September 28, 1998
Volume 51, No. 6
Young people use words, not weapons, to talk differences
Four years ago an Atlanta boy--let's call him Jimmy--was on the verge of going wrong, perhaps for a lifetime.
The product of a broken home, living with a guardian, Jimmy was lured into gang membership in middle school. Fortunately, a teacher recognized Jimmy's potential and offered him an alternative to gang membership, violence, prison or worse.
The teacher helped Jimmy get a scholarship for a summer program in debate training. That's right, debate training. It wasn't long before Jimmy began to find an identity apart from gang life. Instead of gang exploits, Jimmy found satisfaction in his trophies. In the meantime, his status in his inner-city community rose as he defeated opponents from Westminster School and Pace Academy.
Jimmy has been so successful that he was recruited by seven colleges in Illinois, Kentucky, Georgia, Alabama and New York. This fall he will enter the University of Alabama on a four-year scholarship for debate. He is poised to follow a life path that is dramatically different from the one he seemed destined to travel before high school.
While Jimmy's example is especially dramatic, there are many other success stories from the Urban Debate League, a partnership developed over the past 10 years by the Atlanta and Decatur public schools and the Barkley Forum.
Educators have long been convinced that debate training provides the critical thinking, research and public speaking skills needed for success. Many studies suggest that prominent figures in government, business and law credit tournament debating experience as the major factor in developing leadership skills.
Just as important at a time of increasing public concern about youth violence, debate training also provides kids with the tools to express their anger and frustration constructively. The UDL concept replaces physical aggression with verbal mastery: If children can command attention with powerful words, they do not have to resort to physical force to grab that attention.
The UDL has been so successful that the philanthropist George Soros' Open Society Institute has given a three-year, $600,000 grant to develop and mentor leagues, based on the Atlanta model, in New York, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Tallahassee, Fla.
Several months ago more than 500 students and teachers from 30 states attended the residential session of the Emory National Debate Institute--200 of them from inner-city schools in Atlanta, Detroit, New York and Tuscaloosa. They spent two weeks researching the upcoming season's resolution: "that the United States should substantially change its foreign policy toward Russia."
They did more than just argue at the institute tournament. A group of 20 students wrote a petition calling for the United States to work harder at limiting nuclear proliferation. More than 300 students signed the petition, which was sent to various government leaders. These students now understand that debate has the power to effect change; that information is power.
Traditionally, debate has tended to be a pastime for wealthy, white male students, in part because of the travel costs and the gross discrepancy in research resources among public schools. It is expensive to attend the necessary training institutes, to travel across the state for tournaments and to have access to computer resources for research. Information is free, but in terms of equality of resources in inner-city schools, we live in two different countries.
Although the Open Society grant provides scholarships for hundreds of students to attend the Emory National Debate Institute, demand still far outstrips available resources. Debate programs also need more funding for research tools and staff help.
Debate programs work. We should demand that all children, regardless of their economic circumstances, have access to debate training. We should demand that all public schools offer adequate learning and research resources. Considering the unrecoverable results of violence and apathy, the investment is profoundly justified.
Melissa Maxcy Wade is director of forensics at the Barkley Forum.
This article first appeared in The Atlanta Journal/Constitu-tion.