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Talking the talk when it counts the most

A debate conceived as an entertaining competition to recall the political rivalry between founding fathers Hamilton and Jefferson did that and much more, according to the participants and an alumnus who was there to witness the war of words.

A trio of Hamilton College debaters — Joshua Agins '07, Scott Iseman '07 and Michael Blasie '07 — traveled to Charlottesville, Va., April 14 to defeat a quartet of star debaters from the University of Virginia on the topic of which founder's contribution to the fledgling democracy was more important. Alumni Trustee George D. Baker '74, who traveled two hours from Washington, D.C., to be on hand for the confrontation, called it "a great day for Hamilton" as well as an opportunity to witness "seven extremely sharp young people performing at the very apex of the 'vituperation' debate genre."

The debate had its genesis in a conversation Blasie had in 2006
with Dean of Students Nancy Thompson about Hamilton's lack of a natural rivalry with another school and how such a rivalry could revitalize school spirit. The topic eventually evolved into Blasie's Clark Award-winning speech at the spring Public Speaking Competition, with the likely rival identified as the University of Virginia, founded by Jefferson in 1819. 

Meanwhile, Blasie pitched the idea of a debate challenge to his fellow seniors on the mock trial team, which was on its way to a fourth-place finish in the American Mock Trial Association National Tournament. "We thought our letter would just get published in the campus newspaper and some random kids from the school would see it and say, 'That's a cool idea — let's do it!'" Agins recalls.

Instead, Hamilton's challenge went to Virginia's two premier debate teams, with dozens of members each. The 90-minute face-off with the best of Virginia's best included both "sober and sophisticated historical analyses" and a "generous use of humor that bordered on outright ribaldry," Baker says.

In the end, judge Mike Moore, a University of Virginia professor who grew up in Utica and has family ties to Hamilton, gave the edge to the Hamiltonians. But Baker — himself a multiple prize winner in Hamilton's Public Speaking Competition more than three decades ago — says the victory only "reflects on a broader truth."

"From all I see," says Baker, who talks with scores of students each year at alumni events and as a visiting lecturer on campus, "our Hamilton students have well upheld the College's beloved tradition and hallmark as a special place where oral communication is prized and valued, where it is effectively taught, where it is actually practiced and evaluated as an inherent element of the educational experience on the Hill."

Baker's account of the debate, "A dispatch from the front: The Battle of Charlottesville," as well as a video of the debate, is available at http://www.hamilton.edu/news/Debate/.

The winners — all of whom will attend law school this fall — agree that the debate underscores the tradition and critical importance of oral communication at Hamilton.

"You don't always have the option of communicating in writing," Blasie says. "In whatever occupation you choose, you need to be able to express yourself clearly and think on your feet." Agins adds: "It's crucial to be able to convey what you've learned, and speaking well is part of the learning process itself."

Iseman would urge the College to raise the bar even higher. "At Hamilton, there are plenty of opportunities for students to get experience in public speaking and communication through clubs, competitions and classes," he says, "but I do not think there is a strong enough emphasis on evaluating and critiquing students on their speaking ability."
 

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