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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Why We Should Teach Kids To Debate

Young people need to learn to think critically and understand arguments. Debate training gives them a tool to resist propaganda.

The right is bad at debate. Political commentator David Pakman has put out a video showing an amusing highlight reel of conversative celebrities getting obliterated by simple arguments from the left. The recent Steven Crowder and Sam Seder debacle shows just how scared the right is of actually debating the left. Truthfully, most of the arguments that conservatives trot out in defense of their ideas are simply “worthless,” relying on a type of pseudo-rationality rather than actual research or facts. Even Joe Rogan, hardly the most informed political commentator around, has humiliated conservative “intellectuals” like Dave Rubin by making simple, obvious arguments. The fact that this publication pushes out stacks of researched articles calling upon conservatives to defend their views and rarely receives anything approximating a good faith response shows that the right is simply unwilling to debate the left

The claim that the right makes bad arguments should be obvious. After all, the right is now beholden to a gross monster who lost the presidency, blatantly lied to the public, and is hell-bent on destroying democracy through a politics of cruelty. It’s difficult to look at the modern Republican party and think that they have anything to offer beyond culture war grievances about critical race theory or Dr. Suess and spreading misinformation about COVID-19. They are a party with no content, no agenda, no ideology beyond deference to Trump and “owning the libs.” They are not a serious party and they have no serious ideas to offer. 

Even the so-called “intellectuals” of the right are frauds. Ben Shapiro, originally hailed as the “cool kid’s philosopher” and known for the popular phrase “facts don’t care about your feelings,” is not smart, makes consistently bad arguments and uses fast-talking to disguise the fact that his arguments are really just feelings disguised as facts. Jordan Peterson is a charlatan with little substance, Alan Dershowitz continuously makes horrible arguments in defense of the indefensible, and Bret Weinstein can’t even accurately understand basic left positions. Conservative “think tanks” like the CATO Institute or the Heritage Foundation are funded by those with deep pockets (like the Koch brothers) and an even deeper interest in spreading misinformation. While there are certainly those on the right who are very intelligent, make good faith arguments, and have deeply principled views, it is hard to view them as the vanguard of the modern conservative movement, more defined by hatred, bigotry, racism, and a hatred of liberals than any real set of values or ideas

That’s not to suggest that the arguments put forth by the right aren’t dangerous. These arguments—often little more than rationalizations or bigoted sentiments disguised in a veneer of legitimacy—are persuasive to a huge portion of Americans and the inherent power imbalances that exist in society make it far easier for the right to win. The right still holds immense political power despite being a minority party (thanks to gerrymandering, voter suppression, and racism). This political power is buoyed by a concerted propaganda effort to turn the next generation into conservatives, an empire from Fox News to Candace Owens that has convinced millions of Americans to be scared of everything from welfare to vaccines as a slippery slope to socialism. And, unfortunately, this propaganda is effective. We know, for example, that PragerU propaganda reaches far and wide and legitimately convinces many younger views that the right-wing worldview it espouses is correct. 

But we can slow the spread of these bad ideas. Most right-wing propaganda is terrible. PragerU presents extreme and absurd ideas with a veneer of respectability to cover up the fact it is devoid of substance. Countless YouTube videos thoroughly debunk the lies that PragerU spreads. Other right-wing propaganda is similarly weak. Yet, these arguments will continue to dominate the public sphere unless the public writ large is better equipped to resist the propaganda they are fed. Progressives need to insist on inculcating the critical thinking skills necessary to practice that resistance, and they need to advocate for it sooner rather than later. 

This means we need to learn how to debate. 

It never took much to convince me about the value of debate. My father, a first-generation Chinese immigrant, recognized early on in my high school career the value of public speaking and advocacy, suggesting that his stagnation in his professional career was in part due to his lack of leadership and public speaking skills. He vowed that such a deficit would never be a reason his son failed to advance up the ranks in whatever STEM field I would end up pursuing. Unfortunately for my father, my introduction to the world of competitive high school speech and debate ended up being a gateway into over a decade of involvement with the activity and a decline in interest in most STEM-related fields. I have been involved with competitive debate since 2010, both as a competitor and coach. I have taught debate both at exclusive, coastal private schools—where debate is yet another activity used by wealthy students to bolster the college resume and an elitist activity that disparately excludes poor students—and at small schools in rural China—where debate is a way for students to improve their English language skills and to learn how to speak their minds. I currently teach debate at the University of Wyoming where I assist with coaching the collegiate policy debate team, an activity that remains exclusive and the frequent target of conservative criticism, and help lead a free coaching resource for high school debaters in Wyoming. 

