Gifted Tongues: High School Debate and Adolescent Culture

Gifted Tongues: High School Debate and Adolescent Culture

Gifted Tongues: High School Debate and Adolescent Culture

Gifted Tongues: High School Debate and Adolescent Culture


Learning to argue and persuade in a highly competitive environment is only one aspect of life on a high-school debate team. Teenage debaters also participate in a distinct cultural world--complete with its own jargon and status system--in which they must negotiate complicated relationships with teammates, competitors, coaches, and parents as well as classmates outside the debating circuit. In Gifted Tongues, Gary Alan Fine offers a rich description of this world as a testing ground for both intellectual and emotional development, while seeking to understand adolescents as social actors. Considering the benefits and drawbacks of the debating experience, he also recommends ways of reshaping programs so that more high schools can use them to boost academic performance and foster specific skills in citizenship.Fine analyzes the training of debaters in rapid-fire speech, rules of logical argumentation, and the strategic use of evidence, and how this training instills the core values of such American institutions as law and politics. Debates, however, sometimes veer quickly from fine displays of logic to acts of immaturity--a reflection of the tensions experienced by young people learning to think as adults. Fine contributes to our understanding of teenage years by encouraging us not to view them as a distinct stage of development but rather a time in which young people draw from a toolkit of both childlike and adult behaviors. A well-designed debate program, he concludes, nurtures the intellect while providing a setting in which teens learn to make better behavioral choices, ones that will shape relationships in their personal, professional, and civic lives.


Although I do not recall it, my parents told me that, as a preschooler, I had a severe speech impediment. My words were slurred and indistinct. After much therapy, my enunciation improved to the point that past difficulties were not noticeable. When elected president of my high school debating club, my parents were justifiably proud, recalling my past struggles and their fears.

Perhaps therapy should be blamed, but talking proved easy. Conversation is good fun. I must confess, however, that I was not an outstanding debater. I do not recall having a winning record. My partners and I were bright, but lacked the verbal facility, piles of evidence, and training of the more successful teams in our New York City circuit.

Some friends and I decided as juniors, under the guidance of a wellliked speech teacher, to organize a debate team. The Horace Mann School had not previously participated in competitive debate, but such an enterprise seemed appropriate for boys at an elite private school. So, the debate club was born. That speech teacher left the following year, but we persuaded the school librarian to be our official coach and hired a college student to serve as our de facto mentor. Within a year after graduation, the club disbanded. During my years of debate (1966–1967, 1967–1968) we debated criminal justice reform and foreign aid—with great vigor, if not with impressive success. For twenty years after high school, I paid high school debate no notice.

In 1988 I happened upon a short article by Michael McGough, published in The New Republic, that described how high school debate had changed over the decades. This article, critical of new styles of debate, objected to some of the logical overreaching and rapid, incomprehensible speech that the author felt had come to characterize high school debate.

The article piqued my interest, particularly in light of the increased attention given to discourse and rhetorical analysis in the social sciences. If we are to address the role of discourse, we should observe and analyze those for whom talk is central to their identity. Further, if we can understand how people learn to talk in particular ways and learn to deploy evidence to persuade others, we might take a small, but essential, step in placing the rhetorical turn in the social sciences on a solid empirical basis. Thus, investigating adolescent talkers seemed more than of passing interest. As a social psychologist and sociologist of culture, learning how groups of adolescents acquired the skills of debate and the use of evidence seemed significant, as did the connection of this activity to teenage . . .

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