Much of what passes for debate nowadays is characterised by individuals with scant knowledge of what they are talking about, pouring forth ill-digested thoughts with an aversion to any self-reflection.
That, at least, is what the Archbishop of Dublin warned in 1846, when he penned an article hitting out at "dangers to young men" posed by Trinity College Dublin's Historical Society, better known today as The Hist.
Despite being banned and criticised at various points, the world’s oldest college debating society is set to celebrate its 250th anniversary over the coming year.
It boasts a rich history of debating success and its list of former members’ is a who’s who of patriots, politicians, authors and orators of national and global significance.
Edmund Burke was a founding member; Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet joined later; Douglas Hyde and Edward Carson were opposing sides in the debate over Irish independence; Mary Harney and Mary Robinson were among the first women members; Leo Varadkar was also member during his time in college.
The Hist has been at the forefront of major debates in Irish political, social and cultural life for the past 250 years
Sir Donnell Deeny, pro-chancellor of the university – and in his youth the only person to win The Irish Times Debate trophy three times – formally launched the year's programme of celebrations at a special reception in the university on Wednesday evening.
“The Hist has been at the forefront of major debates in Irish political, social and cultural life for the past 250 years,” he said. “This occasion will give us the opportunity to reflect on the long and auspicious history of the Hist and its important role in promoting real debate in society. Now, more than ever before, discourse and debate are crucial in a democratic society and must be preserved and celebrated.”
There will be exhibitions, student events and international student debates over the course of the coming year.
It will culminate in a special “ Hist Week” next March,which will explore the the future of democracy through debate, discussion and oratory.
The present day Hist originated from two associations – Burke’s Club and the Historical Club – both founded in the middle of the 18th century.
The Burke Club, founded by Edmund Burke and a few of his fellow students, has surviving minutes which date to its foundation in April 1747.
The business of the club was to be “speeching, reading, writing and arguing, in morality, history, criticism, politics and all the useful branches of philosophy”.
The first law it passed directed that “decency and good manners” should guide the behaviour of members. (This may explain why one of the founding members was “formally expelled [from] the society for ever” shortly afterwards for ill-conduct and neglect.)
The society’s independent spirit irked college authorities, who expelled the society in 1794, though it continued to meet outside the university walls. It was readmitted about 50 years later.
"At its best, the Hist has been a forum for new ideas and different points of view," says Trinity's Dr Patrick Geoghegan, who is writing a history of the society. He says it was an instrument for the enlightenment in Ireland, which "allowed new ideas to be discussed and debated and provided a forum for old orthodoxies to be confronted and challenged".
Not much has changed today, says Luke Fehily, a student and treasurer of the society. "It still provides a platform for people to air their ideas and then promptly have those ideas torn apart by people who are also intelligent."
It instils respect when you have to listen to another point of view
In a new era of intellectual tribalism and echo chambers, he says the society is showing a new generation how to disagree, agreeably.
“It instils respect when you have to listen to another point of view. It may not persuade you over to their side, but at least it might enhance what you feel yourself,” adds Fehily.
Ursula Quill, director of Hist250, a former member, says it also challenges students on their worldviews.
“Our format is usually four speakers from either side, so students see there are many ways of looking at questions,” she says. “ It’s not just one person giving a polemic with no response.”
It is a point that is similar to one made by the society's then auditor Denis Caulfield Heron, in response to the Archbishop of Dublin way back in 1846.
At the time he gave a robust defence of the society, arguing that it enabled students from different political and religious viewpoints to exchange ideas and have their prejudices challenged.
Some students, he suggested, came to Trinity and only knew those “who came from the same school, or county”, becoming “thus one of a clique, prejudices all confirmed”.
However, the society, he said, contributes to the ideal of a broader education which was the “enlarging of the mind to an enlightened sympathy with all.”