Speech and Debate Will Help Me Change The World: A Reflection

To be remembered, one can’t just be good at what she does. One must be great. One must create or discover or build something incredible to impact her community--the world--for years to come. But in the twenty-first century, that becomes increasingly difficult. Science and technology are more advanced than ever. Math is no longer a shifting subject with new discoveries around the corner. News, documents, and discussion can be sent halfway across the world in the blink of an eye. And yet, evil remains. Poverty, forever wars, disease, corruption. Our world is in peril, and our leaders aren’t doing enough. I want to make an impact on the world. I want to help people. I want to be remembered, and in order to do that and facilitate the change necessary in our world, I must exercise my voice.


My eighth grade history teacher recommended me to join the debate team after my first socratic seminar. Although the discussion topic has long since slipped my mind, I remember the course the conversation took: my classmates and I were in agreement, with only one outlier. This student continued to stress his point and, although factually false, remained unrelenting. Ten minutes had passed. Then twenty, thirty, forty-five. Exasperated, one by one my classmates gave up on trying to explain to the quite emotional student how his argument didn’t stand: although his opinions were valid, he could use flawed research to support it. All of my classmates knew how much I loved to talk. They knew my stubbornness and my apathy towards false information. And so, with nobody left wishing to talk to this student, they all turned to me. He never participated fully in a socratic seminar again.


At the end of the school year, my teacher referred me to the coach of the debate team, and I have been an active member ever since. Congressional debate takes up a large part of my life, and I spend hours upon hours researching for a tournament. I give speeches on everything from abortion to constitutional amendments to peace with South America and the Middle East. I travel the country to compete on a national scale, vying for a spot in the top-tier tournaments. This year, I am team captain, and I have my first bid to the Tournament of Champions and qualified for the National Speech and Debate Association’s National Tournament.


Although I love debate, it is a complicated extracurricular. While subjective and exclusionary, it teaches necessary life skills and builds lasting friendships. In the world of speech and debate, especially the style in which I compete, you can never know if you’ll place first or drop in the first round. Speech and debate, including Congressional Debate, teaches students valuable lessons that will advance them in the professional and academic worlds. And although the activity is sexist, powerful young women have still found enough voice in debate to facilitate real action.


Congressional Debate, informally referred to as simply “congress,” is a style of debate modeled after the procedures and processes that take place in a real legislative assembly. Congress focuses on real issues and legislative decorum. Executive Director of the Wisconsin High School Forensics Association, as well as a member of the Board of Directors of the National Speech and Debate Association, Adam Jacobi, defines congress as “a mock legislative assembly competition where students draft bills (proposed laws) and resolutions (position statements), which they and their peers later debate and vote to pass into law and then take action on by voting for or against the legislation.” Congress allows youth to gain competency in the legislative process by writing policies, discussing them, and voting on them. Furthermore, providing this lesson in a competitive arena improves the quality of the debate. By raising the stakes with points, rankings, awards, honor societies, and scholarships, the event pushes students to invest in the legislation at hand for their future, much like politicians are deciding the future of America with each policy. Students research for hours on each item, turn down countless weekend invitations, and miss school to compete in what is no longer just an extracurricular, rather, a way of life.


But, congress is not just about hard work. The legislation up for debate is based on relevant issues. Jacobi remarks, “appropriate topics exhibit seriousness of purpose. The action proposed should be feasible, and such that the actual United States Congress might debate it. Topics should be debatable, meaning substantive argumentation exists on both sides.” Legislation, which is written by the competitors, must hold weight in today’s political climate. Rather it be a foreign policy bill conditioning arms sales to Saudi Arabia due to the war in Yemen, requiring cultural competence training in medical schools, or pushing public schools to stick to a four day school week, congress legislation must have germane and unique arguments on both sides. Otherwise, it’s not emulating Congress.


Congress is supposed to follow the same process as a real legislative assembly. In order to do so, “contestants act in the manner of a senator or representative, weighing needs of theoretical constituents whom they represent, and in a larger sense, all American citizens.” In roleplaying as members of congress, competitors must take oaths of office, follow parliamentary procedures, and maintain decorum. By providing professionalism and a serious atmosphere, competitive chambers shift from a room full of teenagers arguing passionately about the best fast food chain into a vessel for open discussion and sincere argumentation with the tap of a gavel. In maintaining this format, students put respect above all else.


Congressional debate provides a space for teenagers to transform into politicians. They become passionate and knowledgeable about pertinent issues as well as uphold professional standards and develop respect. By competing students also learn many valuable lessons and skills to carry with them outside of the realm of speech and debate.


