Debate, math and grit | Inquirer Business

Debate, math and grit

(Last of two parts)

Math teaches you to not be intimidated by complex problems, to look at things from alternative perspectives, to avoid fallacies and to communicate abstract lines of logic in a clear and succinct way,” says Robert Nelson “Tobi” Leung, who together with David Demitri Africa, made history by winning the World University Debate Championships (WUDC) in Madrid this January. Tobi and David are applied math majors in Ateneo de Manila University.


In our core math class, Tobi aced the logic quiz, his solution so rigorous that it was presented for the class to emulate.

“Math forces you to check and be honest with your reasoning, keeping you intellectually disciplined,” Tobi says. “This isn’t to say that in debate, we rely on logic alone. We pick up a lot from other disciplines like economics, political science, the arts, but math is a good framework for approaching them, too.”


Math majors are used to nonroutine problems and are trained to communicate with clarity and reason. In the WUDC, Tobi and David were tasked to argue against the African philosophy “ubuntu,” where individuals are reputedly molded by and responsible to their communities.

Ubuntu is not “zero sum,” Tobi and David argued, where one person’s gain is another’s loss. Community is simply not finite.

They questioned whether ubuntu was “sufficient” to bring about positive outcomes, because it does not guarantee that people who believe in it will be motivated to help society.

They argued against the necessity of ubuntu, because even if individuals focus mainly on self-interest, this does not mean that they cannot work together towards a common goal.

Math theorems are founded on sufficient and necessary conditions, and I rejoiced as Tobi and David—consciously or not—approached WUDC with this lens.

“Math helps develop the skill set to investigate and break down a problem into answerable steps, and then organize them into something cogent,” says David. “The best math problems are hard not because they are computationally difficult, but because the steps needed to answer them are themselves [often] obscured.

“This is also true for debate motions, which apply a different set of conditions and a different definition of ‘answer’ but nonetheless require a similar skill set. A motion about geopolitics will have many moving parts and uncertainties that need to be satisfactorily ‘answered,’ so we need to know that these components exist before developing a gameplan for a speech. Debating is like problem solving, both in terms of speaking to the motion and responding to curveballs thrown by the opposition.”


In our problem-solving class, David posed intriguing questions, some of which I assigned for everyone to tackle. His mind works fast, an advantage in lightning-speed debate. In math, I was glad when he also took the time to grapple with solutions not readily apparent.

Which brings us to attitude and mindset. Despite belonging to a society that often proclaims its distaste for math, and a generation typified by anxiety, Tobi and David face challenges with equanimity.

Chosen by teachers for our science and engineering student resilience study, David says, “I wasn’t very good at math or debate in high school first year.” But he tells students: “Try it out even if you think you aren’t the best fit. It might capture your interest in the way it did mine.”

David made it to the WUDC finals twice before. He did not lose heart, and triumphed in his third time. “Winning Worlds is a dream come true. After falling just short of winning it all two years in a row, it is a relief and an honor to prove to myself and the world that persistence, grit and good old Atenean ‘magis’ [doing more for Christ and other people] can bring it home.”

With grit comes gratitude. “This win also belongs to those whose shoulders we stand on, the Ateneo Debate Society that backed us, the people who supported us relentlessly,” says Tobi. “We lost countless times, but through their sustained support, we kept coming back.”

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