This year has seen the first ENSAE win at the French Debating Association tournament since 2001 and ENSAE has now become the first school with five victories, the target to be shot among all the prestigious schools and universities, from Paris to Toulouse.
When I arrived at ENSAE three years ago, M.Pauvert and the Languages department were willing to reassert the value and use of English within the school and renew the proposal made to students. The objective was to offer them new perspectives, challenges and courses that would make English more challenging and professionally valuable for them. I was offered the opportunity to bring back to life more than a class, but a spirit that had been dying for years. So I gladly took upon the challenge to claim back the place of ENSAE within the schools tournament.
I met numerous students, all smart and passionate, desperate to find a way to express themselves, but who also needed to be coached and learn how to structure, how to express, how to compromise, how to convince, and how to please.
In a field where everything is about competition, what the students at ENSAE originally lacked in class was not arguments, nor wits, nor conviction, but the ability to see that winning over an audience is more important than actually winning against a competitor. The debating class is about starting from being smart and then using your wits to become likeable and convincing.
In this class, I like to think that not only students improve their language skills in English, but also acquire transferable skills that will be useful to them throughout their careers, for the key to success in a field where they are surrounded by smart people, is how to outsmart through wits, eloquence and charisma. This is what we strive to, what has brought them to win this year, and what will continue in the years to come, with the continually renewed enthusiasm of the students at ENSAE.
In this special number, we are offering you a little insight of the Debating Club at ENSAE, since its creation there in 1994, with the appreciated testimony of the FDA President, Declan McCavanagh, through this year’s students’ impressions after winning at the Assemblée Nationale, and to the testimony of an ENSAE veteran who came back this year after a few years to participate in the Vet Tournament.
Marie-Eve PICHON, teacher and debating coach at ENSAE
2017 FDA Final – ENSAE vs ILERI
THE ORIGINS OF THE FDA AT ENSAE
Once upon a time, indeed in a faraway time (1988) in a very old kingdom called Malakoff, the Queen of the Languages Department of the Statlet named ENSAE, asked a young Prince from another Kingdom, to come to her office, for he had applied to become a member of her domain. She greeted him with pomp and ceremony but told him upon entry that her heart had already been chosen by another Prince. « Why then, my Lady, summosth thee me to this place, if all is already decided ? ». « Thou hast in thy missive (CV) awoken my deepest sentiments that thine art of oratory could be what our students could need ».
That’s how it started.
A week after I received a letter stating that I could have the job of « lecteur d’Anglais » provided that I was prepared to teach a course in « debating ».
Obviously I said « yes ».
The adventure had begun.
Debating took off at the ENSAE and the students decided that at the end of the year (1989), they wanted to confront a team of my English teacher colleagues.
The event took place with a huge attendance and was followed by a magnificent ‘soirée irlandaise’ which made the walls of the ENSAE echo with both rhetoric and Celtic store as never had occurred before.
The rhetorical seed had been implanted and ENSAE was indeed the place to propagate this newfound notion and transmit to the rest of the fertile land which was ready for its harvest.
We invited the Ecole Polytecnique to a challenge in 1991 and the seed took root.
With the help of an ENSAE student, Emmanuel Lemoine, we invited the Ecole Polytechnique, the ENA and Sciences Po to participate in the first ever tournament of English debating in France ((1994).
The French Debating Association was born and has continued its progress to this very day.
Four teams in 1994 (ENSAE, X, ENA, IEP).
Today 24 teams.
In 2017, ENSAE once more regained the title of “Champions of France” of English speaking debating. Making it the champions of all champions.
Are you ready to meet the challenge?
Yours in rhetoric,
Declan Mc Cavana, FDA President
A personal experience: Letter from the Team Captain
As a freshman at ENSAE, I first heard about debating classes through an email every student received at the beginning of the year. Selection would take place and I had no idea what it would be like exactly but I decided to jump in and add a more literary subject to my intense scientific curriculum. I was not disappointed.
The class itself was very entertaining and challenging. Personally, I had always liked to listen to and replicate famous speeches but I had never thought I would be given a chance to become a (wannabe) orator myself, especially in a statistics program! We wrote speeches, worked on improvisation and soon became able to defend any motion, as controversial as it may be. It was a good way for us to maintain our English writing and oral skills but it was also an opportunity for me to discover historical speeches, in class and on my own, seeking inspiration during the writing of my speeches. Some may say Paris style debates are all about that little « je ne sais quoi » but we also put a LOT of thinking into the motions we had to defend and oppose and the definition of the motion itself took me back to my dusty philosophy classes from a few years ago. Students got to know each other (and the teacher) a lot better, some of us built strong friendships and we eventually became a real team.
