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News & Events for the Smith College Community
Research & Inquiry December 18, 2017

A Debate That Began With a Hat

Closeup of assorted playing cards

It all began with a sorting hat.

As the students from Prof. Jim Henle’s and Prof. Jay Garfield’s Logic 100 class entered Campus Center 103 on a recent Wednesday night, they reached into a witch’s hat to draw out a playing card.

Students who’d drawn hearts and diamonds sat on one side of the room, facing those who’d drawn spades and clubs on the other.

And then opinions were formed—or, maybe more accurately, they were assigned.

“The United States government should provide healthcare for all,” said Henle, facilitator for the night. “Red team, you’re in favor.” There were expressions of glee and sighs of relief. “Black team, you’re opposed.” The response was more muted.

Each team huddled briefly to develop a strategy and compose arguments. And then the debate began.

“Universal health care is a basic human right,” the red team began forcefully. “Providing healthcare for all would put us on a par with other countries in the world. And it would decrease corruption in the Senate and the House by limiting the role of lobbyists and big pharmaceutical companies.”

After a quick huddle, the opposing team responded. “Limited health care doesn’t necessarily mean corruption,” one student noted. “Market competition will lead to lower prices,” another asserted. “Managed health care allows the U.S. to lead in developing pharmaceuticals for the rest of the world,” a third student said.

And so it continued. Assertions were made. (“To say that health care is about prevention of pain is a very limited view. Healthcare is so much more nuanced than that.”) Participation was high—every student spoke at least once. Facts were put forward (yes, screens are allowed). The format was loose (“I think that was a rebuttal to our rebuttal, not a counterargument”), but ideas were delivered with spirited confidence—even if the speaker didn’t necessarily believe what she was saying.

In the end, there was no declared winner, but members of both teams left feeling exhilarated—and, they said, better prepared to debate polarizing ideas like this in “the real world.”

“The debate opens your head up,” one student said. “I was assigned to the opinion I believed in, but hearing the opposing arguments made me more aware of the nuanced reasoning behind them.”

“It gave me a stronger sense of empathy,” another student noted. “It’s important not only to understand the opposing point of view, but also to be able to really know where it’s coming from, and to be able to debate it calmly.”

Henle—who organized the hat debates—said, “It’s logic outreach. We’re promoting the joy of arguing.”

In an era when argument often isn’t enjoyable, the approach was a welcome relief.