On the Importance of Speech and Debate in Education

Bartlet for America

In an era of “Fake News”, “biased” media, and sound bite argumentation, it becomes worrisome to think about the difficulties both the current and next generations will face in determining fact from fiction and truth from lies. Even our highest political and social leaders in the United States seem more focused on fighting personal battles between one another, than discussing the issues that plague American society. Consequently, when our “opinion forming” leaders diminish the level of political discourse, the quality of public opinion comes crashing down with it. This becomes especially problematic when as a democracy, the well being of our country is dependent on public sentiment. If our opinions are irrational, vague and ignorant, our government becomes irrational, vague, and ignorant. Therefore, the question becomes: how can a citizen be expected to form intelligent, critical opinions, when our governmental role models set standards so low?

The answer I believe, lies in the “silver bullet” of education. Speech and Debate programs, while often seen as “extracurricular” or unimportant, teach by far the foremost qualities necessary for a thoughtful society. They differ from the calculated statistical manner of mathematics and science. They are not about interpretative understandings of fiction so commonly found in English classrooms. Instead, they are based in critical analysis of media and opinion. Nowhere else do you so thoroughly understand the faults in someone’s logic, the fallacies lying in their contentions, or the flaws within your own thoughts. Only in the debate room do students truly question not only the issue brought before them, but the way and which they were presented. Learning becomes a process of questioning and building the framework that surrounds us.

Debate, as a subject, does not to declare one side of an argument to be righteous. It does not claim itself to be left or right on the political spectrum. It doesn’t support one candidate over another. Instead, debate allows for our opinion, to be informed, versed, and reasoned. It lessens our dependency on the opinions of others by allowing for people to formulate their thoughts for themselves. It creates a society of critical thinkers. And only that can truly shift the level of discourse in our discussions, and politics as a whole.

Thus, I plead to our educational and political leaders that this is not the time to shut down speech and debate programs. It is not the time to end the study of politics and philosophy. It is the time to fund them, to aid them, to encourage every student in every school to take part in them. It is the one investment we can make that will undoubtedly be worth it.

The problems we face are vast and complex. But that is all the more reason to fire our “silver bullet” and make a democracy worth its name.