But the activity that most changed my perspective on the value of debate was teaching COJO 2095: Persuasive Argumentation, an undergraduate course at the University of Wyoming that covers the basics of research, critical thinking, and public speaking. It was only upon teaching this class (unfortunately, an all-online class thanks to COVID-19) that the true importance of teaching debate was impressed upon me. I realized how poor the average college student was at making and defending an argument. The final paper in the course had the students defend the value of a policy change made by the government. Not only did students advance horrible positions such as eliminating birthright citizenship (a position so obviously racist and bad that even war criminal John Yoo opposes it), abolishing the income tax (a position guaranteed to worsen inequality), and opposing literally any action to combat climate change (seriously?), but they made flimsy and weak arguments to support those positions. Students didn’t cite sources, didn’t engage counterarguments, failed to consider how to convince a skeptical or hostile audience, committed obvious logical fallacies, and distorted the relevant academic literature. 

These were university students. Granted, many of them were just beginning their college careers. But what does it say of our high school education that students who leave the last level of government-guaranteed education are unable to parse literature, critically reflect on arguments, or research both sides of an issue? It’s not just my opinion. Surveys suggest that even those who leave higher education still lack critical thinking skills and educators have long warned that the lack of emphasis on critical thinking and problem-solving in education has obvious and long-term consequences. Many high school graduates have difficulty doing academic research and even more trouble writing, symptoms of what’s wrong with American education today. 

Of course, there is plenty more wrong with education in this country: the education system’s libertarian capitalist philosophy, increasing privatization and charter schools, the glorification of “elite” institutions that perpetuate inequality, teacher shortages and underpaid teachers, school shootings, tying school funding to property taxes, the drive for profit above student safety, and low global rankings in education. The problems are abundant. But now is the time to reimagine what it’s for and how it ought to be done. As high schools prepare to return to in-person classes, educators are beginning to collectively reflect on what the pandemic taught them about education. Countless journal articles and op-eds have been written about everything from the value of in-person education and its impact on student wellbeing to the need to revamp many traditional educational practices. While the education system grapples with complex questions about how to improve American high school education going forward, leftists should strongly consider advocating for mandated forensics education and making a debate course a graduation requirement

Mandating forensics education wouldn’t come anywhere close to fixing the multiple crises afflicting the modern American education system—when the single largest predictor of student success is familial wealth, then it’s likely that only policies that raise parental incomes and decrease inequality broadly can begin to help. But it could make a serious difference in blunting the advance of right-wing ideology that is now beginning to infect high schools. Conservatives know that getting to children early (PragerU is now targeting kindergarteners) is crucial to ensuring that conservatism will never die out. Why else would PragerU be trying so hard to infiltrate schools and high school curriculum? Absent a series of near utopian reforms that prevent such bad ideas from ever becoming a part of the curriculum or teaching every high school the factual inaccuracy with every falsity espoused (an impossible task given the mountains of bullshit created everyday), the next best solution is to equip students with the tools to resist such propaganda. Debate training will help students better fight back against propaganda. 

The case for high school debate does not solely lie in the idea that it would create more Breadtubers or equip leftists to beat down more conservatives in public debates. Although Current Affairs editor-in-chief Nathan J. Robinson has published a multitude of pieces defending the value of engagement and public argument (and I agree that such are good), there is good reason to think that public debate isn’t even that useful in the grand scheme of things. For example, presidential debates probably don’t effectively change minds, don’t sway elections (except in rare circumstances), and don’t do much except serve as a nice spectacle and a joint press conference for the candidates to speak to their base. Public debate sometimes works, but is often a poor medium to actually communicate meaningful information, because it’s unable to convey the salience of numbers or change the minds of those who most need convincing. However, the virtue of high school debate lies not in its ability to replicate public theater or debate as a spectator sport. Instead, debate is valuable because it teaches skills that are broadly applicable across a range of disciplines. 

