Benefits Of Debate

Competitive debate sharpens your ability to research and analyze problems, think and listen critically, express your thoughts clearly and fluently, and better understand public affairs. It increases your confidence and poise and provides constant intellectual stimulation. Woodward Academy debaters have the opportunity to challenge themselves by competing against the best and brightest from Atlanta, the rest of Georgia, and the United States.

Many executives, lawyers, teachers, public relations officers, radio and television personalities, and prominent public figures testify to the benefits of their debate participation. In fact, almost 80% of the current members of Congress debated competitively, and excluding President Bush, every U.S. President going back to Harry Truman debated. Many of them found lifelong friends through their involvement. They also gained valuable skills for use in their careers.

Studies have also shown that colleges and universities rank competitive speech as the most valuable experience a student can have when applying for college. Many of the most prestigious colleges in America offer debate scholarships and preferential admissions consideration to top-flight high school debaters. In the professional world, a recent survey of employers conducted by a national recruiting firm found competitive speech experience to be the most highly valued experience an applicant could cite (among 31 factors listed in the survey).

Don't just take our word for it — here are some testimonials about the power of debate:

I think debating in high school and college a most valuable training whether for politics, the law, business, or for service on community committees such as the PTA and the League of Women Voters. A good debater must not only study material in support of his own case, but he must also, of course, thoroughly analyze the expected arguments of his opponent. … The give and take of debating, the testing of ideas, is essential to democracy. I wish we had a good deal more debating in our institutions than we do now.
—John F. Kennedy, former President of the United States

As I look back upon my own experiences, when I try to single out from among the long line of college students some one group which shall stand forth as intellectually the best - best in college work and best in promise of future intellectual achievement - I cannot draw the line around my own favorite students of philosophy, nor the leaders in mathematics, nor those successful in biology; nor could I fairly award the palm to the Phi Beta Kappa men who have excelled in all their subjects. It seems to me that stronger than any other group, tougher in intellectual fiber, keener in intellectual interests, better equipped to battle the coming problems are the college debaters - the students who apart from their regular studies, band together for intellectual controversy with each other and with their friends from other colleges.
—Alexander Meiklejohn, former President of Amherst College and Dean of Brown University

[Debate] literally shaped everything that has been important to me as an advocate and as a teacher. 
—Nadine Strossen, former Director of the ACLU

Those four years in debate were the educational foundation of everything I did. And I don't mean that in some simple form... I'm saying the finest education I got from any of the institutions that I attended, the foundation of my mind that I got during those four years of competitive debate: that is, 90% of the intellectual capacity that I operate with today; Fordham [University] for college, Fordham for the Ph.D., Harvard for Law School – all of that is the other 10%.
—John Sexton, former President of New York University

