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September 1, 2008
Vol. 66
No. 1

Clash! The World of Debate

Combine one part student, one part game, and one part controversy. What do you get? Student debate.

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Two hundred high school students are gathered in the cafeteria at Hyde Leadership Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. The noise level is high, just what you'd expect in a roomful of so many teenagers. But it's not a weekday, it's not lunch, and they don't have to be here. They've chosen to be here on this Saturday morning at the early hour of 8:30 a.m. I see jackets and ties, dresses and heels. In the din I can make out snatches of conversation: What are you running? What's the evidence? At the table across from me, two girls in suits are huddled over papers, discussing impacts.
These students are debaters in the District of Columbia Urban Debate League, and they've come from 10 public, private, and charter schools in the area to do what kids love to do—argue. In a few minutes, they'll know which team they've been paired with, and they'll head for the assigned room and battle it out before a judge. Most of the students are doing public debate; they have another minute to finish jotting down notes about their topic on a yellow sheet of paper, the only bit of written information they'll be allowed to bring into the room. A smaller portion of the students, those lugging bins and expanding files full of evidence, are doing policy debate. The public debaters have 30 minutes of talk ahead of them. It will take the policy debaters about 90 minutes to finish their round. Both groups are hoping to launch a volley of arguments that collide head-on with those of the opposing team, what people in the field call clash. Clash in debate is good. Avoidance—arguments whizzing by but never intersecting—is bad.
The adrenaline is pumping; the kids are ready to go. And clash is what they're looking for.

Then and Now

Debating has been around for a long time, with some pretty spectacular results. Look at Socrates, who was put to death in 399 BCE for corrupting the youth of Athens; his accusers couldn't forgive him for incessantly questioning their beliefs and making "the worse appear the better cause." Abraham Lincoln went head to head with Stephen Douglas in the Illinois senatorial race of 1858; those debates catapulted Lincoln into the presidency. More recently, debating has morphed into a sport for the elite, often associated with affluent schools and drawing from a pool of primarily white males who go off to prestigious colleges and careers.
The urban debate movement, with its 19 or so leagues across the United States, is working to change those demographics and bring the benefits of debate to a wider audience. Debate teaches critical thinking and literacy. It helps develop students' organizational and research skills. It promotes self-confidence. Most of all, it empowers students, especially —alized students, by giving them a voice; it can transform them into advocates for themselves and their communities (Warner & Bruschke, 2001). Given these benefits, debate has a better chance than many other school activities of turning adolescents into good thinkers, good researchers, good speakers, and good citizens.

Public Debate: The Place to Start

  • Beauty pageants do more harm than good.
  • Cigarettes should be illegal.
  • Public schools should adopt year-round schedules.
  • The proposed fence along the U.S./Mexico border is justified.
  • Community service should be mandatory in high school.
  • School attendance should be voluntary.
  • The United States should sign the Kyoto Protocol.
  • Warrantless wiretaps make the United States safer.
This is how public debate begins: with a proposition. At each debate, teams of three students argue four topics that they've researched in advance: one school based, one regional, one national, and one international. The proposition team upholds the proposition by listing arguments in its favor. Team members try to prove that the motion is more likely to be true than false. For example, students debating whether public schools should adopt year-round schedules might point out that students would no longer experience the huge loss of knowledge that occurs over an extended summer break. The members of the opposition team must show why the case is wrong and what harm would result if it were implemented. They might mention that the proposal would be detrimental to teachers, many of whom take summer jobs to supplement their incomes. The catch? Students don't know in advance which side they'll be assigned to debate, so they must be prepared to argue both sides.
Students can get pretty riled up about the motions, which is a good thing in a society in which apathy among adolescents is on the rise. Consider the following resolution that students at Hyde will debate: Kids under 18 should be prevented from logging onto online social networks like Facebook. I wander into one of the classrooms as the first speaker for the proposition team, standing solo in the middle of the room, shoots out her arguments to the judge. "It's dangerous for minors, who give out information unawares. … Sexual predators lurk online. … As kids compete for larger numbers of posted 'friends,' they foolishly accept as friends people they don't know." Crack!—The two seated team members rap sharply on their desks to signal their agreement on this point.
It makes a lot of sense to me—until the speaker for the opposition rises and fires back. "There's a high advantage to social networking online and a relatively low risk of meeting a predator." The speaker's teammates punctuate the point with an enthusiastic Hear! Hear! "Not everyone can access your information; it's up to you to accept people as 'friends.' … And if social networks are so bad, then why hasn't crime gone up?" Crack!—In approval of the point, a second set of knuckles hits the wood.
What adolescent wouldn't love this?
Debate is a game, and students play to win. Of course, while they're "playing," they're furiously taking notes because they can't refute their opponent's arguments if they don't remember what those arguments are. Likewise, they would have difficulty expanding on and amplifying their teammates' arguments, one of the requirements of the format, if they don't write them down. As they take notes, the students are also listening, summarizing, weighing arguments, looking for weaknesses in the arguments of the opposing team, and preparing to talk. In this sense, debate takes multitasking—a process that kids have wonderfully mastered—to a whole new level. When the round is over, the judge gives immediate and detailed feedback, which will provide students with an edge the next time around.

