A freshly printed piece of writing landed on the desk in front of me. It was an extract from one of the most significant philosophical works of the nineteenth century, On Liberty by John Stuart Mill. The task was clear: to identify the author’s main claim. I had never heard of someone called John Stuart Mill, lacked any knowledge on how to read philosophical essays, and I scarcely understood a word of English. I copied my classmate’s solution. The coach told me well done. This was my first-ever debate training.
Once I met this same man later in the day, I admitted hesitantly that I did not understand a word of the article. My core value was honesty - although I did not yet know what the word value meant - and he swore he would not laugh, after all. Instead, he spent over two hours analysing Mill’s sentences with me. This was nothing I would ever get to do back at home.
I came from a small mountain town – a place where even the best available schools were far from innovative. Only the rich could access better education elsewhere, if they cared. Otherwise, few teachers found passion in their job; few students cared about learning. We were taught not to be curious, and even if we asked, we rarely got any more information than what was written in the long-outdated communist-era textbooks. The competition among my peers was poor and becoming academically strong required little effort.
As I came to my new high school, a new city, my new friends dragged me to the debate club. This memorable session punched me hard back then. Suddenly, I had to expend energy to gain satisfactory results. I could have stopped attending the sessions, for this hit was truly hard, but something strong I could not name told me not to. I have stayed at school after classes every Monday since.
My vocabulary expanded by a lot of SAT words, and I learnt to get my points over, but debate mainly taught me to listen. Not only to hear and copy down notes of what the older wiser man had to say on Morality, but rather to hear it out and ask all the questions in the world to understand what the older wiser man meant completely. Debate reminded me of my long-dead curiosity which I might lose irreversibly, otherwise. At the opening tournament, soon after my first encounter with Mill’s writing, I came across this mysterious girl - a university debater. She reminded me of the article I nearly gave up on. Nearly. ‘I was convinced that no sane teenager would get back to the writing in their free time,’ she said, ‘so I made a bet with your coach. You won it for him.’ I did not yet know I was talking to the smartest girl I have ever met.
This brief chat led to tens-, hundreds-word-long conversations in the evening. When both school and debate were over, I would attempt to answer all the philosophical questions she generated, night by night, not minding tiredness in the morning. No matter how profound an answer I thought I created, she always forced me to define, clarify, compare... and make use of every single word I wrote. What kept me awake all nights with her was the exact same thing which would pull me back to the club every Monday: intellectual challenge.
Debate taught me to listen, and it gave me people to listen to. My friend would take me out with her clubmates, and I would notice very quickly that all of them were smarter than me. Not only I was no longer the genius one, but I happened to be the least educated group member. They would often poke fun of my weaknesses, but they would all also tell me what books to read if I wished to keep up with them next time. It is because debaters in my country are people who care. This still-growing community seeks truth and inspires those with long-gone interest. They sacrifice their time to educate every single curious student, answer questions and make sure that thinking and learning are not only for the rich. Debaters are those who care about where this society is going and work hard to shape it towards the better. They became providers of quality education that no one made a business of.
The standard of accessible education in Slovakia is alarmingly low. The most threatening thing about a failed educational system is that the worst-impacted sufferers cannot tell - neither could I. Up until when I wandered into the debate club and got introduced to other schools of thoughts to compare my previous experience to. This collapsed system left a lot of wounds on my knowledge, and debate would, instead of deepening them, put a plaster on most. Healing will yet take heaps of time, but there are people, debaters, to lend me a hand if I find difficulties walking. Debate made a change in my education, and the change happened without me paying it a notice. Some of my fellow debaters will once become fantastic lawmakers, and there are some I would even consider voting for.
I have a lot of items on my to-learn list myself: I struggle to visualise rebutting schemes and I am still not a good enough debater to win an argument with my mom. Yet I might complete a university degree as the first one in the family. I want to come back as an educator for I know how much my country needs them: to rekindle the youth’s curiosity, to make them think, to leave a footprint in my students’ hearts, just like the one that debate left in mine. And it all started in a classroom of high school debaters, with an article by John Stuart Mill which no one understood. With a bet which won me a new perspective on who I am, and who I want to be.
Nikola Datkova is from Slovakia and she is the winner of the International Essay Contest “Debate changed my life” in the High School Category. Nikola was awarded in the European Parliament by MEP Brando Benifei during the Roundtable "From debate education towards youth engagement".
The International Essay Contest “Debate changed my life” was an activity within the framework of IDEA NL’s “Debate changes your life” campaign co-founded by Europe for Citizens Programme of the European Union.