Debating as a Bicycle for the Mind

Profile: Thom Wetzer

By Julie Albers

Steve Jobbs might have compared the computer to a bicycle, but third-year Thom Wetzer (21) finds this metaphor just as applicable to debating. According to this experienced debater, “it develops a habit of mind that helps you with everything else in life.”

Thom discovered debating at the age of 15, when he helped founding a debating society in high school. Encouraged by their teachers, students trained each other in debating techniques. Soon enough, professors and students from all over the country heard about the initiative and offered their help.

Noticing his increased ability to listen, reason and persuade that came as a fruit of regular debating practice, Thom discovered a growing passion in himself. “I felt greatly empowered.”

Before long, Thom was participating in major championships of competitive debates. In such competitions, you try to impress a team of judges with analysis and eloquence, while arguing in favor or against a motion. Starting small, Thom achieved a win after win: from the Dutch high school competitions to the world championships in Qatar. Eventually, talent and devotion paid off in the biggest challenge yet. Thom and his debating partner won the Dutch adult championships, beating former European and World champions.

But debating tournaments weren’t the final station. Representing Mauritius at the Oxford Model United Nations in 2011, Thom received the Best Delegate Award. Debating skills proof very useful in MUNs, whose focus lies in cooperation with other teams, rather than persuading juries. “The goal is to represent the country that plays the most important role in reaching the final solution to the problem.”

All awards and triumphs aside, what is it exactly that makes debating so fascinating?

“While you learn so many different things in high school, you never learn to apply all this information in a coherent way to real world problems,” says Thom. Being able to quickly analyze complicated problems gives traction to everything he already knows, he believes.

Nowadays, Thom has breached out even further in his involvement. He is a trainer at the Dutch Debating Institute and a vice-chairman of the foundation that selects and coaches the Dutch national debating team. Most importantly, he works as Associate Partner for Cogency.

Cogency provides educational activities and organizes numerous tournaments, striving to implement debating in all layers of education. “Although we started as a small startup, we now work closely with 250 schools and universities.”

Teaching has become an important aspect of Thom’s work, through which he hopes to convey the key lessons of debating. He sees reflective criticism as the crucial characteristic for every debater: “You mustn’t be afraid to be proven wrong, because the continuous challenge of ideas lies at the heart of debating. Without this, you’ll stick with prejudice and platitude, instead of gaining more understanding.”

Quickly analyzing problems and structuring your argument by using some humor are the finishing touches. “You can only learn these steps by people criticizing and encouraging you.”

Even though Thom enjoys coaching the talented debaters from the Dutch national team, teaching children with social or mental difficulties remains the most rewarding. “They’re always very shy in the beginning, until they realize that they might actually have smart ideas.For the first time in a year, they speak in front of their class and are finally able to say what they think.”

Some final tips? “Start debating. Just try it! Also, keep asking, remain reflective and open to new experiences and ideas and distrust general statements. As Sherlock Holmes said: ‘There’s nothing more elusive than an obvious fact.’”

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