Debate And Civics Education

“Debating in high school and college is most valuable training whether for politics, the law, business, or for service… The give and take of debating, the testing of ideas, is essential to democracy.”

– President John F. Kennedy

Civic engagement promotes quality of life within both communities and individuals. It is vital to a healthy democracy. Debate can play a part in promoting civic engagement by informing students about how political systems work, inviting them to role-play as policymakers, and helping them connect with crucial opportunities to lead. 

A Statement from MPS Debater and National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan

Jake Sullivan was named the 2022 Champion of Change at our Mayors Challenge debate. He shared how his experience as a debater influences the work he does every day and can help students lead within their communities.

Research About Debate & Democracy

Research on the Chicago Debate program concluded that urban debaters report higher social conscience, social competence, and civic commitment than their peers (Anderson & Mezuk, 2012).

In Civic Connections: Urban Debate and Democracy in Action during Out-of-School Time, researcher Georgia Hall observed debaters meeting the democracy skill building for youth framework, including: finding a sense of social purpose and affiliation with society, seeing the connection between public political and private lives, understanding democracy and civic participation, support for authority and willingness to dissent, capacity for autonomous choices, respect for others and their groups, shared discourse tolerant of other opinions, skill building, leadership, and belief in their ability to make a difference.  (Source)

A 2014 joint white paper from the Education Commission of the States and the NCLCE, Six Proven Practices for Effective Civic Learning, ranks Speech & Debate as a top extracurricular for boosting civic participation. 

Most recently, Holly Korbey showcased debate and the potential of urban debate leagues in her book, Building Better Citizens. (Mind/Shift, 2019)

Research is currently being conducted by the University of Virginia’s EdPolicyWorks project to evaluate the effects of debate programs, ranging from Boston Debate League to debates in Rwanda, on students’ civic engagement. Find their paper at the Constructive Dialogue Institute.

Debate and the 5 C’s

Former United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan:

In a number of respects, competitive urban debate is almost uniquely suited to building what’s been called the “Four C’s” of 21st century skills—critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. And to that list I might add a fifth “C”—for civic awareness and engagement…. It’s so important that our youth increase their global competencies and become globally-aware citizens in the 21st century—and debate is one fantastic means of doing so.” (US Department of Education)

How Debate Impacted These Civil Servants

Yvanna Cancela, first Latina Senator in Nevada

“Debate changed my life by teaching me to be a critical thinker, and I take that with me in everything I do.”

Sarah Carthen Watson, Associate Counsel at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law

“Debate gave me a voice at a time in my life when I felt like nobody was listening. Now I use that voice to advocate on behalf of others.”

Korey T. Johnson, Esq.

“Speech and debate ignited my passion to transform the world around me. By recognizing the power of my words, I have gained the courage to both speak truth to power and reinvigorate my community.” 

Melvin Washington, Rackham Merit Fellow at University of Michigan Ford School of Public Policy

“I honestly would not be where or who I am without debate. It exposed me to new ideas, new people, and new places while equipping me with the skills to make and cogently justify good decisions.”

Victoria Suarez-Palomo, Vice President of Policy and Regulatory Affairs at Renovate America

“I started the debate team at my high school, and it is the single best thing I have ever done! Speech and debate taught me how to use my voice and inspired me to pursue a career in public policy.”

Debate is Essential to Democracy

Want to bolster civics education at your school? Learn more about how to start a debate team here.

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