A Tradition Returns to Southwestern
A time-honored tradition will be returning to Southwestern this spring: The Brooks Prize Debate. The debate, as well as an oratory competition, will get under way with preliminary rounds Feb. 23-27. The final round will be held March 31 at 4 p.m. in the McCombs Ballrooms.
Junior political science major Matthew Maschino began work to revive this lost tradition with the help of junior English major Sarah Gould.
Over the summer, Maschino spent hours researching in the Special Collections section of Southwestern’s A. Frank Smith Jr. Library. He especially looked into the literary societies, which were the focus of social life at Southwestern in its early years. Four literary societies - two male and two female - were established in the late 1800s. Southwestern had the first literary societies in Texas.
In 1878, the two men’s societies - the Alamo and the San Jacinto - established a grand tradition by organizing a championship debate between the two societies to be held during commencement week. Within 10 years, it was the most significant event of the year on campus and eventually came to include all students. The societies sought to choose topics consisting of prevalent, controversial issues such as women’s suffrage, the future of telegraphs and railroads, annexation of Hawaii, whether or not the United States should enter WWI, and the adoption of the gold standard. The event itself was a huge gala occasion. Alumni and important members of the Williamson County government and state government were sure to attend. Sometimes the debate received nationally recognized guests and speakers, including former Confederate President Jefferson Davis and William Jennings Bryan, who was the Democratic Party nominee for president of the United States in 1896, 1900 and 1908. The debate was a highly anticipated event between the years 1878 and 1927.
In 1904, Southwestern titled the event the Brooks Prize Debate after alumnus Richard Edwards Brooks, class of 1884. As a student, Brooks had been a debater and helped established the campus literary magazine. After graduation, he provided funds for a gold medal and book scholarships for the winners of the debate.
This year’s debate topic states: “Resolved: that multinational corporations are a menace to societies around the globe.” This topic was chosen partly due to its current relevance, but also because it echoes the Brooks Prize Debate topic of 1905: “The Gigantic Industrial Combinations are a Menace to the Public.”
Teams of two will compete against each other in the debate, with one team arguing in favor of the resolution and the other team arguing against it.
The oratory topics will be “Science and Society” and “The Future of the Past.” Students participating in the oratory competition will speak for five to 10 minutes.
Three teams are participating in the debate and seven students are participating in the oratory competition. Many students debated in high school and look forward to returning to an old pastime.
“When I read the campus notice about this competition, I immediately e-mailed Matt and told him I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” said junior political science major Amy Wolfenberger. “I hope to win and more than anything, just enjoy debating once more.”
The debaters will use the same desks their predecessors used 130 years ago. Maschino received permission from Special Collections to borrow the desks, which have been residing in the library. Following tradition, a student wind ensemble also will perform at the event. The ensemble will revive the Southwestern fight song, which has not been performed since 1951.
The debate will be judged by a panel of community and state leaders. Each member of the winning debate team will receive $2,000 as well as a medal that has been specially designed for the occasion.
Maschino hopes the event will lead students, faculty and community members to recognize the grandiose legacy of students at Southwestern.
“A lot of times people get caught up in new buildings, but this university has been around for more than 150 years,” he said. “There are relics hidden around campus, in a corner of Mood-Bridwell, or in the Special Collections of the library. The literary societies, as well as the rest of Southwestern’s past, are sort of sitting around and people just kind of take it for granted or don’t know its there.”
Gould said planning the event has also brought her closer to Southwestern. “Taking me closer to who we used to be has made me value my education so much more,” she said.
Both Gould and Maschino hope to entrust a classmate with the coordination of the event before they leave Southwestern. It is their dream that the debate will thrive years after they have become alumni.
“I think debating encompasses the intellectual experience that Southwestern wants to create for its students,” Gould said. “To have a campuswide debate that is celebrated not only by alumni, faculty and staff - people who are here all the time - but also by students who are in and out will be such a priceless treasure for Southwestern. I hope that it stays around for a long time because it is the epitome of the Southwestern experience to not only engage in this debate but also to celebrate it and what it means.”