Opinion: Debate should be a skill learned in high school
Published: Thursday, March 14, 2013
Updated: Thursday, March 14, 2013 00:03
Since coming to college, I’ve realized there are a lot of things I wish I had been taught in high school. This weekend, I added another subject to the list – debate. Most schools have discussion built into their curriculum in some form, but after participating in a formal parliamentary debate, I think every student should be exposed to it in high school.
Communication is an important human skill – perhaps the most important – and for all the talking, writing, texting, posting and tweeting that we do, it’s still a challenge to get our ideas across at times. Not everyone is blessed with oratory skills or is comfortable with public speaking. I know I’m not. Standing up and talking in front of a handful of strangers was one of the scariest things I’ve done in a while. The experience made it clear to me how valuable debate training would be for high school students. Knowing how to pose an argument logically and respectfully is an essential skill that everyone should have the opportunity to learn.
Most of us had class discussions in high school and many had formal debates, but I’d like to see a real emphasis on debate as a skill. Argument and discussion will always be present, so why shouldn’t people know how to do it rationally and courteously? There are all sorts of options for working debate into high school curriculum. It could be a separate class every student was required to take, like health and gym, or frequent debates could be part of another required course, like English or civics. Educators already recognize the value of discussion and oral presentation in teaching. It’s one of the best ways to show a real working knowledge of a certain topic. Many subjects, particularly in the humanities, lend themselves to discussion and debate, and oral communication is a better assessment of a student’s understanding than multiple choice or written tests.
The benefits of a debate class would also go far beyond the subjects involved. Students would learn how to construct a cohesive argument and get comfortable speaking in front of their peers. To high school students, these are invaluable skills. Most people never get a good chance to develop their public speaking skills and suffer for it when they’re older. Becoming comfortable pitching ideas to your coworkers and selling yourself in an interview are things most people have to pick up as they go. Learning them in high school would give students a huge head start. It would also help build self-esteem and maturity. Being able to articulate your ideas is empowering and makes you more likely to stand up for yourself.
Debates would also teach students how easily arguments can be manipulated. Facts and ideas can be twisted to suit a purpose. By actually being the people doing the twisting, students would learn to look more closely at the things they take for granted as true. I know that, as a high school student, I would have benefited from seeing that in action. Learning to argue for something that you don’t necessarily believe can teach you to look at different points of view. Instead of accepting an idea as right or wrong, you look for the logic that supports it.
Most importantly, students would learn how to argue in a civil, structured way. Formulating an argument within the confines of a formal debate is a great exercise for anyone trying to improve their communication. Debates force participants to present a strong case in a limited amount of time and respond to their opponents with minimal preparation.
Thinking quickly and logically were not skills my high school seemed particularly interested in teaching, and in the real world you don’t get the opportunity to write a persuasive essay every time you disagree with someone. Not everyone will see eye-to-eye with you or give you much time to explain yourself. You have to talk to them, and debate prepares you for that. There are very few life skills you can learn in a class, and we’re missing an opportunity to teach one of them.