Students trade arguments and culture in Galway

Hundreds of young people from around the world are taking part in digital debate event

Zuhro Ganjibekova and Bonu Hafizova from Tajikistan at the International Debate and Education Association youth forum country night at NUI Galway. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Zuhro Ganjibekova and Bonu Hafizova from Tajikistan at the International Debate and Education Association youth forum country night at NUI Galway. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy


Taylor Li, a high school student from the United States, stands at the podium in NUI Galway’s Kirwan Theatre and makes his argument. “Winston Churchill,” he says, “was a drunk, rude man who always insulted people”, and yet, “he pretty much saved England”.

Li is taking part in a debate on social media and privacy. The resolution states that employers should be banned from checking the online profiles of their employees and Li’s team from the Academy of Higher Learning in California are arguing that an individual’s personal life doesn’t necessarily influence their professional life.

Their opponents, from a high school in Texas, have just argued that any information an individual volunteers on Facebook is out there for anyone to see, including their bosses.

The debate is one of dozens taking place in the university this month as part of the International Debate and Education Association’s (Idea) global youth forum, a two-week event that brings hundreds of young people together to debate and take part in what organisers call cultural exchanges. This year the theme is “digital freedoms”. The debates cover online privacy, digital rights and the Edward Snowden affair.

Youth forum director Steven Nolan, originally from Gort, Co Galway, says the event is more focused on education than a lot of other debate competitions. “We want the kids to develop skills that they can take out of it, like research skills, organisation and prioritisation skills; transferable skills that sometimes aren’t the focus of debate events.”

Idea has offices in London, New York, Amsterdam and Macedonia, among other places, and recently set up in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Those offices work with local organisations, debate bodies and schools to select teams for the annual event.

Different cultures
This is the 19th Idea youth forum and the first to be held in Ireland. The participants, most of whom are aged 15 to 17, are staying in the nearby Corrib Village campus accommodation.

“To me the benefit of this is getting to know the people from different cultures,” says curriculum director Sharon Porter. A retired schoolteacher based in Arkansas, Porter reckons she’s learned more about the world from working with Idea over the past seven years than in all the years prior.

“You get a chance to break the stereotypes that you would have of countries – and especially in the United States, we have so much tunnel vision. If it doesn’t exist in the United States we don’t give a darn about it and an awful lot of people don’t travel outside of the country,” she says.

To this end the the teams participated in a “country expo” last Thursday, a sort of model United Nations affair where all the kids donned traditional dress and shared their national foods. Ilias Nurmambetov from Kyrgyzstan presented dried fruit, nuts and some kalpaks (traditional hats). The Canadian table was strewn with maple leaf cookies, while their American counterparts were weighed down under a pile of Oreos, chocolate chip cookies, lollipops and skittles. “Diabetes on a table,” grinned their coach.

The Belarusians, meanwhile, had lined their table with bank notes. “Very important,” nodded Anastasiya Zhvaleuskalia, looking at the money. She added that her team really enjoyed Ireland and took particular pleasure in the seeing sheep and cows milling about the fields on the journey from Dublin to Galway.

The students have to cover their travel expenses but Idea puts them up and feeds them. All in, the event costs about €250,000 to run, and the organisation, according to Nolan, just about breaks even.

Idea also assembles a team of trainers and judges whom it flies to the competition. Josh Martin, a university debate coach based in LA, is on the training panel. “This is my third time to Ireland,” he says, explaining he previously travelled to Cork and Dublin for the World Universities Debating Championships. “This is my first time in Galway, I like it better.”

As a debate coach he covers some of the basics about structuring arguments, but he also encourages his charges to really get to grips with the topic. “Most people think about debate as the talking and the arguing,” he offers. “It sounds clichéd but the listening is a big part of it also, just really understanding the topics you’re talking about. I think the more you really take the time to understand what you’re talking about, the better your argument.”

Non-English speakers
Martin has found the ability of debaters from non-English speaking countries particularly impressive this year. “I’ve tried to learn a couple of languages and I can barely function to get to the bathroom in them, so for them to come and talk about digital freedoms and talk about personal autonomy and rights – just the terminology – it’s incredible.”

Back in the Kirwan Theatre the debate on whether employers should be allowed to digitally snoop on their staff is over and the judges have a winner. Winston Churchill analogy notwithstanding, the nays – that is, the Texans – have it.