Argumentation is inherently tied to almost every aspect of academia. Every discipline is composed of academics who lob arguments back and forth, be it mathematics, history, politics, or philosophy. As a result, students are naturally familiar with arguments and argumentation. They have been taught how to accept certain arguments such as reasons for why the Earth is round or reasons for why sentences in English usually have a noun and a verb. The problem isn’t that students don’t know what arguments are, nor is it that students don’t know how to make arguments. 

The problem is that students don’t know the difference between good and bad arguments. As this site has pointed out, “you can make an argument for anything.” Conservatives rely on terrible, debunked arguments to make their case against the wealth tax, against Medicare for all, in favor of sweatshops, in favor of scrapping Constitutional rights, against trans athletes, against civil rights, and so much more. Yet, people still fall for this. In Robinson’s words, “It’s just incredible what some people can believe.” 

Or maybe it’s not that incredible. If students learn in an environment that never teaches students anything beyond applying knowledge, and never shows them how to probe assumptions, then it’s no wonder that students never question what they’ve been taught. 

There are a litany of reasons why people, especially high school students, cannot spot or challenge these terrible arguments: People are biased in a myriad of ways, subject to bias blind spots, and prone to acting like “soldiers” who are only interested in defending their beliefs from outside threats and only seeking out confirming evidence. The average person is easily drawn in by flashy presentation, charming speakers, and cheap debate tactics like the gish gallop (facts that con men know all too well). People are also generally emotional creatures, driven more by a need to belong in a community than by a pure motivation for truth or facts. And when people sound smart and engage in what Ezra Klein calls an “aesthetic of rationality,” we tend to believe them, even if their arguments are actually quite weak. 

People are just not good at systematically interrogating their beliefs, conducting rigorous research, or identifying weaknesses in arguments. Of course, this doesn’t have to be the case. These skills can be learned. There is no shortage of resources for helping one improve their reasoning skills, from books like Thinking, Fast and Slow, Blindspot, and Rationality: From AI to Zombies, to YouTube channels dedicated to improving reasoning to logic puzzles. But expecting the average high school student to willingly read dense psychology books is an unrealistic pipe dream. Merely encouraging more students to think critically is insufficient if we want a critical mass of the next generation to emerge with a more robust toolkit to resist the influence of right-wing propaganda. What is needed is a vehicle to train students with the skills that help them become better researchers, better critical thinkers, and better reasoners. Debate is that vehicle. 

The standard case for high school debate is straightforward. As an article from the Guardian argues, “…the art of debate involves mastering skills of obvious intrinsic value: the confidence to speak in public, and make sense; the construction of a logical argument; the ability to read an audience’s reactions; and, perhaps most importantly, the willingness to hear others’ arguments, and to respond to them.” 

From a practical standpoint, debate confers immense benefits. A recent 2021 study of thousands of debaters found that competitive debate is “associated with better academic outcomes for students” including higher SAT Math and SAT Reading/Writing scores and higher GPAs, especially for gender minorities and students of color who are a part of Urban Debate Leagues (a group of high school debate teams from urban high schools generally located in large cities that work predominantly with minority students). Previous research has found that debaters are more likely to graduate and less likely to drop out of college, are more likely to pursue post-graduate education, have improved “self-efficacy related to self-esteem,” have improved communication and public speaking skills, and have better critical thinking skills. Debate has been found to be an effective way to teach civic education, the ability to advocate for both oneself and causes that matter, and skills necessary for success in any field including time management, argumentative writing, self-managed study, library research skills, and logical thinking. There is a wealth of evidence to suggest that debate actually works in improving critical thinking. A survey of prior research, including several meta-analyses about debate’s impact on critical thinking, suggests that “academic debates ability to uniquely foster critical thinking becomes one of the strongest reasons why it is such an important activity.” Not only that, students themselves also believed that debates increased their critical thinking skills. Debate has been encouraged as a tool to encourage critical thinking in a wide variety of academic fields from economics to STEM based courses. Finally, debate has many secondary benefits like raising aspirations for education, boosting confidence, and increasing cultural awareness. Yale Professor Minh A. Luong has argued that, “In my opinion, there is no better activity that will develop essential academic, professional, and life skills than dedicated involvement in speech and debate.” 

