Model United Nations and Debate

by Ryan on November 24, 2007

My freshman year of college, I tried out for both the Model United Nations and debate teams. I never did debate in high school, so it was interesting to learn about the activity and compare it to MUN.

They’re both popular high school and college extracurriculars that value research and public speaking. Both also offer opportunities for students to not only participate but organize.

Debate, however, is older, larger, and better established; its beginnings can be traced back to ancient history, i.e. Socrates. MUN, on the other hand, is only as old as the UN itself (although there apparently existed a Model League of Nations).

Debate also seems much more centralized than MUN. Organizations such as the National Forensics League provide a central source of information. From what I’ve been told, the calendar for major debate tournaments is very concrete. I believe that hosting schools actually coordinate dates amongst themselves.

MUN, in contrast, is very decentralized. As I’ve declared in a previous post, this website is the first attempt to provide a central source of information on MUN. Conferences are hosted on dates of their choice, meaning that different conferences inevitably take place on the same days; this happened to me my senior year of high school, when another school started a conference on the exact same dates of mine.

Granted, MUNers recognize that certain conferences “own” certain times of year, i.e. Harvard in February, NHSMUN in March, etc. But this is a very informal system that does not prevent any school from trying to “steal” a certain date. And although the United Nations Association has an MUN calendar, it is extremely outdated.

But what interests me most are the different skills that these two activities emphasize. While both stress researching and public speaking, debate values the intellectual, whereas MUN values the interpersonal.

In debate, you make arguments on which you and maybe a partner are judged on substance and style. I’ve also been told that judges tend to be professionals or former debaters that know what to look for. So policy debaters speak at 100 miles an hour, but that’s okay because the audience is already listening for particular points and a specific structure.

What differentiates MUN is that you are not only judged on public speaking, but your leadership skills overall. Forming alliances and writing resolutions in a group require personality in addition to intellect. Public speaking is actually a minor part of MUN for most delegates, when you might give a speech once or twice in a large General Assembly committee.

Indeed, MUN places much less emphasis on intellectual abilities than debate. Deep, philosophical speeches can hardly be made under a one minute time limit. They might even work against you; complicated arguments are much more difficult to understand. My debate friends who started doing MUN in college had a hard time at first; they were loathe to simplify their ideas and make short, slow speeches.

In addition, the debate topics that I’ve seen start with “Resolved: x is better than y,” allowing for a clear distinction between arguments. MUNers, at least in the United States, write their resolutions, which allows for a lot more overlap. It’s a common complaint to hear that the opposing resolutions in a committee actually say the same thing; their sponsors’ egos is what differentiates them.

Thinking about the different skills emphasized by these two activities led me to think about the kinds of people who do them. The most interesting way to describe the difference is to examine what my friends on the Yale debate and MUN teams do after college.

The Yale debaters tend to go into graduate school and government. This is reflective of their generally brainy personalities. I think it also has to do with their debate topics, which always seem to have some sort of public policy implication, i.e. policy debate.

Yale MUNers, on the other hand, tend to go into finance and consulting. Having gone through the on campus interview process myself, I have come to believe that these kind of firms are look for not just skill but style, i.e. someone who fits into their corporate culture. It should make sense, then, that an activity which values interpersonal skills should lead its participants to positions that value the same.

These are generalizations, of course; debaters also do finance and MUNers also go to grad school. But there exists a trend, nonetheless. MUN and debate value different skills, which attracts certain personalities and leads them to different interests.

So all of this dawns on me three years after trying for both the MUN and debate teams. As you can tell, I made MUN but not debate. I have come to realize that I am not brainy, as much as I try to be. And although I was looking at law school, I now want to do finance. It has also dawned on me that MUN prepares you well for business, but I will save that for another post.

The point of this article is not to declare that one is better than another, but to illustrate differences that I find interesting. MUN and debate present great opportunities to develop your leadership skills–try both!

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