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September 3, 2009 / compassioninpolitics

Value of High School and College Debate

The Value of Debate: Justification for Debate in the Academy

1) The Urban Debate League has a fantastic one pager on the value of debate.

2) Very extensive Debate Justification prepared for Georgetown University by Jeff Parcher.

3) The Value of Forensics by Professor Minh Luong of Yale University

4) Value of debate for USA Today by Del Jones, which argues debate is critical for leadership.

5) Value of debate article by Phil Kerpen in the Washington Post.

6) The National Forensic League has twelve documents on the justification for forensics and debate. The first three articles speak to the pedagogical value of debate from a research and analytic point of view. The article by former NFL participant Jonathon Carr “A Better Investment Not Found on Wall Street” provides a personal narrative about the value of debate from a current graduate of the London School of Economics.

7) The Value of Forensics video from the National Forensics League on the justification for speech and debate. The video is a bit hazy, but includes Oprah Winfrey, Jane Pauley, Brian Lamb of CSPAN, Senator Richard Lugar, and Ted Turner of CNN.

8] A Research Based Justification for Debate Across the Curriculum
(word doc download)

9) Many Sides: Debate Across the Curriculum, by Alfred Snider

10) The University of Vermont has several videos which speak to the value of debate for students. Specifically the “Why Debate?” video speaks to this issue (although it seems unavailable currently).

11) Value of debate bibliography by Linda Treadway.

12) Quotes from former famous debaters. (TBA)

Thanks to College Prep for many of the above suggestions.

If I have left a useful value of debate resource out, feel free to leave a note in the comments section.

I wrote this essay about 8 to 10 months ago….which is helpful for thinking about the skills that debate, and specifically policy debate, provides to students.

From Starbucks to McKinsey to Google, ideas, particularly in a our creative-knowledge economy are the engines of revolution and disruptive innovation. Ideas, combined with agile problem solving, research, and a passionate ability to execute decisively, are the fertile grounds for competitive industry advantage whether in technology, manufacturing, or professional services. In short in the 21st century, ideas are the lifeblood of our government, our culture, our economy, and our very future. Even, as manufacturing still lingers as an important part of the industrial puzzle, strategic ideas hold the promise of better processes, better products, as well as inspired employees and brand advocates.

Here are the core skills I’ve acquired and seen developed in others across my nearly two decade long experience in the activity:

Speedy expertise development via knowledge acquisition and research. This is critical for developing and refining best practices and dealing with the constant ups and downs of change in a globalized economy. Further, its critical to new product development and navigating ever-changing marketplace dynamics.

Persuasion in the Line of Fire. Debate acts as a trial by fire which cultivates communities of passionate and informed citizen student who are incredibly skilled at information processing, expert research, Sun Tzu-like strategy and hyper-fast real-time thinking which is so valuable for problem solving and navigating complexity. Debaters hone the strategic use of persuasive framing, key distinctions and nuances, contrast, along with vivid examples and metaphors which help solidify complex theories in minimal time.

Prediction and Future-casting Skills. In order to do policy analysis, debaters have to think about research in historical, economic, cultural, and political context. This helps hone predictive powers for marketplace behavior as well as identifying and capitalizing on big trends. In a world of innovation, this skill along with research and a passion for learning about customers is a massive asset. For instance, its common to have to deal with these core questions on a regular basis in the context of both government and economics:

* What is the strength of this choice?
* What is the weakness of this choice?
* Who are the experts in this field?
* What is the context is which these decisions are made?
* If we do X, what will actor Y do?
* What is their core motivation?
* How can we best frame this decision?

Inventive thinking. How to challenge the status quo in both influential thought circles and organizations. Evaluate multiple proposals using SWOT-like techniques. In fact, students are re-warded for finding the most credible, yet unconventional to test ideas and policies from multiple perspectives.

Leverage. Debaters are forced to recognize their strengths early on and hone strategies which optimize those strengths and minimize. This process of alignment (or hedgehogging) is key for the knowledge workers who want maximum productivity and impact.