Yet I do not even find these benefits to be the strongest case for debate. Sure, leftists should be looking at ways to improve educational attainment for students, it’s obviously good that people learn more effective ways to persuade, and it’s great that debate helps disadvantaged students succeed. But, I think the reason why any progressive vision for the future should include a mandated debate curriculum is because there are skills vital to resisting the right that debate can teach that very few other extracurriculars can even hope to rival. 

Current Affairs recently published a lengthy guide for high school students on “how to avoid propaganda.” In it, he recognizes the challenges facing high school students trying to discern the truth: information overload, difficult to access academic resources, declining trust in news, and expectations of dishonesty from politicians. He argues that we have an obligation to become “intellectual anarchists” or to “demand that every authority justify itself before you accept it.” The necessary skills to become an intellectual anarchist? Learning how to effectively research, think critically, and resist dogma. What activity is able to teach these skills more effectively than any other high school extracurricular? Debate. 

First, debate teaches deep research skills. Debate exposes students to a wide variety of content areas. Just this past year, high school debate topics have included debates about universal childcare, lethal autonomous weapons, compulsory voting, social media’s effect on democracy, NSA surveillance, no first use policies, and Medicare For All to name just a few. While some topics are a bit more obscure (such as the pros and cons of urbanization in West Africa), many of these topics are about pressing social issues that often appear in popular debates. Debaters are also often expected to be familiar with moral philosophy, economics, international relations, political science, and even the dreaded critical race theory. In order to stay competitive at the upper echelons of debate, debaters often engage in 20 hours or more of preparation each week, equivalent to the workload of many college-level courses. It is not surprising to find debate teams that have amassed thousands of pages of original research in just a single season of debate competition. This process of research makes debaters more familiar with the actual beliefs of experts, improves their information processing, makes them more adept at spotting weaknesses in evidence, and makes debaters more informed about the world around them. Oftentimes, debaters “gain more experience in research in one year than in all the rest of their studies combined.” Many debaters who go onto careers in law cite their experience in debate as excellent preparation for the intense research and information processing that such careers require. 

When Robinson discusses the need to follow up with research to resist propaganda, the problem is simply that most students lack both the motivation and tools necessary for deep research. Navigating databases, using Google search operators, and familiarity with journals and think tanks are not skills easily acquired without some outside assistance. Even following up on footnotes in Google Scholar is not very intuitive. Debate teaches students both the value of research and how to effectively research. If we want a critical mass of students to be able to do the research necessary to resist propaganda, teaching debate would be a good place to start. 

Second, debate teaches critical thinking. There’s always been a contingent of education experts who have long recognized the importance of critical thinking. The debate about eliminating standardized testing from college admissions has been characterized by a debate about racial bias but is also a debate about the value of critical thinking. Complete books have been dedicated to “America’s Critical Thinking Crisis.” There is little doubt that American education could better promote critical thinking. I argue debate is one of the strongest tools around to teach critical thinking. 

Because the activity requires debaters to dedicate immense amounts of time to defeating their opponent’s arguments and defending their own positions, they must critically evaluate every argument in the debate. When attacking an opposing position, they must seek out and exploit any and all weaknesses in their opponent’s argument. Debaters look for logical fallacies, weaknesses in supporting evidence, reasons to doubt the credibility of sources, missing details in arguments, and counterexamples. When defending their own positions, they must anticipate every likely response their opponent might levy against them and find ways to defend their position against such rebuttals. This process of engaging in deep argumentation is a valuable way to teach critical thinking as it enhances their logical reasoning skills

Debate offers numerous advantages over other projects like essay reviews or writing. It instills drama, motivating students to win and forcing students to become personally attached to arguments they make. By introducing a competitive element into the academic process, debate provides a fun, game-like alternative to the more rigid traditional educational process which encourages creativity and makes students more invested in the process. Debate is also a form of active learning, which is generally more stimulating and effective than more passive learning methods. Finally, debate also encourages students to collaborate together, helping them learn. 

