[Insert Controversial Opinion Here]: How Debate Changed My Life


When I reflect back on my childhood, I am struck by the fact that my parents never taught me what to think per say, but greatly emphasized to me how to think. I can still remember my dad questioning my normative statements whenever we talked about the world.

It’s probably just hindsight bias, but it seems almost inevitable now that they would encourage me to sign up for debate. My dad was in debate for most of his high school and college career. He thought it would benefit me the way it benefited him.

We had just moved, so I joined the program halfway through the year. The topic that year was military engagement with the Middle East, and the case was withdraw from Afghanistan. I argued on the negative. I didn’t really know what I was doing so I just read some of the evidence they gave me, it was like debating with training wheels.

A couple of weeks later, I had my first real tournament. I was dressed up in my nicest church clothes with a borrowed sports coat from my dad—pretty much a perfect fit except for the sleeves, which were a couple inches too short. My spiffy look didn’t matter in the long run, though, as I didn’t win a single round.

I wanted to quit after that, but my dad encouraged me to stick with it until the semester was over at least. I decided to oblige him, after all, I was the boring sort of child who never even really thought to rebel against his parents. So I stuck with it for the semester. And then that semester turned into the next semester, and that semester into the next. After I got to the point that I could formulate coherent arguments, I developed a taste for the activity.

Like pretty much everything I do, that taste developed into an obsession. Most of my friends in my high-school years came from the debate team; it was sort of my primary social circle. When a new topic came out, I’d spend weeks researching it before the season began.

Debate was key in preparing me for college life. When it came time to write the dreaded research paper, I was able to quickly and efficiently find the sources I needed. In one class, the teacher took us to the library to do research for a big paper at the end of the semester—I think the intention was that we’d spend the entire class, but it only took me fifteen minutes to find all my sources. When it came to presentations, too, I was ready: years of public speaking made classroom speeches a cakewalk.

Debate not only helped me become a better student; it also helped clarify my interests. It was a primary factor, I think, in my developing an interest in philosophy, which I plan to pursue into grad school.

I feel that debate is a great way to find formation as a person. To paraphrase David Foster Wallace, the great cliché of the liberal arts education is that it teaches one how to think. Most students are offended by this notion because they believe they already know how to think, but Wallace’s thesis is that the liberal arts education is more about what one should be thinking about. At the risk of offending the reader, however: in my experience, most people still don’t know how to think.

It may appear I just insulted the reader’s intelligence, but let me explain: it’s not that most people are stupid; it’s more that they lack critical thinking. I know many people who were classically educated and are very smart in terms of raw intelligence, but couldn’t argue their way out of a paper bag. It’s a matter of mental discipline. One could be very physically fit but still need training in order to actually do anything with it. Even if you have a firm knowledge base, if you’re not trained in rhetoric, it’s very easy to come off as muddled and confused. Conversely, if one has mastered the skill of speaking, one can project an air of confidence on a subject despite knowing nothing about it. I’ve seen people win arguments against others with superior education in the subject matter, only because of their greater rhetorical mastery.

Merriam-Webster defines a conversation as an “oral exchange of sentiments, observations, opinions, or ideas.” By that definition, I seriously doubt most of our daily interactions reach the basic definition of a conversation—we don’t exchange ideas or opinions so much as small talk and memes. I can only imagine this is born out of insecurity; most people don’t know how to exchange ideas without offending each other or getting defensive. But, as Aristotle said, "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." This ability is something debate can certainly help with. I’ve argued for one position one round and the opposite position the next despite never agreeing with either opinion.

We’re always told in polite society not to talk about things like religion or politics, not to mention the basic frameworks people use for interpreting the world. But—in my opinion—those are the only things worth talking about.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not claim to reflect the opinions or views of the Defendant or its staff members.

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