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Robert TrappRobert Trapp

Debating Democracy: Willamette University professor causes debate in Eastern Europe

Robert Trapp doesn't look like a revolutionary, yet not so long ago, the university professor would have been imprisoned or even shot for encouraging critical thinking in Eastern Europe. With students from Kazakhstan, Macedonia, Romania, Lithuania, Poland and dozens of other formerly communist countries, Trapp uses debate to teach democracy.

"Debate is the tool of democracy," explains Trapp, a professor of rhetoric and media studies at Willamette University in Salem, Ore. "In many of these countries, they see debate as something dangerous."

Two years ago, Trapp was invited by the International Debate Education Association (IDEA) to teach in St. Petersburg, Russia. Thirty-three formerly communist countries sent their best high school debate students. For Trapp, the experience was life changing. "We were making history," he says. "I knew these would be the next world leaders in the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe and Central Asia. I had to be involved."

Trapp jumped in with both feet. He wanted to get high school and college-level students involved. With support from the U.S. National Parliamentary Debate Association (NPDA) and IDEA, Trapp began organizing international debate tournaments in countries like Romania and Poland. The response was overwhelming. Hundreds of students and teachers from Albania, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Hungary, Kyrgyzstan, Macedonia, Slovakia, the Ukraine, Uzbekistan and many other countries joined U.S. students for what would become annual events. "These students are so thirsty for debate you can't believe it," says Trapp, his voice rising with excitement. "They see the potential that debate holds for their countries, the practical application of it and they're very excited."

Debating Ideas, Changing Lives
Everyone involved in bringing debate to former Iron Curtain countries has been deeply impacted. Willamette University humanity students and veteran debaters Una Kimokeo-Goes and Heather Rice recently attended a tournament in Poland. They were the only students from the United States who opted to partner with students from other countries rather than compete together. "It was a little strange at first debating with someone I didn't know," admits Kimokeo-Goes. "But the point of going to this kind of competition isn't winning, it's meeting new people and figuring out how to work together."

Despite having never debated together, Kimokeo-Goes and Sylvia Poppa from Romania won first place. The prize was $100. Kimokeo-Goes donated her half of the prize to her partner.

For the Willamette student, the experience was eye opening and much more valuable than any cash prize. It altered her world view. One student, she says, talked about the trafficking of women and other human rights violations in her country. A Yugoslavian student talked about how the policies of Slobodan Milosevic had crushed her country's economy. A student from Belarus shared her experience working in a cancer center just 15 miles from Chernobyl. Polish students talked about being given iodine pills so their bodies would take in less radiation from the crippled nuclear reactor. "These are things we read about," Kimokeo-Goes says, her eyes shining with tears. "For us, it's all just theory. For them, these are issues that affect their everyday lives."

Debate coach Brian Shipley was so deeply affected by his experiences at these international debates that he's changed careers. The 1996 Willamette graduate recently earned his law degree from Georgetown University. Last summer, he traveled to Slovakia with Professor Trapp to teach debate. The experience changed his priorities. When a number prestigious Washington, D.C., law firms recently offered him lucrative positions, Shipley turned them down. He's currently working as a volunteer debate coach for Willamette University. Next fall, he's returning to graduate school to earn his Ph.D. in rhetoric. "Instead of just writing up legal briefs, I can teach students skills that can make a difference," he says. "By teaching debate skills, we're empowering the students to make democracy happen."

The first day of debates has ended. Here in St. Petersburg, it's a Russian "white night" when the sun sets for only a few hours each day. Debate students and teachers mill about the quad, tired but too excited from the day's competition to sleep. Luka Keller, a debate trainer from Croatia, begins strumming a battered acoustic guitar. "Bye, bye Miss American Pie," he sings, the English words softened by his Eastern European accent. Within minutes, the grassy square has filled with plastic chairs and students and teachers alike are singing a medley of American songs from the 1950s and 60s. Most of these students weren't even born when these songs were popular, but they know the melodies and the lyrics to tunes from the Beatles, Elvis, Jim Croce, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor and many others. As soon as one song ends, someone shouts out another and the chorus begins again.

The Dangerous Art of Debate
Not everyone is enthusiastic about debate's potential. Some, including many educators in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, believe that debate is disruptive. Education in these formerly communist countries has primarily involved rote learning. Teachers present "facts" and students repeat those facts on exams. Until very recently, the free exchange of ideas that characterizes debate wasn't allowed.

"Some of these students are afraid that democracy is dangerous," says debate coach Shipley. "It's something they've learned from their families, from their governments and in their schools. Learning to debate teaches them that exchanging ideas and talking things out isn't dangerous."

The Eastern European students and teachers who want to learn the art of debate are willing to make sacrifices. Coming from some of the poorest nations, many of them have to fund raise or apply for grants to pay for tournament travel and housing. Romanian law student and volunteer debate coach, Ioana Cionea, not only pays her own way to tournaments, but she must take time off from work. A third-year law student, Cionea works five days a week from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at a law firm doing everything from answering phones to preparing contracts. She earns $15 a week (the Romanian average is $25/week). After work, she attends law classes from 4:30 until 8 p.m. Despite her heavy schedule, Cionea takes time to coach the Transylvania debate team. At the Romanian tournament, she had to leave after the first day of competition because her law firm wouldn't give her an extra day off.

Changing the World
Many countries around the world, says Professor Trapp, especially those of emerging democracies, are at critical tipping points. Their young democracies could flourish--or they could crumble. He believes teaching debate, and the critical thinking skills that go with it, may help solve many of the problems these countries face. "Debate can give citizens the critical skills they need to analyze the messages potential leaders send," he says. He admits he can't guarantee that teaching debate will improve the state of emerging democracies, "but the possibility is large enough that we'd be foolish to pass up the opportunity."

Debate may also influence who the new leaders are in many parts of the world, according to Trapp. He points to a young debate student from Romania who is now a scholarship student at Harvard. "There are going to be several kids like her who will return to their countries and make a difference," he says. "There's no doubt in my mind that many of the kids we're working with will be the new world leaders."

The songfest has been going steadily for hours. Many of the adults have retreated to the warmth of their beds. Students from the United States, Russia, Poland, Lithuania, Montenegro, Yugoslavia and dozens of other countries huddle together around Luka's guitar singing another favorite tune. It's 2 a.m. The competition will start early tomorrow. Robert Trapp rises from his chair, bidding the students around him goodnight. As he heads toward the dormitory, a girl begins to sing, "Kumbaya my Lord, kumbaya..." He smiles. Earlier today, they were strangers, competitors. Tonight they are friends.

For more information about international debate, contact IDEA at www.idedebate.org or call (212) 548-0185 or NPDA at www.parlidebate.org or call Dr. Rena Gernant, Executive Secretary, at (402) 643-7305 or Robert Trapp at Willamette University at (503) 370-6244.