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H.S. Debaters Cast Critical Eye on Presidential Nominees’ Bout

By Andrew Ujifusa — September 30, 2016 4 min read
High school debate team members attend a watch party at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, for the first debate between the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees last week.
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When Benel Higuchi prepares for competitions on his speech and debate team, the 15-year-old high school student keeps in mind the format and the spirit of the classic 1858 debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. But when he looks at the 2016 contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, he sees something very different. And he has a hard time grasping exactly what the candidates stand for.

Benel and a few dozen members of the speech and debate team at Green Valley High School in Henderson, Nev., just outside Las Vegas, along with those from other local high schools, crowded into a lecture room at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, to watch the first presidential debate last week, which took place at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

UNLV, which will host the third presidential debate, on Oct. 19, organized the debate-watching event in conjunction with the Clarke County, Nev., school system.

Critical Eye

The event was a window into the students’ skepticism of how the candidates discuss the issues, their distrust of how social media treats politics, and their keen interest in the political process.

Discussing the election in a classroom at Green Valley a few hours beforehand, both Benel and Aislinn Farmer, who’s also 15 and a fellow speech-and-debate-team member, said they get a great deal of their information about the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees as they scroll through Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. But they also know much of what they see on social media is very negative—and not to be trusted. And the two campaigns, in turn, do their best to cultivate the superficiality bred by social media, Benel said.

Benel Higuchi 15, a high school debate team member, at Green Valley High School in Henderson, Nev., views the two campaigns as taking a superficial tack.

“They get to manipulate the public. That’s their job,” he said.

The situation affects the students’ views of the race. Aislinn said, for example, “A lot of the people who vote for [Trump] ... don’t have a lot of background information.” And Benel called Clinton “pretty outdated.”

Kozhakhmetova “Zhizhi” Zhibek, a 16-year-old exchange student and debate-team member at Green Valley from Kazakhstan, said she hasn’t been able to form her own opinion about Trump specifically. But she has heard others talk about his mission of keeping Muslims out of the United States. (Seventy percent of the people in her home country identify as Muslim.)

“They feel that it’s wrong. And maybe that’s a point where I agree with them. ... It offends a lot of people,” Zhizhi said.

Many teachers, Benel said, are afraid to talk about the election with students. And Scott Ginger, an English teacher and the debate coach, who’s worked at the school 26 years, said he’s seen less student involvement in the Clinton-Trump race compared with previous presidential elections.

“I hope they don’t think this is the best we can do,” Ginger said.

The university and the Clarke County, Nev., school system collaborated on the event, bringing together debate-team members from local schools, including Kozhakhmetova “Zhizhi” Zhibek, 16, an exchange student from Kazakhstan who attends Green Valley High.

During the Sept. 26 debate, the students laughed at the zingers Clinton and Trump threw at each other. But when asked individually or in small groups about the tone of the debate, the students expressed disappointment about how the nominees seemed to favor clever insults over policy.

“Exactly what I said I didn’t want to happen happened,” said Isabella Welch, a 14-year-old student at PaloVerde High School in Las Vegas. “They just bash the other person. ... OK, how are you going to [govern]? They’re just saying how the other person is not going to do it.”

Some students were aware of education issues as they contemplated the candidates.

Sydney Belmonte, 14, a Palo Verde student, doesn’t like what the Common Core State Standards have done for her classroom instruction—she’s a big fan of cursive writing, which the common core does not include. If the federal government gets involved in education, Palo Verde classmate Matthew Siroky, said he’s worried he would just get loaded up with more tests to take. (Belmonte would vote for Trump if she could, while Siroky said he wouldn’t vote at all this election.)

Stark Contrasts

Ryan Knipple, a sophomore at Palo Verde High School in Las Vegas, reacts as Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and her GOP rival Donald Trump face off at the debate.

On economic issues, the differences between the two candidates came through loud and clear for at least one student.

“I noticed that Donald Trump, he wants to kind of help out the wealthy, the high class. But by doing that, what he’s saying is that he’s going to create a lot of jobs through that because a lot of the wealthy people are business owners,” said Maximus Lear, a 14-year old at Palo Verde. “And Hillary Clinton is focusing more on the middle class and how they can get jobs from there. She isn’t really worrying about the lower or the higher classes.”

At least by one measure—social media—Clinton seemed to impress the students more. Jacob Thompson, an associate professor in residence for communication studies at UNLV who organized the event, conducted a Twitter poll to keep track of which candidates students thought got the better of the debate. He found that the share of those who said Clinton had the advantage grew as the night wore on, although he’s not sure how many students participated, or stuck around for the entire debate.

Benel said that while Trump didn’t seem to have “a concise flow of thought,” Clinton’s polished answers were pretty much what he would expect after her decades in politics. Despite his skeptical view of the campaign both before and after the debate, he’s excited for the two upcoming Clinton-Trump debates. Yet he’s hoping for more than what he’s seen and heard so far.

“I feel like nothing is substance at this point,” Benel said.

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Coverage of policy, government and politics, and systems leadership is supported in part a grant from by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, at www.broadfoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the October 05, 2016 edition of Education Week as High School Debaters Prove a Tough Crowd

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