Debate helps students find their voice and develop skills necessary to succeed both academically and professionally. To live in today’s society, one must be competent in the basics of core classes such as math, english, science, and history, and be able to communicate effectively. Speech and Debate teaches students lessons that will help them in the professional world, such as understanding differing viewpoints and promoting respect, and pushes them to excel in academic life by preparing them for class and helping them gain confidence in their own abilities.


Debate provides a space for students to learn about and even advocate for perspectives other than their own, which develops understanding and promotes respect; These two lessons are necessary in a professional setting. Stanford’s intercollegiate debate institute, the Stanford Speech and Debate Society, notes that “debate tests and builds [the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function] by forcing students to see both sides of issues… They learn to explain their own ideas and assess different viewpoints.” Because students must research and be prepared to argue both sides of every debate, they are exposed to perspectives and sources they may not agree with. But by doing so, students are enabled to understand and accept differing perspectives with a wider worldview, welcoming differences and collaborative efforts with an open mind. The ability to accept, respect, and even value differences and differing perspectives is an important skill outside the realm of speech and debate. As stated by one of the most successful college debate teams, the Cornell Speech and Debate Society, “you’re going to meet different people and not everyone is going to agree with you. If you are open-minded, you can think about their perspectives and points of views… If you respect and understand where they are coming from, you are really going to go far in life.” All people are different. Education, experience, moral codes, home life, and even something as seemingly mundane as a favorite color or animal all impact a person’s decisions and perspectives. Debate competitors learn early on that it is more important to gain success through respect and collaboration instead of arguing and compromising. Whereas in compromise all parties lose something to the other, in collaboration, all parties succeed. Due to experiencing other perspectives in debate, students that competed learned the valuable life skills of respecting and communicating with all people, which is necessary in any successful professional institution.


The professional world is not the only place that speech and debate has pushed students to excel in. By preparing students for anything and boosting their confidence in themselves, speech and debate helps competitors succeed in academic life. One example of academic preparation is provided by the Stanford Speech and Debate Society: “Debaters are used to responding to unfamiliar arguments in time-sensitive situations; thinking critically... is not so different from responding to an opponent’s argument in a debate round.” In any unfamiliar situation, such as a timed essay or unknown problem on a math test. Whatever the circumstances, debaters are taught to think critically, problem solve quickly, and respond effectively. This provides students with skills to help them excel in difficult classes. However, this is difficult without another critical skill speech and debate teaches: confidence. A high school debate student being interviewed by the Cornell Speech and Debate Society confirmed that “no matter what your opponent may say, you still have to have faith in yourself. You still have to have confidence in yourself and keep debating. Because I learned how to speak with more confidence, I trusted myself more fully in making good arguments and providing evidence to support my position.” Because this student gained confidence in her own voice, she was able to have faith in her critical thinking. Speech and debate teaches students to be confident always, even if they are wrong, because confidence projects intelligence and comfortability. Each class is different, each teacher teaches differently, and each student learns in different ways. However, by teaching students to think critically and have confidence in themselves, speech and debate teaches competitors to also be competitive in their academics.

Students use speech and debate to facilitate real change. Brian McGrath writes for Time on the story of a young female debater, Bintou Baysmore, who makes an impromptu speech in Brooklyn in front of hundreds of people protesting the death of George Floyd. “It was an impromptu speech, but Baysmore was far from a novice speaker. She’s president of the speech and debate team at Achievement First Brooklyn High School and specializes in an event called Original Oratory, in which students write and deliver their own speeches.” As an experienced debater, Baysmore took her debate skills and turned them into something impactful. When the microphone was handed to her unexpectedly, she thought critically in order to come up with a compelling speech. Her confidence was palpable, giving an unprepared speech to so many at only seventeen years old. She utilized her communication skills to connect with everyone in the crowd, regardless of background. And, she and her teammates are continuing to make a change that is “in the faces appearing on the stage, as well as in the view of which topics should be discussed and on whose terms. Once-predictable high school oratory is starting to reflect a wider shift in how Americans talk about race, gender and the distribution of power in the United States—even if not everyone wants to hear what these young speakers have to say.” Despite being so young, high school speech and debate competitors are exercising their voices for social justice. Like them, I have been in possession of lifelong lessons. Like Baysmore, I want to use it to make clear who I am and what I stand for.


The lessons and skills I have learned from debate will come with me for the rest of my life. However, I am not quite sure what the rest of my life will be. All I know is that because of my experience in speech and debate, I carry with me the respect, communication, critical thinking, and confidence to be a successful woman in today’s society. I am armed with only my voice, and that is more than enough to make a positive impact on the world.


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Sophie Reynolds

Episcopal Collegiate School Junior

@sophiemreynolds


*please contact me if interested in reading any of the cited sources!

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