Debate formed my mind, shaped the way I look at the world, and prepared me for a vocation in the world of thought. In short, debate changed my life. 
Debate entered my life when a great high-school teacher (called simply “Charlie” by all of us) suggested that I was too narrowly focused on classroom studies and that I would be a better person – and a smarter one – if I joined the debate team. That led to my own four years of debating, followed by 15 years of coaching debate. Not surprisingly, I have given to hundreds (maybe thousands) of others the advice that Charlie gave to me. 
If you care about cultivating your mind, there simply is no better use of your time than serious debate. Here’s why. 
1. Debaters learn to listen and to engage meaningfully in conversation with those with whom they disagree.
We debaters are committed to a contest of ideas. We understand that, in order to communicate and persuade, it is critical to understand in a nuanced way what our opponent is saying, and to understand our opponent’s argument in its strongest form. This builds our capacity to listen. 
To listen is to be open, to hear what our conversation partner is saying. Think about it: in debate you can’t refute an argument if you don’t understand it. If you don’t listen carefully, and you respond to the version with which you are familiar as opposed to what is actually being said, you lose the debate. 
2. Debaters learn to spot and confront illogicalities, while simultaneously extending the same critical examination to their own personal beliefs and preconceptions. Debaters learn to defend stances not out of a personal attachment to a conclusion but based on logic and evidence. Debate proves that controversial topics traditionally exempt from critical analysis can be discussed in a civil, useful manner. Debaters learn to value the rationality of positions and to oppose demagoguery. 
3. Debaters appreciate depth and nuance and are willing to grapple with complex ideas. Debaters must be creative thinkers. They must be adept at both analytical and synthetic thinking. What good debaters and good lawyers combine is an analysis of intellectual problems, synthesis and organization of material, identification of possibilities and totalities that other people don’t see. Debaters also see holes in the sense of gaps that other people don’t see and then they fill in those gaps. 
This skill is all the more important in this age when the attention span of people is shrinking. The deficiency in public policy discussion can be traced to the fact that we are becoming more and more a culture of immediate gratification and short attention span, and we’re moving away from being a society that values depth and is willing to delay gratification. Debate is a good antidote to that because it is based upon the premise that serious discussions of ideas should not stop at a first level. In debate, extending the argument is extremely important. Debaters understand that conversations about ideas have to go into several levels of extension. 
4. Debaters understand the importance of effective communication, animated by a consciousness of their audience and the malleability of their words. Debaters understand the malleability of language. One of the maturing processes experienced by a competitive debater is maturing out of the sophomoric explanation of a defeat in a round because the judge made a mistake, and maturing into an understanding that a judge comes into a round as a tabula rasa upon which the speakers write. In order to write, the speakers have to communicate their ideas into that judge’s mind. In that process of communication, the sophisticated communicator has to understand that words can be heard in different ways and that a combination of words in a sentence or a combination of sentences in a paragraph have a kaleidoscopic quality to them. You must be aware of your listener – in the context of competitive debate, the judge; in the context of life, any partner in conversation – and how your listener is likely to perceive certain words and the order or the frame in which they appear. You must be conscious not only of the way you mean the words, but of the way the words can be perceived by those who enter conversation with you. 
5. Debaters identify their goals and then formulate the steps necessary to achieve them. Debaters start with an ability to motivate themselves, to set and see a goal, to set and see the intermediate steps that will get them to that goal, neatly summarized in the Confucian metaphor about knowing that you can move a mountain one spoonful at a time. 
Debaters incorporate almost subconsciously this maxim. If a debater wants to get to point x, and point x is a particular debate tournament, and by the date of that tournament you’ve got to have yourself ready on your case and you may want a variation case for particular teams, and you’ve got to be prepared for affirmative cases you’re going to meet, without even thinking about it, debaters at the highest level begin moving toward that goal of being ready for a tournament. They instinctively incorporate the need to plan steps as a way to get to that goal. This quality prepares them to embrace enormous tasks and to plan intermediate steps. It becomes second nature to them. That knack is extraordinarily rare at all levels. 
Debate creates citizens with these capacities. This book provides an extraordinary guide to the world of debate and how, exactly, it manages this feat.
—John Sexton, former President of New York University 

Debate teaches thinking, research, and understanding. The learning comes in the preparation, not in the presentation. My time spent in policy debate was FAR more rigorous than my time as a PhD student in politics. By orders of magnitude.
—Charles Olney, Assistant Professor of Constitutional Law and Judicial Politics at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley

I continuously draw on the talents I developed as a [George Washington University] debater. It is impossible for me to overstate the value which debate had for me specifically and which it brings to any academic institution which excels at it.
—Glenn Greenwald, Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist

More than any other student activity, debate requires the participant to match evidence to thesis in a logically compelling manner, and to communicate complex ideas to an audience. If some evil genius concocted a magic potion that made high school students voluntarily give up their weekends to engage in so intellectually worthwhile an activity, we would award him a Nobel Prize for pedagogical necromancy.
—Michael McConnell, Judge in the United States Court of Appeals

High school and college debate was the most important part of my education by far. I learned research, time management, and argumentative skills that put me far ahead in my classes and prepared me well for law school. In fact, I found law school much easier than college plus debate; I had to figure out what to do with all my extra free time, and I was already “thinking like a lawyer,” often a major barrier for new law students. Moreover, debate’s requirement of teamwork offered fantastic lessons in working with others, dividing responsibilities, and collaborating to achieve team goals. I can’t say enough good things about collegiate debate, or the people I met (and still know) as a result.
—Rebecca Tushnet, Professor at Harvard Law School

Before he argued the petitioner's side in the Guantanamo detention case Hamdan v. Rumsfeld before the United States Supreme Court last year, Georgetown Law Center professor Neal Katyal first tested his arguments in more than a dozen moot court sessions. n1 It should come as no surprise that, for his first moot court session, Katyal invited the highly-regarded Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Tribe to bombard him with questions. Along with Tribe, however, Katyal also invited Ken Strange, the coach of Katyal's college debate team. Although Strange is not a lawyer, this second invitation should be no more surprising than the first. Katyal had been a champion debater at Dartmouth College in the early 1990's and Strange had been Katyal's greatest teacher in the art of argument and persuasion - the very skills Katyal would need to make an effective argument before the Court. It is also unlikely that Strange's invitation surprised Tribe, who had himself been a national champion debater at Harvard in the 1960s before beginning his own legal career.