Systems thinking. Debaters learn to look at crisis and conflicts through a more holistic, integrated, and contextual lense by applying multiple lenses to a problem including public policy, anthropology, ethics, and economics. Debaters are forced to think on micro- and macro- levels, identify inter-activities, and demonstrate the connections and compare the relative significance at each level. The ability to see the world in context, helps ensure a more integrated and contextual view as opposed to an atomized one which is limited. Systems thinking is critical for process mapping and refinement for eliminating killer choke points as strategy development for winning in the marketplace. Ultimately, system thinking helps individuals and organizations view decisions and the world in context as opposed to an atomized one which is blinded or limited.

Collaborative work. Both in weekly team sessions in brainstorming, strategizing, and responsibiliites are divided. Teams must find their partners strengths and work in sync with their to optimize their chances for success. So, much like world class-Olympic ice skating pairs, teams are mentally bonded in a common effort to win and achieve excellence.

Experiential & Scenarios Based Learning. Oddly, even in 2011, university classroom lectures don’t always lend themselves to advanced learning beyond the knowledge base of the textbook or professor. Each debate is an exercise in scenario based learning, in which ideas and strategies are refined experientially (much like prototypes are tested or ideas are refined in the boardroom).

High Quality Research. During the heat of the debate season, its standard practice for top debaters to research and write the equivalent of a 15 to 25 page white paper weekly on a complex policy, ethics, or economics issue, in addition to demanding academic schedules. Its not surprising then that an education in policy debate is one of the best preparations for advanced degrees like law, public policy, and communication.

So debate imparts the critical skills for individual, organizational, and corporate competitive advantage in the 21st century. Researching solutions, comparing decisions, and communicating effectively are indeed critical to our economic and civic future. President John F. Kennedy correctly emphasized: “I think debating in high school and college is most valuable training, whether for politics, the law, business, or for service on community committees such as the PTA and the League of Women Voters. . . . The give and take of debating, the testing of ideas, is essential to democracy. I wish we had a good deal more debating in our institutions than we do now.”

I hope this gets the conversation started. I look forward to your contributions. If you have suggestions…feel free to backchannel me or leave a comment. Cheers!

Resources on the Value of Debate:

* Value of Debate by Jeff Parcher at Georgetown
* Value of Debate and Forensics by Mihn Loung of Yale University

* I borrowed the last quote from an article by Phil Kerpen in the Washington Post (Sunday, June 24, 2007).


Here’s another quote for good measure: Northwestern professor of communication Dr. David Zarefsky:

“My most valuable experience was participating in debate. That’s where I learned most of what I know about research, analysis of an issue, evaluating evidence, building a case, and thinking strategically – to say nothing of such invaluable life skills as time management, working closely with colleagues, respecting others’ points of view, and recognizing that everyone encounters both wins and losses and learning how to deal with both. Frankly, there is no educational experience that has had such an imprint on my adult life as participating in debate.”


Leave a Comment
  1. compassioninpolitics / Sep 3 2009 8:11 pm

    Stefan B. compiled a lot of these documents here as well, many of which I didn’t include above:

    You can find quotes from famous participants in speech and debate here:

    This document is also available as a word document if you search for keyterms in Google.

  2. compassioninpolitics / Sep 11 2009 9:35 pm

    This resource maintained by the Atlanta UDL and the Emory Debate Forum:

    The research and assessment section has a 9 page bibliography on the value of debate.

  3. Nathan Ketsdever / Sep 29 2009 10:21 pm

    Researchers Try to Promote Students’ Ability to Argue: A little-developed skill gets fresh recognition as essential for school, life By Debra Viadero
    from Education Week, September 14, 2009

    “More people are getting things from the Web, and you have to be able to evaluate information—especially when it comes to the environment or medicine or scientific topics,” Ms. Britt said. “If you can’t understand the importance of experiments and the role of theory, then everything is all the same to you. It’s equally credible and believable.”

