My grandfather might be the scariest man I know.
He’s a nuclear physicist who’s taught at universities all over the world. He was intimately involved in the Mars Rover project in the 1970’s. When you ask him if he has been to Area 51, he sighs and says– I am not making this up– “Well, I really can’t tell you that.” But none of that is what makes him scary.
My grandfather isn’t immediately scary. He wouldn’t hurt a fly. My grandfather was never scary in my mind until one day I realized that, were push ever to come to shove, he could blow up my head with his mind. You see, the man knows just about everything. I had this epiphany on the fateful day that I found myself disagreeing with him on an issue of policymaking– the first such occurrence– and I was sure that I was going to get slaughtered.
It wasn’t that I was uninformed on my topic. It wasn’t that I was unsure of my position. It wasn’t even that he had studied the issue for longer (which, for the record, he had by several decades). I knew that cleaning up coal plants was a good idea; it was my Affirmative case. He, on the other hand, knew every type of coal and could explain the entire process of coal mining from the surveying of the site to the debates around the various drafts of the Clean Air Act (which he had attended) to the state politics in Appalachian states to the tunnels or mountaintop removal, the types of coal (anthracite, bituminous, subbituminous, lignite), how each was used, the specific chemical treatment processes used to remove mercury deposits, and the specific boiler technology used in the power plants. I wound up convincing him, but I still needed to change my shorts afterward.
My point is this: There is a very big difference between a debater and a thinker. Debaters debate, and that’s basically all they do. They have the mechanics, protocols and rudiments of the debate round memorized by heart, they can speak, look at briefs, and read evidence. Thinkers know things. They have a deep knowledge base on every topic, which they can pull from at any time and in any circumstance. They don’t need to read their briefs, because they know what they know and they’re confident enough to use it.
I’ve seen a Thinker argue with a Debater. The Thinker quoted Nietzsche, used an example from Calvin and Hobbes, gave factual analysis on government conspiracies like the Tuskegee Experiments and MKULTRA, compared the Debater to Dwight from The Office, talked about Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, referenced Henry Kissinger’s phone conversations with the Russian Ambassador during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, discussed Schrodinger’s Cat, and sang a little Katy Perry. The Debater pulled out his binder and said “The Heritage Foundation says YOU’RE WRONG.”
As I observed these events unfolding, I could hear the words being said, but all I could see in my head was the scene from the docks in Batman Begins. A moment of abject terror as the armed thugs realize that they are dealing with a force that they can no more see than comprehend. They’re so outmatched, it’s not pretty. IT’S BEAUTIFUL.
There is a school of thought that says that real Thinkers are born rather than made. In my opinion, there is some merit to the idea that some are more inclined to think in a given way than others, that there is a genetic predisposition to being able to access and make applicable large stores of information. But that’s no excuse not to try. The fact of the matter is that there’s information that is always applicable and will always be applicable as long as you can make it applicable, and mastering a deep knowledge base is what transforms Debaters into Thinkers.
The key to acquiring a knowledge base is simple: learn. Learn everything you possibly can. When you research, don’t just go to your usual sites. Branch out. Read things you would never agree with. Read books. Read newspapers. Read journals. Ask yourself, “Why is this newsworthy? Why did somebody think that this piece of information was worth putting in the New York Times? Where does this fit in with the larger state of affairs?” When you find yourself bored, do exercises connecting seemingly unrelated facts or subjects. Read trivia and quote books– I recommend mental_floss books, especially Scatterbrained.
This brings me to the single greatest resource for debaters, homeschoolers, and anyone who wants to learn anything: The Great Courses. Presented by The Teaching Company, The Great Courses are affordable college-level lectures on CD or DVD taught by the greatest professors in the world. Simply put, it’s the best value in education that you’ll find anywhere. There are nearly 500,000 college professors in America, and only one in 5,000 is chosen to teach a lecture.
I’ll give you an example. By far my favorite course that I’ve taken in my entire high school career is Great Ideas in Philosophy, a series of sixty half-hour lectures taught by Professor Daniel Robinson. There is a lecture or two from this course online, so those so inclined can see what I mean when I say that this man has probably forgotten more about philosophy and the history of ideas than anybody reading (or writing) this blog will ever know. I speak from experience that these lectures have a level of scholarly insight that you will never get from reading an Apologia textbook. This isn’t a paid endorsement; nobody’s making a dime off this recommendation. My point is that if there was ever a comprehensive resource for building a deep knowledge base, The Great Courses is it.
Until February 10, The Teaching Company is having a massive sale, with up to 70% off some of their best courses. I would strongly encourage you to purchase a course or two and see how you like it. Watch the 24-lecture “Analysis and Critique: How to Engage and Write about Anything”, taught by Professor Dorsey Armstrong of Purdue University, and your persuasive speech rank will probably jump a few places. In the 12-lecture “The Art of Public Speaking: Lessons from the Greatest Speeches in History“, Professor John R. Hale goes through parts of public speaking often neglected in debate, such as finding a humorous voice, painting pictures in words, and sharing a vision. Each of these courses costs less than the Blue Book Advanced, and each will continue paying dividends long after the debate year is up. For topic-specific information, Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition contains 84 lectures (almost two straight days) tacking most of the weighty questions of the Western world: Job and the problem of suffering, Machiavelli and the origins of political science, Newton and enlightened science, Hume’s epistemology, Rousseau’s dissent, Marx on alienation, Heidegger’s Dasein and Axistenz, Hayek’s critique of central planning, Nozick’s defense of libertarianism, and literally dozens of others. You can learn about the secrets of mental math, the rights of man, the American identity, the merits of capitalism, economics, game theory, particle physics, dark matter, superstring theory, 20th-century literature, the neuroscience of everyday life, America’s diplomatic history, and so forth. I would encourage anyone who wants to build their knowledge base for the rest of their lives to give these courses a look.