Changing the Debate: are academic debate competitions needing an update?

Posted December 16, 2019 by Joshua neubert

Competitive debate has been a mainstay of many schools for decades. With multiple speech and debate programs available to students at a national scale, and hundreds of thousands of students participating across the country, there is no doubt that debate programs are an influential part of many student’s education. Competitive debate programs are continuing to expand and make their mark in many new schools. And with hundreds of local tournaments of the major speech and debate programs happening from December through February, the next few months are going to be filled with debating magic.

All of this excitement about upcoming debate competitions got us interested in exploring more details about how these programs work. Particularly, we’ve seen some interesting discussion questioning if the current model of debate competitions actually the best way to do debate?

First of all, we have to recognize that there is no doubt that student debate provides valuable life and career skills for participants. For example:

  • Debate provides practice in developing sound and logical arguments to complex questions.
  • Debate gives students an opportunity to practice speaking in front of an audience and thinking on their feet.
  • Debate encourages students to show initiative and leadership, developing agency along the way.
  • Debate helps students expand their minds and increase their understanding of important issues.

However debate programs have recently come under fire from academics questioning whether the structure of these competitions is actually beneficial for students in the long run. Jonathan Ellis, an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of California Santa Cruz recently penned a New York Times Op-Ed bringing into focus concerns with the way debate competitions engage students.

While debate programs have been a strong educational components in the lives of many political figures, lawyers, and academicians, there is a growing concern about the way these programs ask students to defend preconceived notions at all costs rather than analyze problems with critical thinking to come to a conclusion. In traditional debate competitions, teams are assigned at random to argue one or the other side of an issue. Rather than being asked to analyze the question and come to their own reasonable conclusion, they are given a conclusion, whether they endorse it or not, and told to work backward from there to come up with the best arguments to make their given conclusion come out on top.

In this structure the goal is not to determine the most reasonable or fair-minded approach to an issue, but to defend a given claim at all costs. Dr. Ellis and his colleagues argue that this, “discourages the kind of listening and reasoning that is critical to a healthy democracy.” With the increasingly partisan atmosphere of our political system, when it seems that many of our public officials simply want to dig in their heels rather than actually think about the issues at hand, it seems that there may be an opportunity for a student debate program that helps change this cultural norm.

Rather than focusing debate on defending a position at all costs, would it be more beneficial to help students gain the courage to admit when they might be wrong, and focus on critical thinking and analysis to move debate toward meaningful resolutions?

How would you shape this new way of doing student debate competitions? We’d love to hear your comments particularly from students or educators that have been involved in academic debate competitions. And if you are interested in speech and debate, be sure to check out our list of all of the major academic Speech and Debate competitions on our ICS database. You can also follow these competitions through our system to stay up on new milestones and opportunities!

ICS Speech and Debate competitions list.