Michael HepburnEducation Network Officer

How debating is getting gun reform on the table

Monday 26 Feb 2018

The aftermath of the Parkland shooting is proof positive of the difference debating skills make

The recent mass shooting in Florida that left 17 teenagers dead and many injured was expected to follow a familiar pattern. Shock, upset, thoughts and prayers, someone suggests we talk about preventing this from happening again, the right-wing claim this isn’t the time to talk about politics and we stop talking about it. Turns out that those of us that anticipated that may have been wildly wrong. The #neveragain movement is gaining traction across the US, bolstered by international encouragement and late-night talk shows. It appears to be almost entirely student-led, with teenagers giving speeches, appearing on the news, participating in debates and organising national walkouts in protest at America’s gun laws. Already Trump has said he is open to a ban on bump stocks. This seems like a tiny, tokenistic gesture – and it is – but even minute gun reform has been off the table for years.

Previous outrages at gun violence have fallen flat in the face of the power and influence of the fanatical gun lobby that dominates US politics. However, something feels different this time. The teenagers who are frequently appearing on national media outlets are upset, angry and motivated. Just as importantly, they are eloquent, articulate and armed with facts. The town hall debate with Florida Senator and presidential candidate Marco Rubio showcased the ability of these young people to ask the right questions of their leaders and do so in a respectful yet determined manner – something the US media and electorate have failed at for decades. The discussion now is firmly centred on whether we should arm teachers or limit guns. Small steps perhaps, but it’s been less than two weeks since the shooting and small steps are more than we’ve had in the last four dozen mass shootings.

Giving students a voice

Even if nothing changes because of the courageous refusal of Parkland’s students to sit and be told what to do, the fact that they felt empowered to speak out is significant. We have a system that rarely teaches kids how to deal with their emotions but ensures they memorise obscure historical dates, so they can regurgitate facts in a timed exam. We have a system that prioritises essays and book reports despite the reality that the majority of important communication in our lives is clearly verbal. We have a system that tells kids what to think rather than asking them what they think. Debate clubs, classroom discussions and oracy workshops in schools seek to counter this and improve existing systems. Organisations like the ESU exist to embed oracy into our classrooms. We want students from a young age to feel like what they have to say matters, but also to give them the tools to present their thoughts in a clear and persuasive manner so that their peers and adults sit up and listen.

Importantly, Parkland’s students have been the beneficiaries of such programmes. Broward County, where Parkland school is situated, has a district-wide debate programme. Every high school, every middle school and over two dozen primary schools there have some sort of debate programme. Parkland has around 150 students who take part in theirs, the clear majority of whom have competed in competitions. It’s one of the largest debate programmes in the US. The students that we now see on TV talking about gun control were quite literally debating this issue in class last year.

Speaking up for change

Debating is fun for a lot of kids. They get a chance to express themselves and argue, they are listened to – sometimes a very rare occurrence for children –and their opinions respected. They get to hear different points of view and must sometimes argue an opinion they don’t hold, which forces them to see things from another perspective. Debating also equips them with the practice and skills to speak out when it matters. Students who are naturally shy or unable to express themselves cannot air matters that are bothering them or articulate what they want to change. Students who have never been listened to are less likely to demand that their opinions, feelings and experience be considered by their elders. In the case of Parkland, the students were able to react to one of the worst experiences imaginable not with despair, but with action.

It remains my belief that there are few things more important than the work organisations like the ESU do. The next generation is already facing a multitude of serious issues: suicide is the leading cause of death for men my age; we are killing our planet while we kill ourselves with fast food, opioids and alcohol; the next generation stand almost no chance of owning a home and experience an incredibly difficult life at high school; and, as #metoo showed us only too clearly, sexual assault is omnipresent.

I do not know what could be more important than sending children the message that what they have to say is of value, while giving them the tools to stand up for what they believe in. I want to listen to the opinions of the students of Parkland Florida. I want them to feel like they can speak out.


Image above taken from CNN video footage: https://edition.cnn.com/2018/02/17/us/florida-student-emma-gonzalez-speech/index.html