UNPACKING THE BACKPACK – Can debate class save America?

“Anyone who bemoans the state of public education need only spend a weekend at a high school speech and debate tournament to have their faith restored.” That perspective from Curt, a debate coach at a suburban high school outside Denver, was shared with me one bright Saturday morning as thousands of students descended upon a local school where they’d spend the day doing what they love, arguing. People who grew up with memories of John Hughes’ “The Breakfast Club” might think spending all day at school on a Saturday would be a punishment. But that’s not the case with competitors in the world of high school Speech and Debate, and the spirit of community and intellectual engagement found in the debate world might be just what America needs. 

Jason Kosanovich, a local civics teacher and debate coach, believes passionately in the power of debate to engage kids. “Community is the key,” he told me, “because they have an open respect for each other” even as they compete over divisive topics. Debate is also one of the most inclusive activities found in school, for it’s open to everybody who is willing to put in the time. One of the strengths of the speech and debate tournament scene is the collegiality found among the students as they gather at local high schools for numerous weekends during the year. Debaters spend hours of downtime in the hallways and cafeterias conversing about their performances and supporting each other as they prepare for their next rounds.

Debate tournaments have numerous styles and events ranging from strict public policy debate to extemporaneous speeches about international issues and even dramatic interpretations or personal commentary. It’s in the head-to-head events like Lincoln-Douglas and Public Forum that politics, argument, and rhetoric reign supreme. Yet, decorum is the rule and debaters “have to ignore their biases, drop their personal opinions, and leave their egos at the door” when they enter the debate room because they’re going to flip a coin to determine which side they argue in that round. Having the ability to effectively defend any position has a calming influence, a feeling shared by a team of public forum finalists, who once told me, “The structure of debate prevents anyone from getting too heated. If you get crazy, you lose.”

Clearly, many adults could learn from the maturity of these teens when discussing political issues. And being required to competently argue both sides of an issue definitely informs their own views. Undoubtedly, these kids exemplify the classic characterization by novelist Henry James of being “a person on whom nothing is lost.” In competition, it’s not surprising for students to repeatedly cite references to numerous research studies and news sources like The Atlantic, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal and more as they make their cases with the poise of veteran attorneys arguing before the high court. Extemporaneous speakers might be tasked with defining the challenges of the next Congressional session, explaining the complicated relationship of China and Taiwan, or analyzing the impact of the Boko Haram terrorist group on central African politics. 

Regardless, speech and debate kids are knowledgeable of the world and thoughtful about it. They are also self aware and confident in their own skin. It’s not unusual at a tournament to encounter kids in the hallway talking to lockers, walking the halls citing statistics and quotes, huddled in groups comparing notes, or simply encouraging and challenging each other. In rounds they can be heard smoothly pulling quotes from obscure UN studies and journals of scientific research, and they display a mature command of their topics. That’s what impresses coaches like Kosanovich who explains “Walking into an interview with confidence, being able to focus and think clearly, maturely organizing their days and weekends, these are skills and qualities that will ripples throughout their lives.”

Those worried about the motivations and abilities of Generation Z to lead and improve their world should consider attending a speech and debate tourney. Walking the halls of a debate tournament, it’s hard to be critical of teenagers and public education. While many of these kids aren’t always challenged by the academics of the classroom, competition is where they show off what many educators and employers believe to be the most important skills people can develop – critical thinking and the art of public speaking. These tournaments are great places to find the state’s best and brightest young people as they gather to “geek out” on being smart.

Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator, & school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. You can email him at mmazenko@gmail.com