Vol. 6, No. 1: Spring/Summer 2010

In the Spirit of the Great Debater

by Amy Cornell

A student-led group dedicated to the legacy of Abraham Lincoln sponsors a series of roundtable discussions to demonstrate the importance of healthy debate to a robust society.

“The mission of ABE (Abraham Lincoln Appreciation Society [ALAS]) is to foster the appreciation, admiration, and LOVE of Abraham Lincoln, our 16th, best, most noble, most magnificent, and most attractive president.”
—From the Constitution of ABE
(Abraham Lincoln Appreciation Society [ALAS])

A group of honors students, led by student president Aasiya (ah-SEE-uh) Mirza, have founded a unique student organization meant to honor and celebrate the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States. Mirza, a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences studying political science and speech writing, wanted to honor Lincoln on the bicentennial of his birthday (February 9, 1809) by engaging students in real debate and discussion, just the way Abraham Lincoln would have done it. They began by hosting an intervarsity Lincoln-Douglas debate competition among debaters from several Midwestern universities in the spring of 2009, and have continued the tradition with a series of roundtable discussions about issues that interest students.

Jean Robinson, Professor of Political Science, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education in the College of Arts and Sciences, and faculty advisor to ABE, first met Mirza in an honors seminar called Persistent Dilemmas, which requires students to research and create arguments about all sides of contemporary issues.

Robinson says, “I would push students to take sides that they clearly did not agree with and that forced them to argue the other side of an issue. I think Aasiya was really interested in the learning process that helped them clarify their thinking and enhanced their ability to make arguments. They learned to make arguments based not on emotion and passion but on reason and fact. It became clear to her and to the rest of the students that for any society to move forward it was important to find ways to debate civilly.”

From this class, students began to talk about the idea of combining their interest in debate with the ideals of Abraham Lincoln, one of this country’s best and most often emulated debaters. They came to Robinson and asked if she would agree to sponsor their club. Robinson was excited about the student-initiated group that sought not to further one particular worldview, as most student groups do, but to promote the intelligent, civil discussion of many issues.

Robinson agreed to sponsor the group and judged the Lincoln-Douglas debate. The experience reminded Robinson how deeply researched some forms of debate are and she began to draw the connections between liberal arts and skills the college hopes to teach students. She observes, “Debate requires research and it requires thinking about things . . . not really from your own perspective but others’ perspectives. It’s the work we expect students to do in writing critical essays. It even requires knowledge of sciences. For example back when we were in my class and we were doing work on stem cell research students had to research some science in order to be able to understand what the issues were.”

After the debate, Robinson understood that Abe at IU was fulfilling goals embodied in the college’s formal curriculum. Since ABE, and the debates and discussions they sponsored, was totally initiated and run by students, it became an exciting prospect to have them participate in the college’s inaugural themed semester, or Themester: Evolution, Diversity and Change.

Mizra and her colleagues who founded ABE imagined a series of roundtable discussions and panels to take place at the Lilly library and the Honors College. They did not necessarily want to debate evolution, but rather demonstrate that debate is a healthy part of a robust society; if we are to evolve and move forward as a civilization it is through reasoned arguments and civil discourse.

Junior John Gillard first got involved with ABE when Aasiya and he worked together in student government at Collins Living Learning Center. Gillard says, “Aasiya and I began talking about ABE one night over tea and I thought ABE sounded like a fun idea, and here I am, Secretary of the Treasury.”

His official title is Secretary of the Treasury, Hugh McCulloch, a sly wink at Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet, in which statesman McColluch served for two terms under President Lincoln. As Secretary of the Treasury, Gillard is responsible for collecting all dues and keeping the student activity ledgers up to date and balanced.

Like Secretary of the Treasury, each position in ABE is constitutionally designated to emulate cabinet positions from Lincoln’s time: Secretary of State, William Seward (VP for Programming); Post-master General, William Dennison (Director of Communication); Secretary of the Interior, J.P. Usher (VP for Education). ABE’s constitution, in fact, makes lots of nods both humorous and serious at the 16th president’s stature in U.S. history and in presidential folklore:

Furthermore, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” (14th Amendment of the United States Constitution, which Abraham Lincoln, if he had been alive, would have promoted with the utmost fervor, even to the point of perspiration.)
—From Article I section II of the ABE constitution.
Following, to the best of his/her ability, the example set by Abraham Lincoln, including, if possible, the growth of facial hair. This clause shall NOT be construed to include being subject to any purposeful or accidental death in a theater, caused by a conspiracy assassination secessionist group.
—From Article III section II of the ABE constitution.

In the spirit of the great debater, ABE at IU held two roundtable discussions in the fall of 2009. In November participants considered the rights of children to access education and educational materials. Questions that the students discussed included: Why should children have a right to education? Should children have a right not to attend school? What educational materials should children have access to? How should a society determine access to education? Who should control how children access materials and education? Should children have a right to determine their own education? Eleven students and a faculty member attended. Mirza reported that the conversation was robust and at times heated.

On a Friday afternoon in December, the second discussion was held in the great room of the Honors College and centered on the evolution of political movements. Valerie Grim from African American and African Diaspora Studies spoke on the evolution of the civil rights movement in the U.S. Jean Robinson from Political Science spoke on the second wave of the women’s movement, and Christina Snyder from American Studies spoke on the American Indian Movement (AIM). All three women gave a brief overview of the evolution of these modern political movements and each observed that the beauty of political movements is that they empower others to start political movements. The civil rights movement gave birth to the second wave of feminism and a new women’s rights movement. Much of the language used in the women’s movement was borrowed from the civil rights movement.

Gillard moderated the question and answer session after the presentations and about 15 attendees stayed to ask follow-up questions of the faculty. Questions concerned how political movements can help each other and how the various causes differ from one another. Gillard was impressed at the quality of the presentations by the speakers, and was interested in the similar themes that emerged from each talk. Mirza and Gillard were each pleased with the attendance at the events and with how many people contributed to the discussion.

The great thing about ABE’s relationship with IU and with Themester is that since it is about debate and discussion it fits in very well with any Themester topic. Jean Robinson anticipates that ABE will be a part of Themester for as long as they are a student group at IU. Debate and discussion will be a part of every Themester, and the fact that ABE has healthy input from active students makes it all the more attractive.

Mirza and Robinson both hope ABE will last beyond the current group of students who started it. Judging from the interest and turnout at the events last fall, students should not have any problems sustaining their organization.

Amy Cornell works in the IU Bloomington Department of Communication and Culture and is a freelance writer.

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