by Amanda Zhang
High School debate is prized as an intellectual activity for politically engaged young people. Each tournament often begins with a commencement speech by some important person or other who makes the claim that those of us participating will be the future leaders of the world. Advertisements hung throughout high schools tout the fact a that a numerous number of famous political officials and academics have participated in some form of formal debate education and competition and in fact, the claim is genuine. A large number of important political and social leaders have indeed participated in formal competitive debating when they were in high school or college.
For those who aren’t as familiar with the activity, it works like this: there a few different types of categories of competitive debate ranging from individual to partner to group events with different focuses on policy making skills, research, philosophical rhetoric, or presentation. Each month or year, depending on the category of debate, the National Speech and Debate Association assigns an official national topic often in the form of a resolved clause. For the months of September and October the resolution was “Resolved, The US Federal government ought to pay reparations to African Americans.” Competitors are then expected to come up with both a pro and con position on the resolution and debate both positions against other teams.
Unsurprisingly, national level competitive debate functions as a mirror microcosm of the greater political climate of the United States. As future leaders of the world, those who are able to compete in national-level competition are often those who are affluent or come from wealthy schools. More disconcertingly, those who win and do well, much like the real world, are almost always wealthy white men. Wealth plays a significant determinant of success as debate is an often times ridiculous expensive activity with many students paying up to a thousand dollars a year to compete at national tournaments across the country. Individual costs are only mitigated by large debate endowments that are only usually seen in extremely wealthy schools. Moreover, there is an advantage to those whose families can afford to send their children to debate camps over the summer with the cost of an average debate camp ranging from 2,000 to over 5,000 dollars. There have been some efforts to equalize the playing field for those who can not afford camps such as creating an open evidence project. Originally, only those who were able to go to camp would have access to curated files of evidence that were an unbeatable advantage in competition. In the debate documentary Resolved director Greg Whiteley follows around two different teams: one affluent and white the other poor and black in which the differences and advantages posed by wealth and perception lend to competitors.
It is within this climate of elitism and dated preference that thousands of wealthy white debaters across the country were discussing the topic of African American reparations. Recently, Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy, came to UW Madison to speak on issues of racism within the criminal justice system. Throughout his speech he focused his efforts on conveying to the audience that proximity – that is, getting close to the problems you are passionate about – is essential in building good advocacy as an ally to disadvantaged communities. Within academia there is a rift between, on the one hand, academics who theorize and write scholarship regarding privilege and oppression, but are not directly impacted by the oppression; and those who write from actual lived experiences of oppression. High school debate is one of the earliest forms of the former, the ‘armchair activist.’ Oftentimes, debaters value a topic only to the extent that they can win a tournament and forget that the advocacy they espouse can genuinely impact the communities they talk about. Surely, this is not the case for every student who participates in high school debate, however, it is true for the vast majority. Debate is an extraordinarily valuable form of intellectual engagement and is especially vital for young people to develop their skills in rhetoric and argumentation. However, as an institution, unless there is a shift in the idea that competition is more valuable than learning the skills to impact the real world, debate will continue to simply be an application-boosting extracurricular that won’t make the world a better place.