In elementary school I had an electric blanket. I used the faint, tiny, orange light from the temperature controller to keep reading after my parents insisted that I go to sleep. I blame that orange light for my needing glasses in eighth grade. By the time I got to high school I was on the debate team. Of course I was. My debate partner and I were perhaps the only all-female team in the Baltimore region at the time, and we were dedicated to showing those prep school boys who was boss. We were so dedicated, in fact, that we skipped out early on prom to compete in the national championship. Because I hadn’t had enough dork in my life, I went back to coach the team after I graduated.
I have nerd cred to spare.
So imagine my delight when my local NPR station aired a live high school debate last week! It was a trip back to nerd-vana; I was swept into a reverie of affirmative cases, giant Rubbermaid tubs of evidence that we lugged up staircases and through snowy parking lots, and the sweet cardboardy tang of a lone stale donut to get us through the tournament.
Dorky memories aside, debate had the biggest impact on my high school career than anything else I did. Not the classes I took, not the track team, and certainly not the softball team where I failed the tryout with great panache. Debate is a robust, meaty activity–it’s way more than a he said/she said exercise. It takes research, organization, speaking ability, and guts. The ability to speed-talk like an auctioneer doesn’t hurt, either.
Case in point: These are the resolutions that high schoolers have been debating lately. These topics are debated all school year by every high school debater in the United States.
(2013) Resolved: The United States federal government should increase its financial investment in transportation infrastructure.
(2014) Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its economic engagement toward Cuba, Mexico, or Venezuela.
Not too shabby, right? These topics take hundreds and hundreds of hours of serious research. This research goes on for the entire school year. Then students cobble this info into a coherent, well-planned government policy. They have to explain it in an eight-minute speech, in front of other people who are actively judging them. And then they have to defend their policy for the rest of the hour as the other team tries to pick it apart. The kicker is that students don’t even know which side they’ll be on until minutes before the debate starts.
Seriously — when was the last time you gave an eight-minute speech on transportation infrastructure as other people critiqued you? This is what teenage debaters do. For fun. Every Saturday from October to April.
There is an amazing movement in inner-city schools right now to get students excited about debate, self-expression, competition, and research. Kind of like prosthelytizing for dweebs. As an educator I geek out over the academic benefits of debate. As a mom, I see this as a fantastic opportunity for kids to propel themselves forward, and to do it with confidence and pride. It makes me warm and gooey inside.
Take a few minutes to watch the 60 Minutes piece on the Urban Debate League. I had the honor of judging these debaters in local tournaments against pasty, pampered suburban kids. I came away really, really impressed.
Go ahead and call debaters nerds. We’ve earned it and wear it proudly. And if you have high-school aged kids, for God’s sake buy them a navy wool blazer and get their butts on the team!