THE GREAT DEBATERS or THE GREAT MEMORIZERS.—

With the TV trailers piquing my interest, I decided to learn more about the background of the new Denzel Washington movie, The Great Debaters:

From two-time Academy Award winner Denzel Washington and an ensemble cast [led] by Washington that includes Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker, comes THE GREAT DEBATERS. Inspired by a true story, THE GREAT DEBATERS chronicles the journey of Professor Melvin Tolson (Denzel Washington), a brilliant, but volatile, debate team coach who uses the power of words to shape a group of underdog students from a small African American college (Wiley College) in the deep south into a historically elite debate team. A controversial figure, Professor Tolson challenged the social mores of the time and was under constant fire for his unconventional and ferocious teaching methods as well as his radical political views.

In the pursuit for excellence, Tolson's debate team receives a groundbreaking invitation to debate Harvard University's championship team.

Wiley College’s account of the factual background includes this revelation:

According to James Farmer, Tolson's drive to win, to eliminate risk, meant that his debaters were actors more than spontaneous thinkers. Tolson wrote all the speeches and the debate team memorized them. He drilled them on every gesture and every pause. Tolson was so skilled at the art of debating that he also figured out the arguments that opponents would make and wrote rebuttals for them--before the actual debate. . . .

In 1935, he led the Wiley Debate Team to the national championship to defeat the University of Southern California before an audience of eleven hundred people.

Wiley College should be commended for posting such a candid account of one of their most famous and accomplished faculty members. I haven’t been able to determine if the Wiley team ever debated Harvard, or instead whether in the movie Harvard was substituted for USC.

Wanting to know more about Tolson, I read a fascinating account by David Gold of Tolson’s impressive pedagogical techniques, an article that unfortunately did not discuss his composition of his debaters’ arguments. It appears that Tolson was extremely devoted to teaching his students to argue and write (using a teaching style that bore some relation to Professor Kingsfield’s in The Paper Chase):

In coaching debate, he stressed the logical fallacies, always seeking to find the “crack” in the other team’s strategies. He trained students by having them debate him for up to a year before allowing them to join the team and by playing the devil’s advocate in any discussion. When he exhausted his own copious body of knowledge, he would bring in faculty from other fields to challenge his students.

One can get a sense of Tolson’s politics from reading his opinion of conservatives:

“Conservatives have stood for prostitution, blood-letting, polygamy, illiteracy, ignorance, witch-burning, voodooism, piracy, plagues, child labor, social diseases, and cannibalism.”

“If a man isn’t a liberal or a radical, he is a joke or a foggy among intelligent Folk.”