Four young debaters stand in front of a world map holding certificates of accomplishment.

Debate prepares students to be more engaged citizens of their community, their nation, and their world.

Distrust of democracy, governmental institutions, and fellow citizens is high for young people, making the need for civic learning greater than ever.

Researchers at Tufts University released a white paper this week entitled The Republic is (Still) at Risk– and Civics is Part of the Solution: A Briefing Paper for the Democracy at a Crossroads National Summit. In it, they warn that civic trust and civic engagement is dwindling for young people. This decrease is even more severe in working class and low-income people, who tend to live in “civic deserts”, or places where people perceive few to no opportunities to meet, discuss issues, or address problems. Almost one-third of urban and suburban residents see themselves living in civic deserts, and low-income youth of all backgrounds feel disconnected from civic life.

Although this eroding support for democracy is daunting, researchers have identified six simple steps to rebuild civic trust. Authors Peter Levine and Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg argue that “Civic learning, when done properly, is the best vehicle to train young people to sustain our democracy.”

Debate can be a powerful tool to help fulfill the need for civic learning. Research of the Chicago Urban Debate League from 2007 shows that compared to students who had never debated, urban debaters demonstrate significantly higher social conscience and civic commitment. Here at MNUDL, we’ve observed the same change –and hear it directly from students.

Read more to learn about the six most promising practices identified to increase civic learning, and from Minnesota Urban Debate League students on how debate is helping them become more civically engaged!

Here are the six promising practices for schools to increasing civic engagement. Included are the ways Twin Cities students are becoming more civically engaged through debate, in their own words.

1. Educational courses on civics, government, law, and related topics

Debate cannot replace in-school civics education but can support it. Many MNUDL students report being more engaged in their civics-related classes due to debate:

I’ve been more engaged and learned more interesting things at debate practice than in most of my classes at school. I feel ahead in social studies, and I’m more confident to speak up in class–Dana S.

Debate has definitely made me a better student, to the point where I am able to argue with my social studies teachers about the impacts and implications that having border patrol restrictions could have on health care in the United States, or what effect a Romney election would have on US/Russia relations. Personally I believe debate should be a Social Studies course because it is a fun way to learn about these things. –Jacob B.

Debate helps me in social studies. To debate you have to know a lot about history and I learn things in social studies that I can use in debate and vice-versa. –Nadia G.

2. Deliberations of current, controversial issues

Research shows that facilitated, planned discussions increase knowledge and interest in civic society. Debate offers a unique opportunity for students to take multiple perspectives in topical, in-depth conversations about serious civic issues:

The best part is that I had to become passionate about arguments I wanted to run, and then debate against them in 50% of my rounds! I had to view everything I believed from another perspective. In the end, debate made me a more accepting and tolerant person. –Cole W.

It gives me exposure to knowledge I would not have access to in everyday life. In school, for example, I wouldn’t necessarily learn about international politics or black feminism. It’s not in the curriculum. –Ayaan N.

The best way that debate has sculpted me into a better citizen is the ability and openness to receive conflicting arguments and ideas, and receive them in a way that’s not angry, not mad, but very logical, respectful and engaging. –Tyler M.

3. Service learning

Debate encourages taking action on issues affecting communities. With MNUDL’s Advocacy Unit, students learn to translate the critical thinking and research skills fostered by debate to community advocacy projects:

Of the best way debate training at the Advocacy Unit prepared her to be a more effective activist, student Mirhet said, “[I learned] more direct instructions and processes on how to advocate for a solution.”

Debate taught me where I stand in the world. It taught me what the world was to me and what I could do for the world. –Gaochy Y.

4. Student-led voluntary associations

In debate, students meet and pursue common goals as debate team members. By working on shared projects like research and writing cases, debate team members build the habit of active participation:

I found a family within my debate team and a community within debate itself. I’ve met lawyers, CEOs, politicians, and great individuals through the debate community. –Gaochy Y.

I have made connections with people that I wouldn’t have in any other circumstance. I went from having 3 friends to knowing hundreds of people and having dozens of friends. –Jacob B.

Within my own school, the debate team is a community. Whether it is being best friends or just saying hi in the hallway, I feel strongly that debate finds some kind of friendship in everyone, making everyone involved in debate feel accepted and wanted. –Cole J.

5. Student voice in schools

Debate is an unparalleled opportunity for students to feel heard. With this year’s topic of education reform, students will be recognized as valued, respected experts on learning:

I don’t have to be the shy kid in the back. I can have a voice and I can argue. –Ash F.

Debate has been a forum for me to express myself. –Oskar T.

Debate teaches us that we all have something to say and should have a platform to make those statements. –Cole J.

When I first started debate, I was very shy and had little self-confidence. Debate shows you that you don’t have to be quiet. It helps you become a better person. –Juweria H.

6. Simulations of adult civic roles

When students participate in policy debate, the world hangs in the balance. They take on the roles of powerful decision-makers, often the United States Federal Government. Students take on responsibility and envision themselves as change-makers:

After debating both sides of the topic this year, Mass Transit, I can step back, look at the pros and cons of both sides, and form my own opinion on if we should fund electric vehicles, increase funding to mass transit, do neither, or a combination of both. I think the best thing about debate is that I would never have known about these things if I hadn’t done debate. I’m not very interested in government, but debate makes these real-life topics interesting and lets kids debate both sides of the argument. –Arthur C.

Debate pushed me to think more. I got into theory. I got into education. I was coming up with ways to solve the achievement gap on my own. –Dwight S.

Debate is an entirely different style of education. We experience policy decision-making and learn about everything from international diplomacy to the development of air born lasers. –Charles V.


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