Taking Sides

Gifts to the Dartmouth College Fund help make great things happen for our students. Here is one of their stories.
John Martin debating

John Martin ’17, a computer science major from Oak Park, Illinois, has been a debater since his freshman year of high school. In his first year as a member of the Dartmouth Forensic Union, John and his partner placed in the top 50 at the 2014 Cross Examination Debate Association National Tournament.

DCF: How did you get interested in debate?

John: In high school, many of my friends were doing it; it was the cool thing to do. I loved it and was a serious debater all through high school. College debate ups the stakes. Most students who sign up do not realize what they are getting into: speaking 300 words a minute with no constraints on what arguments you can introduce, as long as you can justify them.

DCF: What kinds of topics do you cover?

John: We cover a wide range, often with a political bent: offensive cyber operations, use of armed forces in hostilities, legalization of organ sales, online gambling, physician-assisted suicide.

DCF: What’s the appeal?

John: I love debate because it is this incredibly technical, adrenaline rush of an activity. The best thing I’ve learned is there are no arguments that are presumed to be false when they’re introduced. You could argue that the sky is purple—that wouldn’t be a hard argument to beat—but the fact you can make it means you really have to think about a lot of the assumptions you make.

DCF: Describe your most memorable moment.

John: My best debate was the national tournament my freshman year. The topic was should the U.S. government ban targeted killing by the military. I argued that banning would increase other, less-targeted attacks—which have worse outcomes. Our team reached an elimination round (pretty far up in the debate). My coach told me not many Dartmouth freshman debaters reach this point so it was quite an honor. I didn’t feel I’d done anything exceptional, but I held my own and was solid. The trick was not to get bogged down in less-relevant points and stay focused.

DCF: How is the coaching you receive at Dartmouth?

John: Terrific. Ken Strange coaches us; he is a longtime director of debate at Dartmouth and is tough on us. He is brilliant about all kinds of debate and is one of the few debate directors who does thorough research instead of just directing and delegating. He gives me pre-round coaching during tournaments, and you can tell he has read a ton about the topic you’re debating. Often he will give me new ideas to introduce and tell me how to deploy them.

DCF: How is debate useful to you?

John: Doing debate at Dartmouth is helpful with many areas of my life, including my computer science major. When I write a program, I have to reason through some logic and understand how an algorithm operates, which is very much like systematically parsing arguments. I can see how debate will help me with a career in computer science—writing programs, starting a company, or teaching—which is what I want to do. Ultimately, debate has made me a much more open-minded person. I’m grateful for that.