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The Windhover Society Balloon Debate

On Tuesday 30 April, The Windhover Society ran its annual balloon debate at The Oratory School. The premise is that a group of famous people from history are all passengers in a sinking hot air balloon.  To save the others, one must be thrown out of the basket.  Each boy makes a defence for the character they have chosen, responds to questions, and there is finally a vote as to who should be sacrificed for the sake of the other passengers.

Harry Page made a well-researched case for Warwick Davis, arguing in part for his popularity as an actor and writer, part by begging sympathy for his family, but principally on the grounds that Davis, standing at only 3’6 tall, would not bring about a sufficient reduction in weight from the basket to save the others, and was therefore a pointless choice! 

Danila Shkaev had chosen a character without whom polio and flu, for which he developed vaccines, would have devastated humanity, the physician Jonas Salk; through explaining the significance of these vaccines, he made a clear case for his value to the world. 

Aaron Petty made a spirited speech in support of the chemist Alfred Nobel, stressing his skill as a chemist, the usefulness of a man who understood dynamite in the event of a crash, and the value to the world of the Nobel Peace Prize; he also pledged that if he survived he would develop a better fuel for keeping hot air balloons afloat. 

Will Cassar defended Martin Luther King Jr on the grounds of the importance of his leadership and influence within the American civil rights movement. 

Kieran Green made a strong case for Sir (the knighthood much emphasized) Isaac Newton, for his value to science and mathematical discovery, especially in terms of the practical understanding of hot air balloon flight and the very gravity that was busy pulling the craft to its doom; he also pointed out that, although heavier than Warwick David, at only 5’6, he was unlikely to be the heaviest in the basket.

Finally, Jack Thomson made a short but rhetorically-compelling case for Joseph-Michel Montgolfier, one the brothers who invented the hot air balloon, arguing that there was no one who knew more about hot air balloons than he, and that therefore it would be madness to throw him out just when that was exactly what they needed.

Each boy in the balloon was allowed to ask one other boy a question, and questions were also taken from the audience.  Joseph-Michel Montgolfier came a little unstuck when asked what exactly, with all his balloon knowledge, he intended to do about the emergency, and the value of Davis, an actor rather than a scientist, did receive some scrutiny.  However, the final vote revealed pretty decisively that Alfred Nobel had not managed to save himself from the famous title given him: ‘the merchant of death’, and he was chosen to be sacrificed by a significant majority.

It was impressive to see how the boys are developing in their rhetorical skill, instincts, and confidence, and there will be more opportunities for them to present speeches before the end of their year in The Windhover Society.