Thanks in large part to the World Wide Web, the number of debate teams from low-income and rural schools has increased dramatically.
It won’t be long before President Bush and Sen. John Kerry come out from behind their TV ads and engage in a debate. When they do, pundits and politicians will be hauled before the cameras to grade their performance. Too bad we won’t hear from a group that really knows something about the art of verbal combat: high school debaters.
Most people know that high school debate exists, but few realize how it functions or what an important role it plays in the lives of America’s future leaders. Every year, the National Federation of High Schools selects a new nationwide debate topic. This year’s topic is protecting marine resources. Past topics have ranged from mental- health care to weapons of mass destruction. Next year, students will debate the timely topic of U.N. peacekeeping.
Student debaters draw on a wide range of sources to construct their highly detailed arguments—in stark contrast to what you typically hear in most political debates. This demands a level of dedication and training beyond what is normally required in the classroom. Building a good case requires hours of research into topics unfamiliar to most citizens, much less high school students. And it can be expensive to prepare fully and travel to the various competitions.
But if the costs are high, so are the rewards. For most students, debate is their first introduction to government, economics, logic, and public speaking. The short-term payoffs typically include higher grades and greater self- confidence. Plus, student debaters are more likely to go to college and do better once they get there. They’re also more inclined to enter politics and law, and often go on to become public officials and community leaders.
For many years, debate was the domain of a privileged few, mostly in the wealthy suburbs. Many schools in low-income and rural areas can’t afford debate coaches (who can command salaries rivaling football coaches) or even the registration fees required for the tournaments. The fee-for-service Web sites, case books, seminars, and summer camps that help student debaters get a leg up on the competition are also, needless to say, out of reach.
Technology, however, may be the great equalizer. Thanks in large part to the World Wide Web, the number of teams from low-income and rural schools has increased dramatically in recent years.
The Internet provides instant access to information about virtually any subject. Yet much of the information is scattered across the Web. Finding everything a debater needs can be time- consuming. And many Internet-based debate resources charge a subscription fee, placing an invisible barrier to participation.
That’s why the nonprofit National Center for Policy Analysis established a free online debate resource in 1996 called Debate Central.
A new version of the site is created annually, with more than 1,000 links to information and “evidence” on the year’s debate topic. The site is designed to provide a balanced view of the topic from a wide range of viewpoints—and to introduce students to the NCPA’s mission: “finding private-sector solutions for public policy problems.”
The site also allows debaters to ask questions of top experts and to communicate with other debaters in debate chatrooms. The goal: to provide every student, regardless of means, everything he or she could possibly need to prepare for a debate.
The combination of free research material, student-to-student dialogue, and expert commentary has made Debate Central one of the most popular Internet debate sites. Since 2001, the site has averaged more than 1 million hits per month and currently boasts 1,000 registered users in its chatroom.
If the site’s success is any indication, the future of debate is on the Web, and the future of policy discourse is in good hands.
Pete du Pont, a former governor of Delaware, is the policy chairman of the National Center for Policy Analysis, in Washington.
A version of this article appeared in the June 09, 2004 edition of Education Week as Debate Central