Tom BensonDo you love a good debate? Do you want to learn from some of the world’s leading authorities on critical issues facing our society today? We created a groundbreaking new program on the campus of Cornell University to do just that.

Road Scholar’s JoAnn Bell interviewed Tom Benson, the founding President of the International Association for Senior Debate and the co-creator of this innovative Road Scholar adventure, so you can find out more.  


JoAnn Bell: Tell us a little about yourself. How did you become a debate expert and coach?

Tom Benson: I was a debater in high school and college, and as a graduate student, I assisted with the debate program at Harvard. As a professor of philosophy for many years, I stressed the importance of thinking about important issues from all sides and constructing arguments with special care for sound reasoning — two of the most important elements in effective debating.

J.B.: What do you love about debate?

T.B.: I love the fun and surprise factors in debate. Who knows what the other team will be saying about the debate topic? How will we respond? I also love the experience of meeting new people in a lively back-and-forth discussion (a debate) concerning a genuinely controversial topic, where there are important reasons to take either side of the issue.


J.B.: At this moment in our society, is learning to debate especially relevant?

T.B.: I can think of few activities more relevant and potentially therapeutic at a time when our country is dangerously divided by social and political disagreements. Debate is, first and foremost, about listening to the other side carefully and with respect, and exchanging views with an emphasis on reasoning rather than ranting. In debate, you may be required to make the best case for a position that runs counter to your long-held convictions. This can be an eye-opening experience, one that may not change your views, but that may well give you a new and healthy respect for the “opposition.”


J.B.: What inspired the creation of this Road Scholar program? What are the secrets to becoming a good debater?

T.B.: Road Scholar programs are about discovery and adventure, whether the focus is travel, history or personal development. It makes little sense that opportunities for debate essentially end after college, unless you happen to be a political candidate — and it’s a stretch to call most of the political debates we witness as much more than rehearsed answers to questions from a moderator and the exchange of semi-clever quips and barbs. Three cheers for the decision of Road Scholar to create an opportunity for older Americans to learn the basics of debate and to participate in debates about highly controversial and extremely important topics! Talk about discovery, adventure, and personal development.

The Road Scholar debate program is not about becoming Lincoln or Douglass, let alone Pericles. It’s not about eloquence at the podium. Rather, it’s about finding your own voice and discovering the best reasons for affirming and denying controversial issues. A fascinating debate could be held, for example, on either of the following propositions: “The indefinite extension of human life, with health and vitality, would be a good thing,” or “Big government poses a greater threat to modern society than big business.” In the Road Scholar debate program, we communicate in a conversational tone, and we rely on the lifetime of experience that each of us has with war and peace, sickness and health, times of plenty and times of hardship, and mind boggling changes in technology and social values.

J.B.: How can learning debate skills help people in their everyday lives?

T.B.: Debate will certainly improve one’s communication skills. It will also enhance the individual’s ability to analyze arguments and to promote and defend one’s views. At the same time, it may also sharpen listening skills and stimulate a deeper understanding of positions and causes that have previously been denied a hearing.


J.B.: Have you seen someone lacking confidence in their debate skills at first, transformed through this experience to become a confident debater by the end?

T.B.: Yes, and it doesn’t take long. Debate for most older participants comes naturally. It’s not about tactical secrets and rhetorical flourishes. It’s about speaking your mind, getting your “two cents” in on important issues.

J.B.: Can you describe the options available in this program for someone who doesn’t want to participate in the debate?

T.B.: Not everyone wants to take part in a debate, but almost everyone enjoys attending a lively debate about an interesting topic. The Road Scholar debate program at Cornell will give the participants the freedom to participate in debates or to be part of the audience. In addition, there will be an opportunity to see the Cornell debate team in action and to participate in what I call “audience debates,” general discussions with Cornell faculty on major issue of values and public policy.


J.B.: Tell us about life on the Cornell campus.

T.B.: There are few campuses in America more beautiful and inspiring than Cornell’s lakeside home. In October, when we will be meeting on the campus, the fall colors will be breaking out, and we can all pretend that we are students once again, meeting new friends, enjoying stimulating discussions, and sharing new experiences.

 Learn about Road Scholar’s debate program on the campus of Cornell University this fall. Space is limited, so enroll today.


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