"The Great Debaters" | Free Essay Example

“The Great Debaters”

Words: 1419
Topic: Art & Design

Good communicators are successful leaders and businessmen. In the movie entitled The Great Debaters, one of the characters is Samantha Booke. She had to go up against great odds in order to secure her inclusion into the debate team. Her mentor told her that a female debater was unheard of in the school’s debate team history. However, she was undaunted because it was her dream to become a lawyer. She says that the debate team will help her improve her oratorical or public speaking skills. In the course of her narrative, she will discover that there is more to communication than meets the eye. In order to understand the more profound aspects of the communication process, it is important to use the “Circus” metaphor.

Communication High Wire

According to the authors of the textbook: “Communication High Wire: Leveraging the Power of Diverse Communication Styles,” the ability to master communication technique is greatly enhanced if the learner uses a metaphor. In this particular context, the learner must know how to appreciate communication principles derived from studying the “Circus” metaphor. The authors asserted that in a communication process, there are so many things that are happening at the same time (Saphiere, Mikk, & Devries, 2005).

The same thing can be said about a circus atmosphere. Under the big circus tent, the audience is inundated with different sounds, smells, sights, feelings, and tastes (Saphiere, Mikk, & Devries, 2005). The average spectator understands that in order to soak in the circus atmosphere and in order to enjoy the event, it is imperative not to focus on one aspect of the show. It is important to take in everything and consider all the facets of the show in order to appreciate the meaning of the event. The same thing can be said about the communication process.

It is interesting to note that the movie’s premise was centered on the struggle of young African-American students’ desire for prominence. The movie also talks about the struggle for equality in the Jim Crow South. The story is a few decades removed from Martin Luther’s King’s Civil Rights Movement. However, it can be argued that the most important aspect of the movie is not about the debates. It was about the complex social forces and background stories that complicate the speeches they made during the debates, and the times when they conversed with family, friends, lovers, and enemies.

The same sentiment reverberated in the book, especially when the authors pointed out that there were many discrete components to a circus ( Saphiere, Mikk, & Devries, 2005). Consider, for instance, the personal background of the communicator and the manner in which they communicate. Mr. Tolston is the trainer of the debate team. The team members view him as a complicated man and treat him with a mixture of respect and loathing. Mr. Lowe, one of the members of the debate team, went on a head-to-head confrontation with him because the student interpreted his arrogant talk and legalistic demeanor as offensive and inappropriate. However, Mr. Lowe came to realize later on that there is more than meets the eye when it comes to Mr. Tolson’s antics.

The authors also pointed out that these components interact with one another to provide a total experience called the circus. Thus, the recipient of the message endangers his ability to enjoy the rewards of the message if he tends to ignore other aspects of the communication process.

The movie is indeed a wonderful example of the principles described in the textbook. It can be argued that the “debate” was used as a backdrop so that the audience develops the capability to distinguish the differences between structured and unstructured communication. When the team enters a debate contest, they enter a world wherein statements were uttered in accordance with certain rules. The rules exist to enhance the communication process. It is interesting to note that it seems easier to communicate in a “debate” compared to communicating with people in real life.

Communication Style and Context

The authors asserted that it is important to learn the skill of adaptation to improve the communication process. The communicator must learn to adapt his communication style to enhance its effectiveness to convey the intended message. However, the authors also pointed out that an effective communication style must have the following elements: 1) authenticity; 2) intentionality; and 3) critical mass.

It is imperative to consider the value of authenticity. In the said film, the characters struggled to communicate, or at least they struggled to trust the words hurled at them because they viewed each statement with suspicion. When Samantha Booke expresses her desire to join the debate team, Mr. Tolson doubts her integrity. The debate coach coaxes her to spill the beans with regard to the real reason why she wants to join the team.

In another scene, Mr. Tolson invites Mr. Lowe to join the team, and the young man hesitates because he doubts the professor’s sincerity. Lowe’s reaction stems from doubt as he tries to figure out Mr. Tolson’s real motive. Mr. Lowe knows Mr. Tolson as one of the professors of Wiley College. However, he also knows that Mr. Tolson dresses up as a sharecropper and rubs elbows with blue-collar workers. In another scene, Dr. Farmer confronts his son. Dr. Farmer fails to appreciate the young man’s noble character because of the erroneous assumption that the young man did something dishonorable.

The authors also pointed out the importance of intentionality and critical mass. These are related terms because the combination of these two principles produces communicators with the intentionality to demonstrate their own style and their own talent. In the movie, Mr. Tolson wants his team to be molded in his own image. He wants them to debate a certain way. However, his protégé, Mr. Lowe, resents the idea. In his desire for individuality, Mr. Lowe added something new and beneficial to the debate team.

Finally, the authors pointed out the importance of context, and to view context as the house of mirrors. One of the most popular attractions in a circus is the house of mirrors. Mirror of various shapes and sizes covered every square inch of the walls. As a result, the participant who enters the room feels disoriented and suffers from the impact of optical illusion. This illustrates a common feature of the communication process, and that is the failure to understand the intended message of the communicator fully. In the movie, one of the complex sub-plots is the accusation that Mr. Tolston doubles as a communist agitator.

The word “communist” was a hot button issue during that time period. The Federal Government frowned upon communism because it was perceived as a threat to the American way of life. Mr. Tolston wants to assure his friends and detractors that he is doing something far greater than ideological debates. He wants to help those who are less fortunate. However, his critics and his former allies disdain the fact that he meets with tenant farmers in secret places to strengthen their resolve against unscrupulous business practices. It was not the intended message of Mr. Tolston to transform the United States into another Soviet Union. He simply wants to fight for the less fortunate, and those who do not have the strength to speak against oppressors. In the same manner, those who went against Mr. Tolson were compelled to take drastic actions because of their fear of communism. Somewhere along the way, communication lines broke down.


The book entitled Communication Highwire was an important book that enabled people to understand the different facets of the communication process. The book provides an overview of why communication lines break down and why the recipient of the message was unable to receive the intended message. It is, therefore, imperative to master basic principles when it comes to speaking in public or communicating with people on a more personal basis.

One of the profound learning experiences involved the discussion of metaphors because it is a helpful tool that learners can use to learn more about the complex components of the communication process. In addition, the authors also pointed out that people should communicate with authenticity and intentionality to enhance the communication process. The application of these principles brings out the capability to speak in accordance with personality and talent. In other words, it is not enough to express opinions and ideas. The communicator must learn how to convey the same message using a communication style that empowers and informs the listeners.


Saphiere, D., Mikk, B., & Devries, B. (2005). Communication high wire: Leveraging the power of communication styles. ME: Intercultural Press. Web.