It’s Time to Mandate High School Debate Training

From Richochet

Kelly D JohnstonMay 10, 2022

One of my favorite high school teachers, Dr. Oliver, approached me sometime in late 1973 at my rural high school in the McClain County farm community of Washington, Oklahoma, with an offer.

“Would you be interested in starting a debate team?” I recall him asking me after class one day. My partner would be his son, Kelton, a classmate. My family had recently relocated there a few months earlier from southwest Oklahoma City to escape the madness of forced bussing during the desegregation battles of the early 1970s, where I was forced to change schools. My father had other ideas.

I went from a high school class of about 300 at US Grant High School to 28, which mandated only two courses in all four years – English and Agriculture. Joining Future Farmers of America (FFA), 4-H, and helping raise a farm animal were expectations that weren’t an option at suburban Southeast High School, where I would otherwise be forced to attend.Starting a debate program at a small rural high school that was more interested in farming and football was unheard of, but I quickly said yes. Dr. Oliver saw something in the city boy who did pretty well at FFA speech contests and was fascinated by watching Senate Watergate hearings on television. He always aired them during History class.

We entered a debate tournament that year and promptly went 0-4.

But somehow, the experience resulted in a couple of scholarship offers in Debate at two public universities in Oklahoma. Perhaps more importantly, it also helped inform the fertile and impressionable mind of a 17-year-old on the importance of preparation, communication, argument, and persuasion. It helped prepare me for a 40+ year career in journalism, politics, Capitol Hill, and corporate lobbying. And this blog, perhaps.

Cambridge High School in Alpharetta, Georgia, won first place at a debate tournament in 2014
Two decades ago, it further inspired me to begin work with friends on the left with a radical idea – create ways to help bridge an increasingly hostile partisan divide in Congress and find creative bipartisan solutions to seemingly intractable problems. Today, that effort has evolved into the Convergence Center for Policy Resolution in Washington, DC. I’m also a founding board member of the Stubblefield Institute for Civil Political Communication at West Virginia’s Shepherd University.

Despite the excellent work of organizations such as these and others like Braver Angels, things are worse than ever on the civil discourse front. Last week’s events alone, from the highly unethical leak of a confidential Supreme Court draft to possibly illegal protests at the homes of Supreme Court Justices, more than confirm the obvious. We’re in a rough patch, and solutions continue to evade us. Tragically, too many partisans have embraced the destructive notion that the ends justify the means, even if it destroys behavioral norms and undermines the Rule of Law. That won’t end well for anyone.

But Anthony Pennay, a former teacher and now the Chief Learning Officer at the Reagan Foundation has inspired a terrific answer to today’s hyperbolic, 10-second-soundbite culture that prizes snark and ad hominem attacks instead of informed debate. He writes here for

In fact, a promising indication of hope for debate can already be found in our kids today outside the classroom. While the Senate was conducting their Supreme Court nomination hearings earlier this month – which is now fraught with partisan questioning – I had the privilege to witness kids across the country critically debate on the topic of instituting term limits on Supreme Court Justices. One of the most impactful parts of competitive debate, is that the students must prepare for and argue both sides of the debate, rather than rigidly adhere to a few talking points as is often the case for public debate at the highest (and lowest) levels.

Whether students debated remotely or in-person, their well-crafted, policy-focused arguments leaped off the screen and off from the podium. I was amazed, but also not surprised, that these kids were engaging in high-level policy debates on-par with, and in some instances surpassing, their senior counterparts. In preparing for their academic debates, they carefully examined everything from the Constitution to a long history of policies and political debate. They then had to summarize and deliver the most effective arguments and illustrations for their side. By grappling with resources and acquiring a deep understanding of the opposition, these kids were able to unlock the power of critical thinking and gain confidence in their own public speaking and communication skills.

Studies have also shown that competitive debate participation has been linked to improved academic performance and college readiness. Outside of academic benefits, studies have also shown debate has positive outcomes for strong social-emotional development and self-efficacy. We shouldn’t shield our kids from debate, we should encourage them to embrace it and learn how to engage in it with more informed empathy. Through our programs, both in-person and our new online courses, we aim to empower students with these very skills.

Aside from encouraging training and participation of debate, I would require it high schools. That’s going to require some thoughtful planning and work. It also may require old debate hands like me to get back into the classroom, since it appears that today’s generation of teachers seem more interested in indoctrination than discourse, and ill-prepared to teach the rigors of genuine debate.

I won’t go into the specifics on how best to do it, but here are some characteristics of a successful debate program. First, it fosters cooperation and teamwork since most debate teams consist of two to four participants. Second, teams learn to argue both sides of any one debate question. Third, it teaches participants to be good communicators in the art and science of persuasion. And fourth, it is healthy competition, whether within a school or without.Best of all, it helps prepare students for the real world, from making your case, challenging the other side, and engaging in healthy cross-examination. We in the public policy and corporate world know that process well. I’d even be okay with participation trophies.

My high school letter jacket includes letters not just for sports like football and baseball but scholastics and debate.

Schools featuring civics, history, or government classes should easily incorporate debate into their curricula as a year-long enterprise. Debates could even comprise part of the final exam.

Final words from Pennay:

Indeed, as the Civil War came to a close, both Lincoln and Grant knew that the best way to destroy your enemy was not through battle, or through Twitter, or through the media. “The best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend,” said Lincoln. At Appomattox, Grant tipped his cap to his vanquished foes as a sign of respect.

It should not be 1619 versus 1776, and it should not be school boards versus parents or Fox versus CNN. We should discuss all timelines of history within their proper contexts, and debate meaningfully despite our differences. Through empathetic historical inquiry and debate, the next generation can usher in the restoration of informed, civil discussion.

Classic debate training might not be for everyone, with an increasing number of children and students in alternative learning environments, such as homeschooling. There may be other hurdles. Alternatives such as public speaking contests could be offered. But regardless, too many schools fail to prepare students (I could stop there) to be informed, engaged, civil, and public-spirited citizens.