July 10, 2000
Volume 52, No. 37
Debate's importance is an easy argument
By Eric Rangus
The subject matter reads like a "topics for discussion" list on the McLaughlin Group, Crossfire or any number of hard-news, talking-head politico shows.
Educational reform, foreign policy toward Russia, foreign policy toward China, homelessness, legal issues with criminal public policy-all serious, thought-provoking subjects with myriad levels and even more possible opinions.
This is not kid's stuff.
Well, actually, it is. These subjects are just a few of the topics covered by previous sessions of the Emory National Debate Institute (ENDI), which wrapped up its 28th year on July 1.
This year's subject was no summer vacation either : personal privacy. Heady stuff for high school students? Not for the roughly 250 who journeyed to Emory for two weeks to attend the institute.
"I think sometimes of physical fitness activities for students in high school and middle school," said Melissa Wade, director of ENDI and the Barkley Forum, Emory's debate center.
"[Coaches] know if you push them a little higher than they think they can go, they'll often reach that level," Wade said. "But somehow on the academic side of the house, we're worried about stuffing their brains too full. So we have found over the years [that] by raising expectations, you'd be surprised how many students meet them."
Debates are two-on-two affairs, with each side citing evidence and quotes from experts and academics that back up their position. It isn't like a standard presidential debate (Wade called them "press conferences"); these debates are evidenced-based. Everything said must be staunchly defended.
The debaters fall into three groups: novice, junior varsity and the scholars. As the designation implies, the novices are beginning debaters. The students mainly focus on mastering and communicating the concepts of debate. By the end of two weeks, most have the hang of it.
JV debaters have been at it for at least a year. They engage in moderately paced debates containing roughly three times the amount of research as the novices. They begin to come up with cross-exam questions on their own, while the novices often rely on preprinted questions.
The scholars have several years' experience, often three or more. Wade said they sound like auctioneers during debate. They often utilize 10 times as much research as the novices, and their debates must be judged by specially trained audiences who are able to recognize the subtle thrusts and parries of the art.
"They're our pride and joy," said Shannon O'Brien, associate director of ENDI and operations manager of the Barkley Forum, when describing the scholars. "Debate programs are fighting for them. To have college debate coaches begging them to come to their campuses and offering them scholarships is something we're incredibly proud of."
Wade estimated that at least 40 institute graduates are now attending college on debate scholarships.
Not only does debate contribute to increased academic standing, but it helps students in many other ways. "They're so pleased with themselves-the self-esteem factor is huge," Wade said. "You're basically taking ninth through rising 11th graders and exposing them to college-level research and ideas. I think we underestimate what students can do, and I don't care what side of the economic fence you're on."
It also helps kids resolve conflicts. "If somebody could command the attention of a decisionmaker with their words, they didn't have to use their fists to get that same attention," Wade said.
In addition to the students, ENDI hosted about 40 teachers and high school debate coaches. Many came from Urban Debate Leagues (UDLs) from around the country as well as more affluent, suburban schools.
Atlanta's UDL, which has received a great deal of support from the Barkley Forum, is a national model. A new UDL in Baltimore, in fact, sent 80 students to this year's institute.
The novice level is primarily made up of minority students, while the JV and scholar levels are roughly fifty-fifty mixes. This is first time minority representation at the scholar level has reached this height. Wade said that is a reflection on the maturity of UDLs throughout the country.
Regardless of background, debate is a skill that can help students throughout
their academic careers, Wade said. "Most folks who debate, I don't
care whether they're black or white, will get to about 25, look back and
realize it was one of the most powerful sources of education they had, because
it was a process through which you filter multiple academic disciplines."