearly build positive habits that last forever.
There is educational value in participation for its own sake because we will always finish better than we began. Do not worry if your child or student never wins a trophy; worry if they quit.
Laura Williamson is a born-and-raised Coloradoan. She is a rising senior finishing a degree in Business Administration with minors in Pre-Law and Accounting. Laura competed in Stoa for seven years and has continued to coach a variety of events since graduation. Throughout her time in college she has continued to pursue her passion for forensics by participating in collegiate debate and moot court.
An Alumni Response to NITOC Cancellation
As you are likely aware, the Stoa Board recently made the difficult decision to cancel NITOC 2020. I know that this decision required many hours of meeting, deliberation, and prayer. I’m grateful for the Board’s commitment to taking the best course of action, no matter how hard. I’m grateful to the members of Stoa, for their support of the Board and its decision.
I can tell you that tears were shed in my home after the announcement. My heart hurts for competitors, especially seniors. As C.S. Lewis would remind us, no one is ever told what might have been. As a coach and an alumna, I consider what my response should be to this situation.
This is a good time to pause and reflect on why I wanted my students to compete in the first place. Was it to get to NITOC? It’s fine to chase checkmarks. It’s fine to want to win. But if my heart sinks when I hear that NITOC is cancelled because I’ve made one tournament the end-all-be-all, then something isn’t fine.
My satisfaction cannot be based on my team’s ranking at one tournament. I cannot encourage my students to wrap up their hopes and dreams in one performance. If I teach my students that NITOC is the ultimate purpose of their competitive endeavors, I’m robbing them of a large part of their forensic education. I’m teaching them to store their treasure, and thus their hearts, in things that will pass away. Don’t get me wrong — I love NITOC! I remember the thrill of competing. I remember the friends and the special moments. But my point is this — There’s more to Stoa than NITOC.
Stoa equips students to speak boldly and change the world for Christ. Stoa develops and rewards excellence in speaking and debating. Stoa glorifies God. These are the purposes of our competition, of our tournaments. This is the point of NITOC.
This emphasis on excellence — that’s what I need to focus on at this time. I need to teach my students to develop their critical thinking skills, delivery skills, speaking skills, and research skills if for no other reason than that they need these skills for the real world. When I rank lifelong and life-changing skills lower on my list of priorities than one performance, I need a gut-check. I need to ask for a paradigm shift and a divine re-ordering of my priorities. I need to spend time on my knees in prayer.
My response to this situation needs to be refocusing my goals on excellence and glorifying God. In my coaching, in my academic studies, in my professional endeavors, why am I pursuing the things that I am pursuing? In this time of pause, let’s pray that we will pursue the right things for the right purposes.