Competitive speech and debate (or “forensics” as it is formally termed) is one of the most defensible and critically important activities in which a high school student can compete. However, save for Denzel Washington and his intrepid squad of world shakers (or caricatures of school ‘debate clubs’ in other popular films and TV shows), you’ve probably never even heard of it.
Chances are, however, that you’ve heard of a few of the ‘products’ of the activity. There are, of course, the celebrities and media personalities (Oprah Winfrey, Jane Pauley, CSPAN founder Brian Lamb, Ted Turner, and Kelsey Grammar, to name a few) and powerful political personalities (Senator Richard Lugar and former Senator Bill Frist, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, as well as several former presidents). But there are also the unsung heroes – the thousands of community leaders churned out each decade that received much of their formative training from a competitive speech and debate program at the high school level.
We can’t afford to live in a world without competitive speech and debate – and now is the time to act upon the preservation and expansion of this activity that is so vital to our national interest.
In a climate where every educational choice and activity needs to be justified within a standards-based environment in order to prove its worth and secure financial backing, speech and debate meets or exceeds all applicable academic content standards. Few, if any, other extracurricular programs can make this claim. In the debate categories, student speakers take on both sides of every issue, thus developing and solidifying their commitment to well-reasoned personal values. Debate topics, like a recent Public Forum Resolution: “Resolved: NATO Presence Improves the Lives of Afghan Citizens,” are broad, require intense research and evaluation, and help to raise our national consciousness.
The speech and interpretation events are no less valuable, providing students with access to various genres of literature, teaching them to interpret said literature, allowing them to express their personal opinions on a wide range of topics, and expanding their emotional intelligence.
Perhaps most important of all, however, is the effect that a successful speech and debate program has upon a school community. Such programs, when combined with athletics and other extracurriculars, serve to create a “full” American high school experience. School administrators would be well advised to value speech and debate programs on the same level as their athletic brethren. Every school that has a football team should have a speech and debate program. That’s a win for everyone.
Too impersonal a plea? Why has promoting formal speech and debate become my cause du jour?
I, too, am a proud product of speech and debate. A competitor in high school, I entered the coaching ranks in 2001 and now serve as the head coach of a good-sized program in Northeast Ohio. Speech and debate changed my life. From the time my grizzled veteran of a head coach pointed a crooked, smoky finger in my direction and croaked (in a deep Hungarian voice that I still hear to this day): “You have a funny face, I want you for forensics”, to my final moment of high school – hugging that same coach after the awards ceremony at the national finals, speech and debate provided me with more memories than I could ever hope to remember, and more defining moments than I’ll ever forget.
One experience in particular is indelibly etched in my memory. I recall traveling to the State Finals one year on a bus that we shared with other area students in order to save funds. We were from a predominantly white collar, middle class suburb on the west side of Cleveland, and we shared the bus with students from East Cleveland – one of the poorest and most maligned cities and school districts in the country.
We talked, sang songs, and learned to appreciate each other’s movie selections (would a white kid from the suburbs ever rent ‘Waiting to Exhale’ of his own volition?) We all supported each other at the tournament. We chanted “Lawdy, lawdy, Cle-D!” over and over again at the awards ceremony at the behest of our newfound friends, and every last one of us cheered like maniacs when a Prose/Poetry competitor from East Cleveland Shaw won his 3rd state championship in a row in a dominating performance.
I never would have had that experience without speech and debate.
I never would have met anyone from East Cleveland.
I never would have learned to love their pride, spirit, and culture, and I’m sure that I would have stereotyped that segment of Cleveland’s population for my entire life without the experience of that bus ride.
East Cleveland Shaw no longer has a program. It died when their longtime teacher and coach retired near the end of my high school career. Its disappearance is a crime against humanity. No one screamed at the indignity of it as if it had been a football program, or, perhaps worse, no one was listening to begin with.
I am screaming now. I have decided to force the issue. I have decided to issue what I hope will be a clarion call for educators everywhere to take a second look at the viability and vital need for a competitive speech and debate program at every high school in America, public or private, rich or poor, large or small.
After all, speaking up is what I was trained to do.
The National Forensic League (Ripon, WI)
The Ohio High School Speech League (Tipp City, OH)