    You might also consider the work of Gerald Graff who has written extensively on the issue in terms of adding a more debate oriented angle to the university curriculum:
    For more on Gerald Graff, just put his name in Google scholar to see his scholarly work on the subject.

  4. compassioninpolitics / Jul 4 2010 1:51 am

    Learning systems thinking is another reason debate can be an effective learning experience:

    The speed and complexity of the global business environment calls for a new appreciation of a systems-focused view of the world, one that recognizes the interrelationships of people, processes, and decisions — and designs organizational actions accordingly. The intellectual roots of systems understanding are very diverse (as we’ll see shortly), but they converge around three interrelated assumptions. First, because many of today’s organizations are complex and ever-changing, static solutions that try to lock in any ongoing management solution are likely to become new sources of destabilization themselves. That is why organizations need to be dynamic — capable of adapting to unexpected developments. Second, organizations must have a capacity for widespread experimentation and trial-and-error learning if they are to be self-correcting. Finally, although a systems view requires an understanding of how all the parts fit together as a whole, it also depends on an intimate understanding of the parts themselves. This is because change in any part of the system or in its outside environment — including the other systems to which it is connected — can produce profound ripple effects.

    Andrea Gabor is the author of several books, including The Capitalist Philosophers: The Geniuses of Modern Business — Their Lives, Times, and Ideas (Three Rivers Press, 2002). She is the Bloomberg Professor of Business Journalism at Baruch College at the City University of New York.

  5. Nathan Ketsdever / Aug 31 2011 3:50 am

    Bill Lawhorn, an economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics:
    Debaters must have strong research skills, be able to think quickly, and be able to communicated well. In addition, debaters must be comfortable performing in front of an audience–and having the confidence to do so is a valuable workplace skill, especially when it comes to making presentations to coworkers or superiors.” (Lawhorn 2008, 19)

    Erwin Chemerinsky Law School dean, “not a day goes by that I do not use the skills and lessons I learned in debate in my teaching, my writing, and my advocacy in courts.”

    Edited by Al Louden, Navigating Opportunity: Policy Debate in the 21st Century, p. 30
    “Debate is a cross-disciplinary method of collaborative inquiry and intentional learning, focused on the controversial public policy issues of the day, emphasizing the fundamentals of argument–reasoning, research, communication, and practical judgement.”

    Edited by Al Louden, Navigating Opportunity: Policy Debate in the 21st Century, p. 30
    “…intercollegiate debate is….profitably-vied from a pedagogical perspective as a leadership laboratory designed to prepare the next generation for entry into the public sphere and the process of lifelong learning. From public administration to community activity, from personal decision making to government policy, and across a wide variety of fields from business to education, intercollegiate debate provides a liberal education that is the foundation of civic engagement.”

  6. Nathan Ketsdever / Aug 31 2011 8:58 am

    This is one added benefit of debate, which only occurs in project per semester or year in school:

    “The synthesizing mind takes information from disparate sources, understands and evaluates that information objectively, and puts it together in ways that make sense to the synthesizer and also to other persons. Valuable in the past, the capacity to synthesize becomes ever more crucial as information continues to mount at dizzying rates.”
    ~ Howard Gardner, Five Minds for the Future, Harvard University professor of education

  7. Nathan Ketsdever / Apr 15 2012 2:11 am

    Arne Duncan on the value of debate:
    That study, done jointly by the University of Michigan and the University of Chicago, examined ten years of data from the Chicago Debate League. It found that competitive debate significantly raises graduation rates, ACT scores, and students’ GPA—and that’s even after controlling for student self-selection in to competitive debate.

    To be very clear, the experience of competing on an urban debate team boosts your college readiness—and your chance to succeed in life.

    But beyond the data, the most telling testaments of the power of competitive debate to change students’ lives come from students themselves.

    Duncan continues:
    All of these students’ stories vividly reveal how competitive debate helps prepare students for college. But just as important, that training gives inner-city students equitable access to a well-rounded and rigorous education.

