Stanford Invitational Tournament

The Power of Debate

Debate is a valuable activity for students of all skill levels.  Debate teaches useful skills for other academic pursuits and life more generally.   Most obviously, debaters build confidence speaking in public and expressing their ideas eloquently.  That comfort speaking in front of others is useful in so many areas of life, from interviews to school presentations to discussions in college seminars.

But the benefits of debating are not limited to the skills built while students are speaking—the preparation for competition teaches critical thinking and research skills, as well.  As F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”  Debate tests and builds that ability by forcing students to see both sides of issues.  Debaters flex their analytical muscles, learning to find the weak points in opponent’s arguments.  They learn to explain their own ideas and assess different viewpoints, whether in a debate round, a political discussion, a classroom, or a written essay.  And debate requires students to research their ideas and support them with evidence, teaching them to conduct research and assess sources.  According to Arne Duncan, then-Secretary of Education, debate is “uniquely suited” to build skills required of a modern citizen, including critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity.

Those skills help students express their thoughts better in their academic work and their college applications (not to mention around your dinner table!).   The College Board recently revamped the SAT test to focus more on exactly the sorts of skills debate teaches.  As the New York Times explained, students taking the new version of the test must write “a critical response to a specific argument” based on analysis rather than personal experience.  Debaters are used to responding to unfamiliar arguments in time-sensitive situations; thinking critically about a written passage on the SAT is not so different from responding to an opponent’s argument in a debate round.  Debaters likewise outscore non-debaters on every section of the ACT.  Studies across the country have found that high school debate improves reading ability, grades, school attendance, self-esteem, and interest in school.  Duffin, Frank, Latitudes in Learning, “Debate Across the Curriculum Results” (2005).  Many universities even offer scholarships specifically for college debaters.

For those who commit to speech and debate, it offers a lifetime of benefits.  Forbes published an article titled “How to Find the Millennials Who Will Lead Your Company,” suggesting that the leaders of the future are ex-debaters.  As that article notes, debate teaches “how to persuade, how to present clearly, and how to connect with an audience,” exactly the skills businesses look for in their young employees.  You’ll find ex-debaters in every area of public life, from Bruce Springsteen to Oprah Winfrey to Nelson Mandela.  60% of Congressional representatives participated in debate, as well as at least a third of the Supreme Court.  There are ex-debaters excelling in business, law, politics, academia, and many other fields.

Perhaps most important of all, debate is fun!  You may have to cajole your son or daughter to go to their test prep class or do their homework, but debate makes learning a game; students build their critical thinking and speaking skills without it ever feeling like work.   Debate gives students a rare opportunity to take ownership over their own intellectual development.  And throughout the years of practice and competition, debate builds lifelong friendships and community, teaching teamwork as well. 

For help getting started with competitive speech & debate, please visit our how to select the right program & format guide.