Policy Debate: The Next Step Up

Policy debate can be a thing of beauty. For those watching it for the first time, however, it's perplexing—until you get your bearings. Speakers speak as fast as they can because the team that makes the greater number of arguments increases its chances of winning. Eloquence is not rewarded—evidence is. And speakers tend to read a lot of it. As one judge commented, "We don't care how pretty you sound."
Yet for those who engage in policy debate, who make that commitment in time and effort, it can change their lives. One volunteer in the Urban Debate program, himself a policy debater in high school and now director with a polling firm in Washington, D.C., pointed out the powerful effect that policy debate can have on high school students:Suddenly, you're taken seriously. In debate, people treat you as an adult. They refer to you with respect, as Mr. or Ms. What's more, they listen to you. You get to talk about interesting things that people actually talk about in the news or at the dinner table. Most important, debate is fun. It's the most strategic game you can play.
Every year, the National Forensic League (www.nflonline.org) selects a policy debate topic that all policy debaters across the United States will tackle. In previous years, teams have debated whether the U.S. government should increase its support of U.N. peacekeeping operations, protection of marine natural resources, or public mental health services. For the 2007–08 season, debaters will tackle the following: Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its public health assistance to sub-Saharan Africa.
At Hyde Leadership, in the first round, 11th graders Adam and Allan are arguing the case in support of this resolution. In the next round, they'll argue against it. These students have spent loads of time researching the topic, breaking it down into such major issues as the lack of clean drinking water, the prevalence of AIDS, the effect of water-borne diseases, and the danger of escalation inherent in local conflicts. They've considered the major arguments for and against different policy proposals related to this issue. Today, they've narrowed the topic down, as the team supporting the resolution must do, to something more specific: Resolved: The United States should spend $10 billion to provide clean drinking water to sub-Saharan Africa.
Adam cites a litany of problems that those dollars could cure as well as the horrors that an adequate source of drinking water might prevent—conflicts like Darfur, which, he explains with complete assurance, began as a water war. He extends the impact of the case: Local conflicts can easily escalate into national and international conflicts. In this era of weapons of mass destruction, should we take this risk? He cites pertinent research, then closes his argument: "Not only do you die from not getting water, but you also die trying to get it."
The opposition launches its arsenal of arguments, the first being that the United States couldn't possibly pay out such a sum, given the cost of its involvement in Iraq and the collapsing U.S. dollar. The team agrees to the importance of providing clean drinking water, but suggests a counterplan: A country like Japan, which has had far greater success getting water aid to Africa, would be a better provider than the United States. The speaker pulls out evidence to this effect and reads it to the judge. During the cross-examination, Allan stands up to question the evidence, which he asserts doesn't support the opposition's claim. He makes the team reread it aloud, to its great disadvantage. The opposition persists, and among its arguments, a zinger: The United States can't even provide health insurance to the low-income children here, so why would we think of giving aid to an impoverished somewhere else?
In a different classroom, Riah and Faith take the entire argument somewhere else. They veer off topic to debate—debate! Among their claims: That the arguments in policy debate often have little to do with what actually happens in the real world. That some debaters "read to prove you wrong and not to learn about the topic." That you're not allowed to agree with the opposition's point—that would be conceding. Ironically, even as they argue against what they perceive to be the format's limitations, they do so with skills that policy debate has honed. They look the judge squarely in the eye. They present their arguments with grace and authority. They discuss the evidence. They question the status quo. They speak confidently for change.
Ninety minutes later—after four 8-minute speeches, four 3-minute cross-examinations, four 5-minute rebuttals, and some built-in preparation time to construct arguments on the spot and ferret out the opposition's weaknesses and fling them before the judge—the round is over. The judges make their picks. Some students win; others lose.
But they all win, of course. These high school students know the background on Darfur. They know the reasons for and against signing the Kyoto Protocol. They know why people do or don't support the proposed fence between the United States and Mexico. Week after week, their research and discussions take them out of their neighborhoods and into the world. They talk about "bilateral relations," "destabilizing forces," "the collapsing U.S. dollar," and "privatization"—and they know what those terms mean. Because they must be prepared to argue both sides of an issue and cite the supporting evidence, they've learned that problems are never simple. And they've learned one of the hardest things of all: Faced with an opposing point of view, they listen.

Rigorous Thinking for All

More than 150 years ago, John Stuart Mill, in his treatise On Liberty, discussed the importance of an open exchange of ideas in a free society. He wroteHowever true [an opinion] may be," if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not living truth.
Debate can help bring that living truth back into the classroom, along with the exhilaration students experience when, in a social and strategic context (Fine, 2001), they make those truths their own. Debate can help all students—whether they come from high-income or low-income schools, from suburbia or the inner city—become competent, fearless thinkers.

Fine, G. A. (2001). Gifted tongues: High school debate and adolescent culture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Warner, E., & Bruschke, J. (2001). "Gone on debate": Competitive academic debate as a tool of empowerment for urban America. Contemporary Argumentation and Debate, 22, 1–21.

Amy Azzam has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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