Wednesday 21 Nov 2018
Former ESU debater Ian MacMullen is now an associate professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis. Winner of the Schools’ Mace competition in 1993, Ian then represented England in the World Schools Debating Championships.
Which ESU programmes did you participate in?
I was at a comprehensive school in the north of England and had been involved in debating for just a year before I won the Schools’ Mace competition. I was then selected for Team England for the World Schools Debating Championships, which I loved – despite the fact that in previous years the competition had taken place in Australia and New Zealand and in my year it was hosted in exotic Cardiff! Nonetheless it was really exciting – a festival of international debating where I met really smart, interesting and articulate young people from all over the world. I was thrilled when three years later I was asked if I would be a judge for the English delegation to the championships. I spent many years judging, which allowed me to travel to places such as Johannesburg, Lima and Singapore. I was also selected for the US Debate tour, a 10-week-long tour that the ESU organises for two British debaters in the United States.
Has debating helped you to progress in your career?
Debating has been absolutely central to my intellectual development and my career trajectory. I’m an academic political theorist: I research and teach political theory and philosophy, and that has a lot in common with parliamentary-style debating. The core skills of debate such as thinking through the principles underlying topics, structuring arguments, engaging with counter-arguments and speaking in a clear, persuasive way are the skills that I still depend upon today.
Tell us about the ESU US Debate Tour.
The ESU US Debate Tour was probably the most memorable 10 weeks of my life. We went to 33 different universities in that time – it was a whirlwind. Going to small college towns in places such as Alabama, Georgia and Iowa is a much deeper and richer experience than going to Manhattan or Los Angeles - the obvious ports of call for many English people visiting the States. I met a huge variety of students on the tour and it was a fascinating time to be there because the mid-term elections, at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, were taking place. As a result I came to understand America in ways that would otherwise have been hard to achieve.
What was it about the US that made you stay and pursue your career there?
I was actually offered a place at Harvard at the same time as the debate tour. I decided that Harvard could probably wait but the ESU tour would not, so I turned down Harvard. The tour made me realise I would definitely like living in the States, and I was fortunate - my gamble paid off, and I was able to go to Harvard the following year. I didn’t originally intend to spend more than a year there but one thing led to another, I joined the PhD programme and then not long after that I met the woman who is now my wife so I was really locked in.
Tell us about your career and what you have done since the tour
My career has been working as an academic political theorist. I did a PhD in political science at Harvard and my dissertation became my first book, which is called Faith in Schools and is about the relationship between government and religious schools. My first academic job was as an assistant professor at Washington University in St Louis, and I worked there for nine years. During that time I wrote my second book, Civics Beyond Critics, which is about the role of character education in preparing young people for citizenship in a democracy. I am currently a visiting professor at Duke University in North Carolina.
How important do you think it is for young people to learn how to speak well at school?
I think that learning to speak well, confidently and persuasively is essential. I think it’s hard to escape that conclusion if you reflect on how the world works. Lots of opportunities, lots of moments of persuasion, are entirely dependent on being able to communicate in a compelling way orally.
What advice would you give to young people who haven’t tried debating before?
I think it’s really helpful to start early if you can, trying to develop the basic techniques of being a compelling speaker, the ability to think on your feet and listen carefully. It is important to learn how to speak to a room of people, how to make eye contact, how to pause for effect and not be boring. Once you have built that foundation of skills you start to build the interaction with critical thinking and critical listening. That is the hallmark of debating.
Why do you think debating is important?
The most important thing about debating is the ability to appreciate both sides of an issue, to see the strengths on both sides of an argument. I think that certainly in the US and the UK politics is becoming ever more polarised. It is increasingly hard for people to understand the points of view of those with whom they disagree. The discipline of debating is that one should be able to offer a reason and that reason should withstand scrutiny and counter-arguments from an opposition. Norms of good democratic politics are very much in need of reinforcement, now more than ever.