A debating society is a society that holds periodically discussions or debates on chosen subjects. A subject for debate is announced before each meeting, and speakers chosen to speak on opposite sides. One member opens the debate in support of a proposition, and another on the other side replies. They are followed by two or three speakers for and against; and the first speaker generally closes the discussion with a summing up.
Debating societies serve several useful purposes. In the first place, a good debate is not only interesting and amusing, but it also has an educative value in sharpening people’s wits and brightening their intelligence. To be a good debater, one has to learn to listen carefully, to seize an opponent’s point quickly, to be able to see the weak points in his arguments, to think rapidly of telling rejoinders, and generally to be mentally alert. As Bacon said, “Conference” (that is, debating, discussion) “maketh a ready man”. All this itself is a good education.
Debating also broadens the mind, and encourages tolerance of other people’s opinions.’ It is like reading the news- papers of the opposite political party, which is a very healthy thing to do. In a debate, one has to hear the other side, and understand it. A wise man soon learns from this that there are at least two sides to every question, and that truth has many aspects. So free discussion helps to prevent narrow-minded intolerance.
One of the chief uses of debating societies is that they are training schools for public speaking. Public speaking is an art that can be learnt only by practice. Many a good public speaker has learnt his job in private debating societies. There he has learnt by practice the art of thinking on his feet, replying to criticism, speaking impromptu, and marshalling his arguments.
There, too, he has learnt how to manage his voice and use it to the best advantage. Such practiced speakers have a great advantage over others in public life, when they become members of public committees, municipalities, conference and congresses, and legislative assemblies.
In such democratic bodies, a mastery of the art of public speaking is a great asset to a member; for democracy is really government by discussion. The parliaments and legislative assemblies of the world are really great debating societies, where the debates are not merely academic but practical, leading to definite results. The oldest and most venerable of these is the British House of Commons, “the Mother of Parliaments”, which Carlyle irreverently called “the talking shop”.