The New York Times

August 9, 2001, Thursday, Late Edition - Final

SECTION: Section A; Page 18; Column 1; National Desk

LENGTH: 1045 words

HEADLINE: World of Debating Grows, and Vermont Is Its Lab



Darong Kwon came to the University of Vermont this summer to learn how to speak. There is nothing wrong with Ms. Kwon's voice: she has been talking since she was a toddler, and picked up English as a child when her family lived in Australia. Now 19, she traveled 6,642 miles from her home in Seoul to the World Debate Institute here to learn how to speak up, speak out, speak her mind.

"In Korea, I find it hard to express my opinion so people can understand me, said Ms. Kwon, a freshman communications major at Kyung Hee University. "In Korea, they tell us to be creative, to argue, but they don't let us do it. Here, we practice." Ms. Kwon was among two dozen students and professors from South Korea, Chile, China, Serbia and Uzbekistan stumbling over new vocabulary words today as they argued about whether economic growth should be sacrificed for the environment, whether the Olympic Games should be abolished and whether a woman's place is in the home.

The 18-year-old debate institute, here on the bucolic Burlington campus, has been nicknamed "boot camp for the brain," but for the growing number of students from restrictive cultures, the two-week course is an eye- -- and throat- -- opening experiment in free speech and democracy.

While competitive debate has been experiencing a renaissance in American colleges and rapidly expanding in urban high schools, it has exploded overseas in recent years, particularly in emerging democracies. Founded in 1994, the International Debate Education Association, or IDEA, has native-language debating clubs serving 70,000 students in 31 countries from Albania to Mongolia.

Far beyond an esoteric academic exercise, debate is seen in many of these countries as a tool to opening up society, a way in which the next generation learns to question authority and engage in rigorous discussion of complex topics.

"To go in and say, 'You don't have a democratic society, you need one,' people say, 'Don't tell us that'; if you go in and say, 'We've got this activity that kids love,' they listen," Noel Selegzi, IDEA's executive director, said in a telephone interview from St. Petersburg, Russia, where 300 people from 35 countries just finished a two-week debate camp.

"We don't care that the kids have debate societies for the rest of their lives," Mr. Selegzi added. "What we do care about is that they're used to thinking critically, they learn to analyze what they're hearing, not just take it for granted, they learn to research positions."

In Vermont, the students have English-language seminars on constructing and tearing apart cases, on preparing evidence, on employing rhetorical flourishes and even on heckling and disrupting their opponents with points of information. One afternoon a professor drew a chalkboard diagram of a person suffering under a very hot sun, eager to turn on a fan, which threatened to knock a big rock onto another person's head. To oppose the argument for turning on the fan, he suggested, a debater could offer an alternative solution, like cooling down by using the shade from the big rock.

Each morning the novices, clutching Ben & Jerry's tumblers, face off in practice debate rounds, complete with judges and critiques.

"Stand up and tell me a story," Tomislav Kargacin, a high school English teacher from Novi Sad, Serbia, told Ms. Kwon. "You don't need those papers. If you read, I think you do not understand what you say."

Chi Hyoung Kim, a 27-year-old journalism major, who in December won South Korea's first-ever national debate tournament -- and a trip to the Vermont institute -- struggled this morning through a simple speech in broken English. Mr. Kargacin told him to try it in his native tongue.

"You are a very powerful speaker in Korean," Mr. Kargacin said, though he did not understand a word. "Do you have gestures in Korean? Feel free to use them. That gives it impact."

The guru of the institute, and its founder, is Alfred C. Snider, a professor of forensics universally known as Tuna, a nickname he acquired in a high school debate round about organized crime because of his resemblance to a Chicago Mafia figure. Professor Snider, who looks like a scraggly Santa Claus, with a white-gray beard and bright blue eyes, said he had opened the institute to foreigners because he believed that the rigid educational systems of memorization and note-taking in which many of them study were "not sufficient for training people for the global marketplace."

Tuition for the international students is $500 for the two weeks, compared with $850 for American college students and $950 for high school debaters. While the Americans stay up all night researching details of policy on Native Americans, or practicing talking so fast that they are left gasping for air, "in international debating it's much more about personal empowerment, creating civic virtues," Professor Snider said. "It's people who are saying, 'I like democracy, I like the sound of it, but how do we do it?' "

Rodrigo Rojas, a Chilean poet and professor who coordinated the first-ever international Spanish-language debate tournament this spring, said his country remained hesitant about debate because of the censorship and retribution that characterized the Pinochet government. Three Chinese students from Inner Mongolia who arrived late in Burlington because of problems in getting visas said some topics remained off limits in their homeland. But Mr. Kargacin said the war back in Serbia had only reignited interest in debate.

"Violence is not an argument; we can treat unsubstantiated claim as violence," he explained. "Learning how to build arguments is learning how to be part of the community. That goes for the whole world."

Gyeong-Ho Hur, a professor at Kyung Hee University, came to the Vermont camp last summer, then played host to 80 teams from 20 universities in December for South Korea's first national debate tournament. Now he has a new goal: a college debate between North Korea and South Korea.

"Governments," he said, "they are not really talking; what about the students? It's going to be a good starting point. "We have many commonalities. Something we can talk together. Not something related to politics. Probably we could talk about Japan."

GRAPHIC: Photo: At the World Debate Institute, students take seminars on constructing and tearing apart cases, on using rhetorical flourishes, even on heckling. (Paul O. Boisvert for The New York Times)