‘With all due respect’: How debate sharpens thinking

‎”I was always the one arguing with teachers,” said Posha, a high school debater from Newark, NJ. “You gave me an order, and I’m like, I’m not doing this!” But when she pushes back these days, debate has given her a new demeanor of confidence and respect. “Now it’s: I think you’re wrong because,” she said. “I have more information to back up my argument, instead of just yelling.”

Debate is growing fast as a practice to sharpen the minds and skills of urban youth whose voices have long been ignored. In this short video—one of WKCD’s “Case Studies in Practice” series—two Newark students describe how becoming debaters has taught them to do research and analysis, to speak up in public, and to disagree using words, not force.

“You pick a topic out of a hat and you just get up and speak on that,” says Michael, who was in trouble for fighting before the debate coach tapped him for the school team. “Everybody started thinking on their feet.” At first, he said, “I was obliterated.” But his competitive instinct made him work hard to nail the skills he needed: reading, writing, thinking, and effective speaking.

These young debaters take up serious subjects; this year, it’s the U.S. military and police presence in South Korea, Japan, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Iraq, and Turkey. Their practice room is lined with books and students pore over them intensely.

The Jersey Urban Debate League to which Newark’s team belongs is part of the Urban Debate Network, an initiative of the Open Society Institute. Urban Debate Leagues (UDLs) currently exist in 24 of the nation’s largest cities, with over 500 urban high schools participating. Almost half of these offer a credit-bearing course in argumentation and debate, and some districts incorporate formal debate coaching throughout the regular curriculum. More than 40,000 public school students have competed in UDLs, the network estimates.

Results are clear. A peer-reviewed study of the Chicago Debate League suggests that African American male students raised their GPAs by 50% of a letter grade and were 70% more likely to graduate from high school than non-debating peers. Compared to their non-debating peers, African American male debaters were 70% more likely to reach the ACT College Ready benchmark in Reading and twice as likely to reach the College Ready benchmark in English.

Michael said his grades, too, improved tremendously. “The season’s over, my last year is over,” he mused. “But I got into that habit, and that work ethic is going to stick with me. It’s good for yourself to know these things. You learn a lot of stuff that people should be knowing about, but actually don’t.”