The Book Club

Can Debate Save the World, or Does It Just Help You Get Into a Better College?

Michael Horowitz with the National Debate Tournament championship trophy at Emory University, May 2000


I think we actually agree on more than our dialogue suggests, and I’ll explain why along the way. But since too much agreement isn’t much fun in an exchange about debate, I’ll continue to focus on where our viewpoints differ.

It’s clear from your book that parliamentary debate was right for you, and I am delighted that it exists as an activity. You obviously benefited greatly from it, and I have no doubt that it has had a positive effect on others as well. But the type of student best suited for parliamentary debate is often a different type of student than the one best suited for policy debate. You and your friends were theater kids, with a flair for the dramatic and a natural talent for improvisation and performance. My friends and I were budding policy wonks and litigators, who loved not only the performance aspect of debate but the strategy, gamesmanship, and research. So why can’t there be styles of debate for both of us?

The world of speech and debate currently includes a vast array of events to serve many different types of students. This is one of its great strengths. I have no desire to deliver a brooding monologue in an original oratory event, but I don’t begrudge those who do, nor do I claim there is no value in the exercise. You clearly have no desire to engage in the world of policy debate, but I’m not sure why you think it shouldn’t exist for the thousands of kids who enjoy and benefit from it each year.

This relates to something else I want to touch on—your argument that debate need not include “triple axels.” Why, if there are students willing to work hard, to push themselves and achieve, would you take away the incentive to do that? Shouldn’t we be pushing our students to stretch themselves?

As I mentioned in my last post, policy debaters also learn the skills necessary to appeal to other audiences. To prove this point, one need look no further than Brandon Fletcher, a policy debater who in 1993 attended a Lincoln-Douglas tournament for the first time at NFL districts in Dallas. He qualified for nationals and made it all the way to the final round of the 1993 NFL LD championship. Essentially, this is akin to a speed skater entering a figure skating event and making it all the way to the Olympic podium. It’s a tremendous feat—but it happens frequently when policy debaters enter other forensic events. This is not, of course, to say that policy debaters are inherently more talented, only that they are just as capable public speakers as any parliamentary debater.

As for your point about policy debate being hermetically sealed, consider this: The debaters who actually go into their communities and encourage more public dialogue are the policy debaters. They founded the National Association of Urban Debate Leagues, which serves more than 500 schools around the country. Peer-reviewed research shows that participating has helped more than 40,000 inner-city students improve their grades, graduate from high school, and attend college. Policy debaters go to Washington, D.C., and conduct accessible public debates for lay audiences about many topics, including nuclear weapons and environmental policy. They work with prison populations in Georgia and New York as a means of enfranchising those voices. They teach public speaking to kids of all ages in Jamaica, Malaysia, and South Korea. The middle-school policy debate program in the Atlanta Housing Authority has been recognized by the Bureau of Justice Administration as a potential national model for reducing gang participation among inner-city youth. The policy debate community makes these things happen because it believes that more students equipped with speaking and research skills is a good thing, that more knowledge about current events and political decisions is a powerful weapon, and that these benefits shouldn’t be restricted to those who are already in positions of privilege.

At the end of the day, all speech and debate events can be terrifically beneficial to those who participate in them. Some, like parliamentary debate, hone your improvisational skills, sharpen your humor, and make you into more of a Renaissance man. There’s a place for that, an audience for it, and your exceptional skill with words attests to its effect on you. Others, like policy debate, sharpen the skills of strategy and analysis, of building arguments and researching evidence to support a case. All of them provide valuable training in public speaking. Their differences are what help them to serve different kinds of students. I say, the more students who participate in any or all of these events, the better. None of them is for everyone, but let’s agree with your role model, Alex. P. Keaton, and be happy that the market has succeeded in providing effective choices for our students.

Thanks again for inviting me to participate in this exchange—I’ve really enjoyed it. If you’re ever up for a good old-fashioned stand-up debate, let me know. And I hope you will be willing to at least explore more of the policy debate world before you continue condemning it. Care to join me at a few urban debate league tournaments next year? Here’s to debate—in all its forms.


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