My freshman year of high school I was sitting in my English class when three older students I didn’t know walked to the front of the room. I recognized it quickly as one of those “you should join our club” type talks that we received a lot of as freshmen in a big high school, but this one seemed different. The final speaker, a girl who I later learned was a captain on the team, convinced me to join my school’s Speech and Debate team. Three years later I maintain that it has been one of the best decisions of my life. I’ve even had the honor of winning Minnesota’s State Championship in Lincoln-Douglas Debate for 2017. However, by far the best part of being in debate is learning, and I wanted to share with you five of the things I’ve learned throughout my career.
One of the big focuses of debate, and especially Lincoln-Douglas debate, is philosophy. Every debater usually picks a philosophy or moral theory, defends it, and then must explain why that theory would either affirm or negate the resolution in question. Although at first a skill like this seems to have little practical application, the opposite is true. Many of the questions that these types of moral theories and debates deal with are incredibly applicable to life. Should we focus on helping everyone, or just attempt to help the worst off? Are intentions what count, or consequences? Are there natural born rights, and if so what are they? These sorts of questions are essential in deciding how we treat each other in society, whether it be political opponents, the disadvantaged, or criminals. Philosophy also helps students learn to interrogate why things are the way they are which is an essential skill for anyone in society who hopes to change it.
Another key skill that debate as taught me is how to compare methodologies of various solutions. For example, whether expanding or reducing nuclear power would help best combat climate change. This skill is one that is given incredibly little coverage in main stream education and discussions. Far too often we yell at each other about what problems should be solved instead of agreeing on problems that should be the priority and then discussing real solutions in an empirical and productive way. Even debates that seem entirely contrasted, like the debates over gun control, often focus on solving the same problem, such as violent crime, but with very different approaches. Learning how to have these discussions based on method, and not on goals, helps us avoid shouting past each other and having a real, substantive, and productive discussion.
This is rather straight forward one but one that I think goes undervalued. Being in debate, (and especially succeeding in debate) requires a lot of research on a wide variety of topics from philosophy, to critical race theory, to the engineering of nuclear power plants. To get this research requires skills beyond simply googling the topic wording. You must also navigate scholarly articles, learn proper citations, and utilization of footnotes and references. These are all skills that already have served me well in writing college-level papers and I’m sure will continue to do so.
How to Play The Devil’s Advocate
Aristotle once said, "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it”. This practice later has become known as 'playing the devil’s advocate', where you defend a position you don’t necessarily agree with for some ulterior benefit, usually the education of yourself or the person on the opposing side. This practice has widely been employed by everyone from Malcolm X to high-ranking officials in the Catholic church. However, not only does it have educational benefits, it has personal ones too. In Lincoln Douglas Debate you have to defend both sides of a topic which not only forces you to hear arguments from your opponents about both sides but also for you to put forward those arguments yourself. After years of doing this I’ve found myself increasingly both more open-minded to new ideas, and more willing to test the ideas I believe in. Questioning sometimes only led to me becoming stronger in my beliefs.
How to Tie a Tie
Now this one is obviously somewhat satirical. You don’t need to join debate to learn how to tie a tie. However, I do think debate, or at least my experience, has taught me that appearance, and confidence in your appearance can affect your performance. Simply walking into a round knowing my suit, tie, and shirt are all in line, helps give me the confidence I know I need to win and often can help you get a leg up on an opponent who seems nervous, not put together, or unsure. This skill is one that is incredibly useful for career opportunities like presentations and job interviews. Confidence and appearance, whether we like it or not, play a big role in our success.
Overall, debate has been an incredible experience for me, and I highly encourage anyone who has the opportunity to participate in it, no matter the category or format, to do so. This is five things, but the benefits are truly innumerous and longlasting.