The Case for Debate: Intrinsic Motivation for Critical Thinking and Writing

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Jon Kendall

From the oration that convinced the Athenians to spare the rebellious people of Mytilene, to this month’s oral arguments before the Supreme Court, debate has proven itself an indispensable form of truth-seeking and discernment. Liberal democracies worldwide have consistently turned to the intellectual rigor of debate to make decisions that affect the lives of their citizens.

But debate is not just for discerning policy or settling legal disputes. It can be just as powerful in the classroom for exploring controversies and experimenting with logic and rhetoric. Perhaps most of all, however, debate is highly valuable in preparing students for the kind of writing and research they can expect at the university level.

It seems quite fitting, if not quite conventional, to present my arguments on the value of debate in the form of a debate case. With that in mind, and pleading my readers’ forbearance, I affirm the resolution: High school debate is an ideal training ground for academic writing.

Contention One: Debate strengthens critical-thinking skills for academic writing.

I have coached and taught debate for several years, and my debaters keep telling me how much debate helped them become better writers in their academic courses. In terms of higher-order thinking and communication skills, debate and academic writing have a lot in common. To produce an effective, thesis-driven essay or to compete in a debate, a student must

  • contextualize a topic for an intended audience;
  • craft a reasonable thesis to anchor argumentation;
  • develop and organize defendable contentions to support the thesis; and
  • use clear language throughout to explain and persuade effectively.

Debating, however, has its advantages over essay writing that make it a more engaging form of discourse for high school students, as I will explain.

Contention Two: Debate builds robust research skills.

The difference between winning and losing a debate sometimes comes down to thoroughness of research. To be fully prepared, a debater needs to

  • explore a range of relevant print and online sources, especially in academic journal databases such as JSTOR;
  • engage in sufficient background reading to acquire a sound grasp of the topic;
  • evaluate and select credible sources for closer reading; and
  • search for and collect appropriate evidence for incorporation into contentions.