High School Debate: Road to Success

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 12, 2003 | Go to article overview
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High School Debate: Road to Success


Byline: THE WASHINGTON TIMES

It's easy to make fun of ignorant, uninformed Americans, especially American teenagers, through comic lenses like the Tonight Show's "Jaywalking" segments. Cynicism aside, however, one group of teens eagerly buys newspapers and diligently watches Fox News and C-SPAN. Who? High school debaters. Their topic this year is: "Resolved: That the United States federal government should establish an ocean policy substantially increasing protection of marine natural resources."

While this might seem a dreary topic, it offers much potential. If ocean policy is not the first question posed at a Democratic presidential candidates' debate, it has myriad components. According to America's Living Oceans, a report issued by the Pew Oceans Commission: "The oceans are our largest public domain. America's oceans span nearly 4.5 million square miles, an area 23 percent larger than the nation's land area. Their biological riches surpass those of our national forests and wilderness areas. The genetic species, habitat and ecosystem diversity of the oceans is believed to exceed that of any Earth system."

Yet how we husband those resources can engender serious disputes. The Heartland Institute's Dr. Jay Lehr, for instance, criticizes the Pew report as "anti-capitalist, anti-individual freedom, pro-government" in its approach.

Lots to chew on there, for any policymaker - or for any high school debater.

Most debaters are normal, active girls and boys, if somewhat more competitive and inclined toward books and ideas rather than beer bashes, PS2 games, cars, or sports.

Non-debaters ("laymen"), and even veterans of debate seasons long past, encountering today's debaters in action tend to be simultaneously fascinated and a bit repelled by the state of debate in our high schools today.

Often, they find an arcane world dominated by jargon and fast talking that bears little relation to reality. Some older observers lament the decline of debate from their day, when persuasive oratory was the norm, to the present, when oratory is shrugged off and the emphasis is on the number and complexity of arguments.

All this is true. Yet I am afraid observers who fail to dig a bit deeper might be left with the misconception that high school debate is unreal, unintelligible, or useless. Far from it.

Despite a style incomprehensible to the layman, high school debaters still acquire considerable rhetorical skills. Even in the 1970s, it was said the average debater on the national high school circuit did as much research in one year as a person does for a master's thesis in graduate school.

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