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Club Corner: High School Debate Club

Andrea Wunderlich '13, Staff Writer

Should we tell children that Santa Claus exists? 

You may never have given this question much thought, but it is an important one: Millions of children grow up believing in an elderly resident of the North Pole who spends his days in a bright red suit, building toys with the help of elves. But what kinds of consequences might such a belief have on the lives of all those young, excitable, and gullible children? 

Benefits:

  • Encourages children to behave well
  • Encourages kids to seek out awe, magic, and inspiration in their lives
  • Creates enjoyment for both kids and adults
  • Allows children to engage in a great learning experience: Kids may set up experiments to test whether or not Santa is real and will exercise their logical thinking by critically evaluating the possibility of Santa’s existence
  • Stimulates children's creativity

Drawbacks:

  • Triggers feelings of betrayal and mistrust in children when they learn about their parents’ deceit 
  • Creates the possibility that kids who believe in Santa Claus will be picked on in school
  • Encourages children from low-income families who get fewer gifts to believe that they are less worthy than children from wealthy families who may receive expensive gifts

Members of the High School Debate Club tackled this question in depth. They have also debated other seemingly trivial matters, like whether the sitcom Friends is overrated, during their club sessions. (I, for one, would be very interested in a debate comparing the perceived versus the actual value of the televised fictional adventures of Ross, Rachel, Monica, Chandler, Phoebe, and Joey.) More substantive issues addressed by Debate Club members include whether or not public figures should be penalized for disseminating misinformation and whether or not the UN is effective at solving world problems. 

Minchan K., a tenth-grader and one of the club leaders, says these rhetoric spars have been personally beneficial. “I used to feel uncomfortable speaking in public, but Debate Club has helped me develop my public speaking skills and my confidence in front of an audience,” he says. Ana Luisa M., in grade 9, explains that debate has taught her “how to take meticulous notes and truly listen to what people are saying.” 

According to English teacher and club advisor Nikki Bingham, debating is an excellent way to develop organization, teamwork, and communication skills, and it teaches practitioners how to raise relevant and compelling questions. Furthermore, because debaters must defend both sides of an argument, they are less likely to form absolutist opinions, and they tend to find it easier to empathize with individuals with whom they disagree. And, most importantly, Ms. Bingham believes that debate is incredibly fun. She argues that though many people may be intimidated by the idea of debating, the club meetings are actually filled with jokes, laughter, and camaraderie. 

Ana Luisa joined the Debate Team because of her strong argumentative skills. (People close to her insist that she will one day find her calling as a lawyer.) She enjoys participating in the club because it requires her to use knowledge and techniques (without resorting to aggression) to persuade someone of something with which she may not even agree. Minchan’s favorite aspect of the club is how it has compelled him to explore critical global issues. “Before I joined the team, I felt very disconnected from the rest of the world,” he explains. “I didn’t really follow the news. But now I know what’s going on, and I often discuss world events with my friends.” 

And the club’s activities extend beyond Graded’s walls as team members often participate in national and international debate tournaments. The most recent one, which drew students from Brazilian international schools, took place virtually in early April and was hosted by the International School of Curitiba (ISC). 

The competition in the tournament was fierce, but Graded prevailed. Partners Ingerlis A. and Gabriela Y., in grades 10 and 9, respectively, took first place. To get there, they first excelled in the round-robin phase and then defeated their opponents in a challenging semi-final round. “We were sure we had lost the semis because our rebuttals felt weak,” Ingerlis explains. “But we ended up winning because we had so much more data and evidence than the other team.” To Gabriela, it all felt surreal: “It was my first tournament, and I never thought we would make it to the final. I think the virtual environment made it all easier.” The girls spent a lot of time preparing before their final round. In the end, though, they won by forfeit: One opposing team member slept in late and missed the debate’s start time. Despite the anticlimactic victory, the tournament's outcome was still extremely gratifying. 

Though team members Minchan and eleventh-grader Jose J. didn’t make it to the tournament semi-finals, their exemplary performance in the round-robin was recognized when they won the Best Debate Award. This accolade is conferred to participants in the event's most engaging and challenging dispute. 

Effective debating is a valuable skill to master and is extremely impressive to onlookers. And sometimes, it can even change lives: When the Bard Prison Initiative Debate Union—a team comprised solely of prison inmates—defeated the Harvard College debate team in 2015, the incarcerated men were showered with praise and admiration and were subsequently granted several professional and educational opportunities to which they would not otherwise have had access. Alternatively, candidates’ performances in presidential debates have the potential to sway voters—especially undecided ones—right or left and, therefore, can help determine the next occupant of a nation’s highest office (and, in doing so, completely alter said country’s trajectory and ultimate fate).

The art of rhetoric is a powerful one. Whether you are trying to convince people that you are the ideal Brazilian presidential candidate or attempting to persuade your friends that Ross and Rachel really were on a break, the skills and strategies learned in Debate Club can be leveraged to tip the discussion in your favor.