A Tradition of Debate

The Fall 2010 “Looking Back” column of BYU Magazine highlighted the fact that 50 years ago a debate team from Brigham Young University won the Harvard University National Invitational Debate Tournament, one of the most prestigious tournaments in the country at the time.

Students display the first place trophies that they won at the Harvard University National Invitational Debate Tournament, 1960.

Debate has a long history at Brigham Young University dating back to the days of Brigham Young Academy. At the turn of the 20th century debate was a subject of controversy as Church and university leaders worried about the impact that taking positions opposite to what students truly believed had on their moral character. The controversy around debate eventually led to a decision to ban debate at Church schools. However, students continued to participate in debating contests without school sanction and deluged the Church Board of Education with letters requesting that they be allowed to officially represent their schools. The Church Board of Education eventually modified its position on debates allowing older students to participate as long as they observed certain regulations. The popularity of participating in debate surged in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s as students pushed for debating matches against local schools to prove their mettle in competition. Brigham Young University’s debate teams were recognized as some of the best in the region and drew packed houses for their debates.

Debate team, 1946

The golden age of debate at Brigham Young University coincided with the presidential administration of Ernest L. Wilkinson. Wilkinson had participated in debate as a student in the 1920s and had a great appreciation for the skills that debating had helped him develop. Beginning in 1951 and continuing through the end of his administration in 1971 Wilkinson was an unabashed supporter of the university’s debate teams. Debate teams during the 1950s and 1960s developed a national reputation and won several important national debate tournaments. The university’s centennial history Brigham Young University: The First One Hundred Years notes that during the period from 1951 to 1971 over two thousand students participated in more than 339 debate tournaments and won 760 trophies for the university.

If you would like to learn about the sources available for studying the history of debate at Brigham Young University, please contact the University Archivist at (801) 422-5821 or gordon_daines@byu.edu.

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