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Opinion | Debate Teaches Kids How to Think

Debate was where I first read a wide range of writers, from Michel Foucault to Charles Krauthammer to the authors of critical race theory. My work today, when it’s at its best, still reflects both the structure and the freedom I found in debate. I learned how to back up arguments with evidence, how to understand when someone was simply trying to deflect or misdirect the conversation and how to think on my feet.

But I was exposed to debate only because I had the good fortune to attend a well-funded public high school that had a successful team. As I wrote in the first edition of this newsletter, debate has been dominated for decades by the most privileged private schools in the country, such as St. Mark’s School of Texas in Dallas, Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville, The College Preparatory School in Oakland, Calif., and the Georgetown Day School in Washington, D.C. The public schools that excel in debate are often in wealthy suburbs of Boston, Chicago and New York City. Debate can be expensive: Parents at these top schools pay for travel to tournaments and send their kids to expensive summer institutes where they prepare for the year’s topic.

Urban Debate Leagues (UDLs) were created to address the longstanding inequalities in debate. The first UDL was founded in the Atlanta Public Schools district in 1985 with the help of debaters at Emory University. Over the next decade, they brought over 3,000 students into debate. Today, there are UDL programs in 22 cities across the country that organize teams, coach students and take them to tournaments. Many of the participants would otherwise not have had the access, resources or instruction to reap all the rewards that I continue to benefit from.

These programs have struggled over the past two years. With the pandemic, participation in high school speech and debate has dropped at least 25 percent, Scott Wunn, the executive director of the National Speech and Debate Association, told me. Compared with prepandemic levels, participation in Urban Debate Leagues, however, which mostly cater to minority-group kids, has dropped by about 50 percent, according to Rhonda Haynes, executive director of NAUDL.

So how do we explain that gap? The challenges faced by schools that have UDL teams do not differ from those faced by other public schools across the country. Recruitment was almost impossible during the Zoom school year. There are students who enter high school with a plan to join the debate team, but there are many more who go to a meeting on a whim — maybe because a friend is going or even because there’s free pizza — and then end up falling in love with the activity.

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