When the tournament came, it was finally time for us to challenge the skills we had been working on for months. It was a wonderful opportunity to meet new interesting people and discover Paris in a new way as every venue was in another part of town. With the much needed and appreciated help from my coach, I learned how to manage people, select them and understand them to get the best out of them. Personally, I fought my shyness away and grew strong enough to face a crowd and embark them on a journey whose destination I had (more or less) under control. I also loved the team work and the support we had for each other which, I’m sure, played a BIG role in the success and recognition we eventually achieved as a team.
Is that all? I hope not and as the FDA made me feel like home and took me to places I would have never dreamt of debating in, I am truly willing to keep up their good work at ENSAE and in the association itself to welcome newcomers and make the family thrive for the years to come.
Thank you so much, Marie Eve, and thanks to all the FDA for this great adventure.
Link to his performance in the Semi Final
« What drives you to try debating? Not an explanation, rather someone’s enthusiasm. Which is stunning, since there are so many excellent arguments to promote debating. However, there is something you need to see, or rather hear, by yourself. A debate is close to a theater play: the audience members staring at the stage, the orator catching their full attention… yet it is even more thrilling, because nothing is written in advance, and one missed riposte/retort can ruin a whole speech. There is the suspense of a sport tournament; but the means is the wit. »
Elie GERSHEL (2nd year student)
« Debating? What a special class! I could do nothing but express my astonishment when I heard that there was a pre-selection to take the class!! But, given the stakes, this is totally understandable, and it is true that this selection has made the class more interesting since it is easier to interact and flourish in an environment that prompts you to give the best you can and when you are surrounded by people who share the same passion for English. »
Taha Ettouati (2nd year student)
« First, it’s a great way to learn English because it is interactive. I believe that the best way to learn English is through “immersion”, interacting with one another during a debate or during its preparation in English is a great way to learn English. It is also a lot of fun. In debating class, we feel involved because it is our own ideas that we share, we share a part of who we are as a person and how we think. Plus, the exercises are usually very interactive and quite unconventional, which makes it more fun. »
Marianne SORBA (2nd year student)
Finally, I really enjoyed the debating class because it was a pleasant change to our usual classes at ENSAE. I believe the debating class is a great complementary subject to quantitative classes as the skills learned in debating are extremely valuable both on a personal and on a professional level. We often hear that Europeans lack speaking skills compared to Americans. The debating class might be a good first step to closing that gap.
Lukas Kemkes (2nd year student)
STUDENTS’ VOICES: “What did you get from this class?”
« More than a simple class, debating is a passion, not only a personal one, but a shared one amongst all the students who take this particular class. What is interesting about debating is all these qualities/skills that one might have or at least develop to succeed. On a personal level, debating has taught me above all to deliver a live speech, to be short and concise, to have the ability to persuade and convince depending on the motion and the audience, to adapt to others’ speeches, to make people believe that what you say is sound and potentially true no matter your personal positions about it since neither the motion nor the side is something we choose. »
Taha Ettouati (2nd year student)
« The debating class is much more than just learning English. Being involved in the Debating Class enabled me to broaden myself in many ways: I have learned how to listen, be organized and articulate arguments in a confident way. By taking part in a school debating tournament, learning how to manage my stress while debating in front of an audience and jury was one of the many skills that I developed through this experience.
Most importantly, it has taught me how to be part of a team and work together with loyalty and enthusiasm. One might think at first that to win an argument, you just must have better arguments. Being an orator is not just about arguments. It is about being articulate and confident, by making the audience feel your speech by making references to things that they might have experienced, by making the audience feel involved on an intellectual and most importantly emotional level. »
Marianne SORBA (2nd year student)
« It is not only about the depth of argument, about how likeable their presentation was, not only humour, and adaptation to the proceedings: getting the support of the audience makes the performance something more challenging than what a student has ever tried. Maybe rather a person than a student: here it is no academics. No academics, and yet I consider it brings more to a student than any class: convincing and persuading, that is an everyday need.