Resisting propaganda requires critical thinking skills and these skills need to be sharpened and honed with time. Developing the intuition of when to apply critical reflection on a wide variety of subjects requires practice and pattern recognition. When high school students are presented with a credible looking article, it is easy to see why they might fall prey to its message. Debate trains students to spot patterns, to sniff out weaknesses in arguments, to see how the arguments synthesize together to form larger narratives, and to spot contradictions when they arise. These tools are invaluable when considering how to resist propaganda. 

Finally, debate teaches against dogma. On top of exposing students to a wide variety of views and arguments, debate also forces students to take both sides of an issue. In other words, it forces students to switch sides, a practice where debaters argue on behalf of both sides of an issue. This practice forces students to mobilize arguments to make an effective case for either side, understand alternative views, and step outside existing systems of belief. It is this practice that is crucial to deflating dogmatism and teaching a democratic ethos by forcing students to consider both sides of an issue prior to developing personal convictions and engage with the other side

Broad exposure to a variety of subject areas and, more importantly, forcing students to think about both sides helps serve as a bulwark against dogma. For students with existing left leanings, this serves a tool for learning how to dismantle the arguments for the other side; for students with existing right leanings, this serves as a mechanism to force them to appreciate the other side’s arguments. Anecdotally, it was this practice of switching sides and considering positions outside of what I previously believed that convinced me about the value of so much of the left’s agenda. For example, the more that I debated about universal healthcare, the more I came to appreciate how poor many of the objections against it were. And it was this practice that helped me better understand the nuances of different left positions. For example, one of the topics this last year concerned a federal jobs guarantee. Researching this topic led me to think about the comparative benefits of a federal jobs guarantee compared to a universal basic income or a living wage (or some combination of those proposals). 

This is perhaps the most contentious argument in favor of debate. Academic articles have been written criticizing switch side debate as a project of liberalism that contributes to the ideological maintenance of American exceptionalism by creating subjects whose public statements are separated from their convictions. The New York Times has even published an op-ed criticizing school debate competitions as creating closed-minded partisans because it teaches a “win at any cost” mindset. These views have merit. They should caution us from becoming devil’s advocates, especially in sensitive conversations. And the debate leagues around the country have created strong social norms against debating issues that are patently unethical like whether racism is good. 

But they should not be taken as reasons against the process of debating both sides. Rusk and Razzak, writing in the Oxford Political Review, suggest that any alternative that does not force students to consider both sides of an issue only reinforces echo chambers. Switch side debate, meanwhile, increases the chance for good faith debates to emerge and helps strengthen your existing beliefs by helping you find weaknesses in them, both desperately needed in an age where partisanship has made good faith debate difficult if not impossible. This process of switching sides forces students who may never have been exposed to more leftist or radical views to evaluate them on their merits. It forces students to think about how to offer a defense of views they may disagree with, challenging previous strawmen they may have previously believed. Debate, then, provides an obvious mechanism for penetrating filter bubbles by exposing students to a range of views they have previously not considered. Finally, there is a worry about demarcating what counts as “debatable.” Some conservative debate leagues have deemed issues like critical race theory “undebatable.” Only the process of switching sides allows us to come to more robust conclusions about controversial issues that might otherwise have never been considered in the first place. 

All of these benefits have led Robert E. Litan to argue for an approach he called DCI or “debate-centered instruction,” a proposal he outlines in his 2020 book Resolved. He argues that the skills of listening, persuading, and research that debate teaches is necessary to help heal the growing political divide and improve the quality of our democracy. He even goes so far as to argue that debate provides a way to moderate extremism, reduce vitriol in political discourse, and promote racial justice. I think Litan has the right approach—promoting debate as an educational model can do much for an entire generation of students by making them more resistant to right-wing propaganda. And Litan is right to focus on high school because I fear that teaching these skills in college is simply too late. 

College is too late

College is great. It’s a place where young adults form lasting social connections, are exposed to a broad range of new ideas, and grow as people. It’s probably why college should be free and why we should probably stop saying that “college isn’t for everyone.” 