    In a number of respects, competitive urban debate is almost uniquely suited to building what’s been called the “Four C’s” of 21st century skills—critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. And to that list I might add a fifth “C”—for civic awareness and engagement.

    As everyone here knows, preparation for debate not only involves intensive research but advanced critical thinking. Because debate is a contest of ideas—and because students have to switch sides during the debate from arguing against a proposition to defending it—debate forces students to anticipate their opponents’ strongest arguments and rebut them with evidence.

    That forces students to think deeply about both sides of an issue—and it teaches them to be good listeners. You can’t refute an argument if you don’t understand it. And I have to add, if more folks in Congress displayed these skills and discipline, our country would be better served.

    At the same time, developing an argument pushes student debaters to set a goal and a series of intermediate steps to reach it. Like great leaders, great debaters—to paraphrase the Confucian metaphor—know how to move a mountain one spoonful at a time.

    To succeed in debate, you also have to be a creative thinker. You have to spot the gaps that other people don’t see—and then fill in those gaps.

    Finally, you have to communicate your position clearly and persuasively to judges from different backgrounds and perspectives—whether they are teachers, parents, community leaders, or college students.

    And you have to communicate in a collaborative manner. You work with your team.

    It’s so important that our youth increase their global competencies and become globally-aware citizens in the 21st century—and debate is one fantastic means of doing so.

    In the end, education is about so much more than what you read in a book or the name-brand of the college that you attend. It is about becoming an engaged citizen—and an active member of the community. The way we educate our children speaks volumes about the values that we want them to uphold.

    Educators and parents alike want education to promote civic engagement in the community and civic awareness of the challenges facing America in the 21st century. By engaging students in real, complex public policy questions, competitive debate is nurturing a new generation of engaged, committed citizens. I can’t tell you how hopeful that makes me feel.

    Full speech here:

  8. compassioninpolitics / Jan 1 2013 11:25 pm

    Here is yet another one:

    Its specific to teachers. It could be better, but an interesting way to position debate in the classroom in terms of the common core.

  9. compassioninpolitics / Sep 25 2015 3:18 pm

    “I think debating in high school and college a most valuable training whether for politics, the law, business, or for service on community committees such as the PTA and the League of Women Voters. A good debater must not only study material in support of his own case, but he must also, of course, thoroughly analyze the expected arguments of his opponent….The give and take of debating, the testing of ideas, is essential to democracy. I wish we had a good deal more debating in our institutions than we do now.”
    –President John F. Kennedy

    And yet another proof:

  10. compassioninpolitics / Jul 23 2016 3:37 am
  11. compassioninpolitics / Jul 23 2016 3:46 am

    Critical thinking and argument skills — the abilities to both generate and critique arguments — are crucial elements in decision-making… In all careers, academic classes, and relationships, argument skills can be used to enhance learning when we treat reasoning as a process of argumentation, as fundamentally dialogical, and as metacognitive… It is imperative that high school students, of diverse personal, moral and intellectual commitments, become prepared to confront multiple perspectives on unclear and controversial issues when they move on to college and their careers. This is not only important for assuring students are equipped to compete in the marketplace of ideas but also to maximize their own cognitive development more broadly.

    – Rabbi Shmuly Yankiowitz. “A Society with Poor Critical Thinking Skills: The Case for Argument in Education.” Huffington Post. October 13, 2013

    Here is the truth about students who compete in speech and debate. They’ve spent hundreds of hours perfecting their speaking skills. Many have done intensive research to write their speeches. All have endured the pressure that competition brings, and have performed well intellectually under such pressure. They’ve made connections and friendships with other high performing peers. All of these behaviors are excellent predictors of success on any leadership team… Be on the lookout for Millennials who have participated in speech and debate training. Hire them and put them on your leadership fast track.

    – Robert Sher. “How to Find Millennials Who Will Lead Your Company.” March 2, 2014


  1. Inside Higher Ed on the Value of Debate « Compassion in Politics: Christian Social Entrepreneurship, Education Innovation, & Base of the Pyramid/BOP Solutions

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