If you’ve been watching the Presidential debates over the years you should know one thing: these are not real debates, but crafted sound bites that too often whistle past each other and the moderator, aimed at ratifying what each candidate’s voter base already believes. What the nation saw last night didn’t come even close even to meeting that standard.
In real debates, the participants offer reasoned positions, backed by evidence, in civil discussion, without name-calling and interruptions, in speeches longer than 60 or 90 seconds. Competitive debaters in high school and college not only learn how to do this well, but to argue both sides of a topic in different “rounds” of tournaments, which forces debaters to appreciate that most issues are far more complicated than they appear on social media or cable TV.
Of course, it is unrealistic to expect all students to become competitive debaters, nor would I want them to even try to mimic the “speed debating” that has become all too common in some competitive debate formats. But the basic paradigm of debating – supporting claims with real facts and reasoning, learning how to rebut critiques, orally and not just in writing – would transform the education of youth in America, improve the skills and flexibility of workers and thus their incomes, and create a more civil, informed citizenry.
In fact, two education pioneers and former debaters – Les Lynn and Mike Wasserman – have been instructing teachers in debate-centered instructional techniques in middle and high schools in Chicago and Boston, respectively, for over five years. With impressive results: improved test scores and perhaps most importantly, classes that are fun, for the students and teachers alike, all of which I have witnessed first-hand.