In December 2014, representatives from four New York area lifelong learning programs met at the Cornell University ILR Center in Manhattan for a series of informal debates. Two of the programs—the IRP at the New School for Social Research and the Osher Lifelong Learning Program at Rutgers University—had previously held training workshops and practice debates. Two additional lifelong learning programs—Hofstra University’s PEIR program and QUEST, the CUNY program based in Manhattan—sent representatives to learn more about senior debate and opportunities for participation. The informal debates at the Cornell facility were lively, and the participants expressed enthusiasm for encore events and the development of a senior debate organization to coordinate future events.
In 2015 and 2016, additional senior debate events were held at the New School, Hofstra, and Rutgers, and a new organization, the International Association for Senior Debate (IASD), was launched. In March 2016, the IASD received official recognition from the IRS as a 501c3 non-profit organization, dedicated to supporting and advancing senior debate activities across the United States and beyond. In addition, work began on the preparation of a guidebook for senior debate, to be published in the spring of 2017. The guidebook will include information on the rules and regulations for senior debate and on methods for establishing a senior debate community at the local level. A web domain has been established for the IASD (www.seniordebate.org), and the construction of the IASD web site was completed in the late summer 2017.
Although the earliest senior debate activities have taken place on campuses in university-based lifelong learning programs, it is anticipated that other kinds of organizations will soon become involved in senior debate. Throughout 2017 and 2018, the IASD will continue to promote senior debate programs in lifelong learning programs across the country, but it also plans to encourage the development of senior debate programs in retirement communities, public library outreach programs, and other organizations providing cultural and educational programming for older Americans. The resources of the IASD, including workshops, training programs, and literature will be made available to organizations interested in starting a senior debate program. In addition, local, regional, and national debate tournaments sponsored by the IASD will be open to senior debate programs sponsored by all participating organizations. An annual summer conference and tournament, beginning in 2018, will also welcome all senior debaters.
The British parliamentary format used in senior competition maximizes spontaneity, lively exchange, and audience interest. The debaters are given the topic for debate just fifteen to twenty minutes before the debate begins. Ordinarily, each team comprises three debaters, although two person teams are permissible. The debaters draw upon their life experience, their general knowledge, and seat-of-the-pants instincts in developing their arguments. The teams find themselves either defending a resolution (the Affirmative) or challenging the resolution (the Negative) by a flip of the coin. The winner of the debate is determined by a judge, who evaluates the competition in terms of the quality of the arguments and, to a lesser extent, the speaking skills of the participants.
At a time when civil discourse in the public arena is becoming an endangered species, senior debate can help restore respect and understanding to our national discussion of major public policy issues. Using the parliamentary form of debate, popular in high school and university debate programs, senior debaters have been addressing a wide variety of controversial topics, some of them from the front pages of the news media, some as old as the Greeks. The senior debaters involved in the early pilot programs have been enjoying the competition and the opportunity to take the podium and match wits with their contemporaries. Some were debaters decades ago in high school or college, but most are debating for the first time.