The relationship between debate and the practice of law is more than simple coincidence. For generations, young people who wanted to grow up to be lawyers first experienced competitive advocacy on debate teams. Debate, perhaps better than any other academic training, teaches students how to "think like a lawyer" long before they ever set foot in a law school. The fact that Katyal invited his debate coach to attend his moot court in preparation for Hamdan demonstrates that the value some lawyers find in debate does not end when legal training begins.

Despite the obvious synergies between scholastic debate and the practice of law, debate is often overlooked as a natural element of law-related education. Although debate encompasses more than strictly "legal" topics, students who are equipped with the skills to analyze, research, and discuss topics ranging from agricultural policy to nuclear proliferation are well-prepared for the transition to legal research, thinking and writing. After all, the practice of law includes more than simply knowing the letter of the law. Legal practice may call upon a lawyer alternately to develop an ad hoc expertise on both the grandest and the most obscure human pursuits. It is the ability to think critically and creatively about diverse issues that is the lawyer's true skill. Similarly, debate opens students' minds to a world of facts and ideas - both big and small - and provides students with the necessary analytical tools to recognize the relationships and concepts that connect them. When students put these skills to work before a judge in a competitive debate round, the debate becomes a microcosm of the world many lawyers inhabit every day.
—Chad R. Derum, Practicing Attorney (Utah Bar Journal)

Debate was the most important part of my high school and college education. The training it provided me in analysis, organization, and speaking have been invaluable and I literally use the skills I learned in debate every day. It also taught me how to manage my time effectively and efficiently. The life lessons it provided were equally invaluable. Other than my parents, my high school and college debate coaches were the two people who had the greatest impact on my life.
—Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of the University of California-Berkeley School of Law 

How did you go from a shy kid who was interested in science to a championship debater in high school?
It was not an easy transition. I was a quiet science kid up through eighth grade, and in ninth grade, I had a uncle who said, “You should try the debate team.” I really didn’t know what it was, but I decided to give it a try. And initially, it was hard — there was no question. The one interesting thing about debate was that input was proportional to output, which wasn’t always the case in sports (well, at least for me). That is, the more I practiced and researched, the better I’d do at tournaments. So this created a little bit of a feedback loop. And I realized how much I loved ideas and politics and thinking about both sides of an issue.
What did your Dartmouth debate instructor teach you about oral advocacy?
I’ve been so lucky to have amazing teachers, of which my head coach, Ken Strange, was certainly one. Ken was all about figuring out what the heart of an argument was. When you’re trying to figure that out, it’s really crucial to be a good listener. You should listen intently to what they’re really saying — not what you want them to be saying, because the straw person arguments are easier to defeat — but what they’re actually saying. That’s probably the most important thing I learned from him.
And secondly, to respect ideas. Don’t counter an idea just because of its provenance, or because it’s either from someone you don’t like or a political party you don’t like. Often, we can be blinded to really good ideas because of ideology.
How do you become a good listener?
You take notes, and you listen very intently. But it’s also about a frame of mind. It’s about understanding that good listening is really about them, not about you. And it’s trying to really get into someone’s head and understand what is it that they’re saying. The greatest judges and justices do this all the time. They’re able to actually put an advocate’s point in terms better than the advocate has.
—Neal Katyal, Supreme Court Litigator, Georgetown University Law Professor, and former Acting Solicitor General

Using grounded theory to extract analysis of debaters’ experiences, this study demonstrates how sustained competitive high school policy debate experience directly advances political learning and should be a tool to engage students politically. Debaters tend to focus on issues rather than partisan politics, consider themselves well informed on issues of national and international importance, incorporate reflexive political identities, feel their daily lives and activities manifest political actions, and have increased comfort levels employing political advocacy skills including the articulation and design of political argumentation. To respond to a paradoxically increasing partisan and apolitical world, policy debate encourages high school students to access critical concepts of political engagement.
—Ellen Zwarensteyn, Executive Director of the Michigan Center for Civic Education

I joined the debating team, which was sponsored by Mr. Virgil Parks, our Latin teacher. That's where I developed my speaking skills and learned to think on my feet. At first I was scared to death. I had butterflies in my stomach - and to this day I still get a little nervous before giving a speech. But the experience of being on the debating team was crucial. You can have brilliant ideas, but if you can't get them across, your brains won't get you anywhere.
—Lee Iacocca, Former CEO of Chrysler (named one of the greatest CEOs of all-time)

No aspect of my education was more useful in preparing me to meet these responsibilities than my training in speech and debate.
—David Boren, former Governor and Senator from Oklahoma, now President of Oklahoma University