Lessons in Disputatio for St. Mary’s Dominican High School 8th Graders

In religion class, St. Mary’s Dominican High School 8th graders Hannah Hoth (left) and Mary Le apply their understanding of disputatio during a debate.

In St. Mary’s Dominican High School’s eighth grade level religion classes taught by Mrs. Jill Cabes, students applied their understanding of disputatio during a week of debates on a range of topics that included Do Cats or Dogs Make Better Pets to Should School Uniforms Be Required.

“All of the students were engaged and throughout the week learned to practice active and attentive listening, as well as use respectful language during their responses. The Rules of Disputatio are to never deny, to seldom affirm, and to always distinguish” said Mrs. Cabes. “We were able to experience the rules in a practical way rather than as merely an abstract concept. This will help the students with communication and dialogue throughout their lives.”

During the first nine weeks of the school term, the class had covered the history and traditions of the Order of Preachers, including highlighting several Dominican saints. “The concept of disputatio is tied to the Dominican order because it was used in the universities during the time of St. Thomas and St. Albert,” explained Mrs. Cabes, the school’s Vice President of Dominican Catholic Identity. “Even St. Dominic and other friars used the practice of peaceful public debates about theological topics to arrive at a deeper understanding and to uncover truth.  I wanted the students to be able to practice the art of disputatio because it involves respectful dialogue with others who hold opposing opinions.  This is not modeled very much for our students in politics and on social media, so I wanted to dedicate class time to allow the students to really practice and participate in disputatio sessions.”

The challenge for students to identify objective reasons to support their position was an important part of the exercise. “I wanted to challenge them to think more logically, critically, and to use reason rather than personal feelings and emotions to promote their position,” their teacher shared.

She added there was time given for each student to be able to defend a particular side of a position to provide the students with a solid experience and foundation of the practice of disputatio. “This will allow us to engage throughout the year in disputatio sessions on other topics that will arise during the curriculum. I don’t plan to assign everyone a topic as I did during this week, but we will definitely utilize the skills that we learned throughout the year in classroom discussions.”