And one of the benefits of college is that it tends to liberalize people. There is a reason why conservatives are targeting higher education, public universities, the humanities, and, increasingly, even community colleges. They argue that college is “brainwashing” and “indoctrinating” the youth. These criticisms are (obviously) largely unfounded. College is really just exposing people to more views and some evidence suggests that students increase their appreciation for both liberal and conservative ideologies. It’s much more likely that students who become liberal at college are becoming liberalized by the peer effect, not because of some nefarious left-wing conspiracy to indoctrinate the youth. This makes college a strong contender for the best avenue to expose more people to outside views. 

Yet as colleges increasingly become a “force for inequality” rather than a “great equalizer” and as many Americans are choosing not to go to college, the left cannot rely on college as the primary mechanism for deconverting right wing ideologies. With college enrollment declining as it has been for the last several years and Republicans increasingly convinced that colleges and universities are having a negative effect on our society, it is insufficient to rely on higher education to instill basic critical thinking and research skills that serve students well inside and outside of academia. Since high school is the last chance for free and mandated education, it therefore serves as a crucial venue by which important skills can be taught to the masses and why it should be a primary focus for activists. 

High school is continuously under assault from the right. The right attacks public schools, arguing for school choice (despite the fact that vouchers don’t work) and lashing out against equal and more education funding. The right would not be so interested in launching an all-out attack against education or instigating public school culture wars if they did not think it was important to their project. Conservatives often stress the need to win the battle over education because it is necessary to “help teach and propagate” their values. The recent battle over critical race theory, a concept that is really not even taught in high school classrooms (although frequently shows up in debate), shows that the right must suppress what they cannot refute. It is because they do not want the truth of slavery or racism to be taught that they must engage in tactics that deter teachers from teaching about it. If this becomes the future of American education, the long-term viability of any progressive project reaching critical mass increasingly is called into question. Focusing on inculcating important skills like critical thinking early on is crucial in order to combat the growing threat to education that we now face. 

Of course, high school debate is far from perfect and faces its fair share of problems. It has well-documented gender disparities, pervasive racial bias concerns, is frequently dominated by exclusive private schools, and faces a well-known elitism problem. It has also been attacked by the right as a tool of indoctrination, especially in the wake of a viral incident where conservative debaters complained about losing a round for citing Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson. Debate can also corrupt one’s character, serving as a powerful weapon of self-deception. And, like many tools, debate has been often used by the powerful, often serving as a weapon wielded in defense of power. The political sociopath Ted Cruz was once a respected debater while competing at Princeton and now uses his debate skills in service of destroying democracy (although Princeton’s American Whig-Cliosphic Society, America’s oldest collegiate debate society, has voted to strip Cruz of its highest honor in light on Cruz’s role of supporting the insurrection). Neal Katyal, a former Dartmouth debater long triumphed in the debate community as a shining beacon of how one can use debate skills for progressive ends such as gun control, has recently used his legal expertise to literally defend child slavery, showing how these tools can easily become coopted by business interests

But so, too, can many other valuable skills. Coding is worth teaching even if some coders end up working for ICE, producing radical scholarship is worth it even if it gets used by the CIA, and debate is valuable even if McKinsey uses the tools of debate (yuck). Debate can be a tool for liberation, a training ground to help many find their voice and resist the propaganda of the right. Especially as mis- and disinformation become increasingly commonplace, and synthetic media threatens the fabric of trust and democracy itself, the need for media literacy and critical thinking is more important than ever if we want to eventually create a just society. The right is not going to stop pouring resources into figuring out how to persuade people. The question is whether people are going to be trained to spot how they’re being manipulated. 

Education should always be a core left goal and more resources need to be put into education. But we also know that not all education is created equal. There are modes of teaching that are better suited for training us to be more efficient workers and modes of teaching that are better suited for helping young students grow as people and creating a better future. Debate is a mode of education worth defending. In order to succeed in the future, leftists need to be able to advance and defend their vision of the world. Debate teaches the skills of argumentation necessary to defend the actual merits of various policies. It teaches the advocacy skills necessary to advance ambitious agendas. It makes students better at resisting propaganda. And it doesn’t hurt that it also equips students to publicly embarrass those on the right

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