A Tradition in its 140th Year – Richard T. Merrick Debate
So far a lot has been written on the history of the annual Merrick Debate, the culmination of a whole semester’s eloquence and the conclusion of all Merrick Season’s quality debates. If the name Richard T. Merrick and his 18 shares of railroad stock in 1874 don’t sound familiar to you, feel free to check out the detailed introduction to Merrick’s history on Philodemic’s website. But Merrick is far more than its 140 years of rich history in records. It is also a living memory for our members, including President Whelan and Mr. Wilson, last year’s winner of the Father Ryder Gavel.
- All Leading up to a Saturday Night: When Richard T. Merrick bestowed upon the society 18 shares of railroad stock to award the best Philodemic debater with a gold medal, he stated in a letter the goal to “[promote] the pursuit of oratory and [encourage] the practice of debate.” True to that ideal, the Merrick Medal, the only non-academic medal allowed to be worn during graduation, goes to the Philodemic member who won the top 4 cumulative points during a series of (typically 9) Merrick Season debates throughout the semester and who topped that record with a best keynote speech on the Merrick debate itself.
In an effort to distinguish the Merrick Season debates from the one-and-only Merrick debate, Mr. Wilson explained that, “In normal conversation, Philodemicians will refer to all debates in which it is possible to earn points for ‘the Merrick debate’ as Merrick debates, but we only have one actual Merrick debate for the medal each year. For the sake of clarity, these Merrick debates might be better called Merrick-eligible debates.” Though the constitution does not require a set number of Merrick-eligible debates, Mr. Wilson held the view that, “The more the merrier … since it gives speakers more opportunities to showcase their abilities.”
He further introduced the voting system in detail: “At the end of each of the Merrick-eligible debates, the President and Vice-President ask every member of the society to rank, by secret ballot, who they believed were the best three speakers of the evening (this includes guests and non-members!). After counting these votes, the President announces the top five speakers, where the speaker receiving first place receives 5 points, second place receives 4 points, and so on. Each speaker who earned points that evening then has their point tallies posted in the Amanuensis summary as well as printed in each brochure at later debates. At the last Merrick-eligible debate, the final point tallies are calculated, and the four speakers with the most points are declared the Merrick keynoters.”
- The Hallmark of the Spring Semester: The Merrick Debate best explains the change in atmosphere from fall to spring semester as it ushers in good, quality speeches through the competitive point system. “In one word, what makes the spring semester different is Merrick,” President Whelan said, “Even though at the end of the semester, the Merrick Debate does affect the whole semester because a lot of the debates win points for the Merrick Debate. There is also a change in atmosphere. People do get competitive during the Merrick Season but it’s not a bad thing. Though it is competition, it is competition among friends and the ultimate result is high quality speeches. Friendly competition leads to high quality speeches.”
Among these high quality speeches, President Whelan’s personal favorite comes from his mentor Mr. Young, who negated certainty as a worthwhile pursuit by declaring it worthy to cross the valley separating Mt. Certainty and Mt. Uncertainty. According to President Whelan, this wonderful speech is “the epitome of clarifying speeches – the type that makes people realize where is the debate coming from and going to” and a rare but effective use of metaphor.
- An Epic Resolution: For Mr. Wilson, the carefully-selected resolution of the Merrick Debate is also something that we can all look forward to. “We also come together to pick an epic resolution which can challenge the Merrick keynoters and provide wide grounds for debate,” he wrote, “This makes Merrick an amazing experience, where you hear some of the best speakers you will ever meet go head-to-head on an incredibly interesting and important topic. I always leave the debate feeling like I have learned so much about both the topic being debated and speech-craft in general. Plus, the resolution is usually not just academically interesting, rather it is of immediate importance to my everyday life and deepest values.”
Speaking of his favorite Merrick speech, he recalled Ms. Wynter’s closing keynote during last year’s Merrick debate: “She poetically described the first notes of the Prelude to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. She was able to put into speech the profound expression of ambiguity, beauty, and the fragility of meaning which the piece contains. Amanda then used this as the central example of her argument, where she encouraged us not to fall into the trap of the ‘quest for certainty’ but instead embrace the finitude and incompleteness of human life. It was a beautiful speech, and it continues to affect the way I think about knowledge.”
- And a Father Ryder Gavel: Apart from the famed Merrick Medal, the Merrick Debate features yet another relatively new award — the Father Ryder Gavel — for the best floor speaker that night. Last year’s awardee, Mr. Wilson speaks to its unique role in fostering a pursuit of eloquence within the whole society. “The Father Ryder Gavel is a cool tradition for a few reasons,” he wrote. “First of all, it allows Merrick to be a final showcase not only for the keynoters but also for the Society as a whole, since anyone in the floor debate is eligible. Also, the winner of the Gavel is selected by the keynoters, so the Society’s best four speakers are able to recognize the eloquent speaking of another member.”
He also shared his own experience winning the award: “When I think of some of the distinguished speakers to win the Gavel in the past, like Sam Dulik and Michael Desnick, I am greatly honored to have won the Gavel. I had spent a lot of time thinking and discussing the topic before the debate, and my hands were shaking when I stood to speak. I felt passionately about this resolution, so to be able to express that passion and be recognized for it was tremendously meaningful.”
Lastly, as repeatedly advised, I will end on a strong note with quotes:
“It’s an exciting time for freshmen, without a doubt. A lot will be inducted and those who are not yet on the list will be on the list. I urge freshmen to keep coming, to stay involved, and above all else, to enjoy Philodemic.” – President Whelan
“Philodemic is great! Merrick is great (but no Merrick Frenzy, upperclassmen)! Let’s tackle awesome, challenging, creative topics, give spectacular speeches that alter the fabric of space and time, and do all sorts of other great things this semester. We have the potential to make the Society the best it’s ever been. Let’s do it.” – Mr. Wilson