Collegiate Debating Societies in New Zealand: The Role of Discourse in an Inter-Colonial Setting, 1878-1902
Thesis DisciplineAmerican Studies
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
This thesis examines how, in New Zealand during the nineteenth century, debate was practised as an educative means to cultivate a standard of civic participation among settlers. Three collegiate debating societies and their activities between 1878 and 1902 are the object of this study. The discussion of these three New Zealand societies yields a distinctly colonial concept of debate. In the New Zealand public forum, a predominantly Pakeha intellectual elite put forth the position that public decisions should be determined by a process of deliberation that was conducted by educated individuals. This project was dominated by scientific argumentation that underpinned debate as a reliable means of discursive interaction. New Zealand's intellectual elite was influenced by similar trends in Britain and the United States. Moreover, the concept of debate, that developed over the period of thirty years, carried significant normative connotations that rendered rational argumentation an acceptable form of discursive interaction. It is shown that nineteenth-century debating practice in New Zealand should be understood as a cultural phenomenon that combines the practice of debate with alternative forms of discursive interaction like mock trials or musical evenings. Mostly composed of students, these societies negotiated ideal standards of discourse and real encounters on the debating platform. In order to understand this relation of real and ideal in nineteenth-century discourse, Habermas's theory of communicative action helps to identify levels of interaction that reveal the social structure of debating activity. In addition, this thesis discusses events of imperial dimension like the Boer War and the Australia Federation movement to locate students' discourse in an inter-colonial setting and identify discursive patterns of colonial policy making. Due to the lack of rhetorical research in New Zealand, American scholarship on literary and debating societies in the Gilded Age era provide a frame of reference for this study. The story of nineteenth-century New Zealand was written in an inter-colonial web of written and oral discourse. As such, the understanding of a distinctly New Zealand nineteenth-century concept of debate contributes to a shift of perspective in New Zealand historical research towards a rhetorical interpretation of discourse culture. Furthermore, this study informs a reading of New Zealand's past that takes into account the strategic function of public discourse and its effect on the creation of jingoism and grounds for national identification. This thesis concludes that nineteenth-century debate was an imagined and ideal standard imposed on the public forum as well as a lived and embodied experience of social interaction. While this thesis focuses on the activities of three debating societies, it is suggested that literary and debating societies, in general, were more numerous and influential that historical scholarship has acknowledged.