In a packed-out Music Recital Hall, a highly receptive audience of parents and students enjoyed Bo’s sharing of his experiences and the wisdom he has gained from debating, coaching and a professional career in journalism. In particular, the evening was a celebration of the Humanities and the power of words and rhetoric to not only sharpen our understanding of an issue but also, counter-intuitively, to build bridges between people and weaken the polarisation of modern society.

The conclusion to Bo’s book actually puts its purpose very clearly:

To change the world, debate has first to change the lives of debaters. In this book, I have told the story of how it changed mine. Debate gave me a voice when I had none. It taught me how to argue for my interests, respond to opponents, use words, lose with grace, and pick my battles. As far as transformations of the world go, this is minuscule but, for me, it was everything. [308]

Across the course of the conversation, Bo explored how debate can give voice to students and open up new worlds through an engagement with the issues involved. Debate certainly took Bo from a shy Korean-Australian migrant child to the National Schools championships, to a Harvard education and then to winning the World University championships in only his second year at University. Along the way, he took us through some of the mental techniques he discovered in constructing arguments, finding clear ways to break down issues into key components. For example, at a core level, he suggested that all debates come down to questions of fact, value or action: is it true?; is it right?; and what should we then do? He also explored a mental checklist for engaging in a productive argument: is it a real issue? Is it an important issue? Can it be made specific? Are the two sides aligned? (RISA)

A key point made was that at the core of the humanities is human discourse – there are no absolute right or wrongs but better and worse ways to promote dialogue and build consensus between people. Bo provided a very good sense, both in his conversation and in his book, on how to use argument to do exactly that – by respecting the other side through careful listening, teasing out key ideas with careful consideration, knowing when to argue and when to leave it alone, and how to deal with bullying and ad hominem arguments.

Finally, those of us who have read Bo’s book were highly impressed by his limpid style and engaging personal narrative. On being asked about this, Bo argued that in both debating and writing, it’s crucial the writer does the hard work to make sure that the reader is absolutely clear what the idea is. This pre-work, in setting up a topic through the elimination of distracting elements, is a key part of what makes good writing and strong communication.

Bo’s highly fluent and captivating presentation gave students a strong sense of how to use the tools of thought and debate to influence the world while building connections with others.