Actually debating is the perfect complement to an engineering education. It is not about objectivity, science; rational arguments are embedded in the subjective way of presenting them. There is no certainty in what will be said, no clue on the strategy of the opposite team. Wit is the core tool: asking destabilizing questions, improvising zingers to counter attacks. The parallel with fencing is evident; the thrill of action is there, the suddenness of the retorts, but all of this through arguments, humour and emotions, which make the whole show breathtaking. »
Elie Gershel (2nd year student)
An ironic vision of debating, from an anonymous student, master of provocation and irony, who leaves you with his thoughts:
Upon entering ENSAE, I was given the choice between several English groups, and originally set my course towards the debating group without much afterthought, my mind having been severely numbed by two debilitating years of classes préparatoires and the stifling heat of that awful summer of 2016.
I was, however, pleasantly surprised, as amid the indescribable intellectual starvation which plagued much of the first year, across the barren plains of economics and the infertile fields of mathematics, the debating class shone through like a gleaming ray of sunlight, allowing me an all-too-necessary weekly gulp of fresh air which maintained me somewhat alive during those painful winter months.
Indeed, debating allows for two things: defending ideas that aren’t necessarily our own, – a boon for vacuous, shallow people such as me who haven’t got any meaningful ideas to begin with – which does much to satisfy the inner hypocrite residing in all of us, and expressing them as you please, which feeds on that latent exhibitionism which, let’s admit it, we all possess.
It is a wonder to no one that, in the outside world, the fundamentals of probability, or the subtleties of algebra aren’t going to do anyone much good. Essential qualities to succeed, that is, namely, treachery, hypocrisy, and more generally an utter contempt for truth are developed solely in debating class (and politics, obviously).
I may even add that individual initiative, too, has all but disappeared – if it has ever been there in the first place – from education, where compliance with established methods and fossilized modes of thought constitutes a most praised – although altogether most frequent – quality among students, except, again, in debating class, where, as the proverb goes, the end justifies the means.
In order to develop this aforementioned innate faculty for lying, one needs a teacher, a tutor which would direct the growth of the blooming tree of demagoguery and hypocrisy towards new heights – or new depths? – of bad faith, and I must say Ms. Pichon succeeded admirably in this respect. I had long ago lost all hope of discovering someone as completely devoid of scruples as myself, but it seems that hope was not in vain.
Debating seems to me the only island, in the putrid ocean of mediocrity into which the world has sunk, where conversation as it was originally meant to be, can happen, where we can escape both purely technical, disembodied, altogether sterile, mathematical ramblings, and smalltalk.
A « Veteran »’s testimony after a brilliant come back
It was the most peculiar experience. Like traveling back in time, only better. Here I was, 23 years old again, with young people of my age, fighting the good fight, we the Government against the wretched Opposition. « This House would disrespect its Elders » You bet. The hell with those old hags. The future belongs to the young.
Actually… no. I was 44 years old, by far the Eldest member of the team. When we first met to discuss our strategy, one of the younger members of my Government had pointedly (if not tactfully) remarked that I was old enough to be her father. At one point in the discussion she mentioned men going through a middle-life crisis and leaving their wife for the baby-sitter. Well, I wasn’t leaving my wife anytime soon: I coached her team to victory in 1998, the same year we got married, two years after my own team got pummeled in the semi-finals. I was especially proud of the 1998 ENSAE victory in the first round: the opponents from Polytechnique had an excellent command of English and a knack for improvisation. The ENSAE team destroyed them despite a less-than-perfect mastery of the language… through hard work, humour, and the utter dedication of their coach. After that they sailed to victory, cut into the ENA team in the finals like it was butter.
Anyway, here we were again, 2017, Veterans’ debate. So happy to see Declan… The guy has not changed one bit, larger than life as always, took us for a beer (maybe even a few) late into the night after the debate. And the people around… like a big family. We debaters recognize each other in a heartbeat. Young students, seasoned professionals, drifters… who cares? We are one.
I have to be humble: it has become far more difficult today. So many teams, so many schools… reaching the finals is an achievement in itself. In my time it was a toss-up. I salute the 2017 ENSAE team: Hear! Hear! You guys rock. Your coach must be awesome.
In 1996 I was in the Opposition. We were fighting the motion « This House believes the family is dead ». I was First speaker of my team. My speech started with « It seems we have been invited to a funeral… » I heard roars of laughter, it was great, we were off to a good start. Then we lost. My teammates were to blame, for sure.
In 2017 I lost with the Government. But I was very happy. First, consigning the Elders to the dustbin of history is all very well, but what happens when you’re an Elder yourself ? Second, this time I won the prize for Best Speaker. I felt vindicated, after the injustice I suffered in 1996 when that prize escaped me against all odds. Third, I met a whole lot of funny, sparkling, enthusiastic people of all ages. And that is the signature of the FDA.