Too bad so few English teachers chose to attend the panel session on interscholastic debating held here during the annual meeting of the National Association of Independent Schools.
The hundreds who did not join the dozen of us in the Beauregard Room missed hearing why it is that competitive debating at the secondary school level is so good for students. They missed learning how to set up debate teams; how to encourage "top" students to participate; how to gain the interest of administrators; how to coach debate teams; and what the experts think of debate workshops held during summer breaks at colleges and universities across the United States.
The speakers had all been (one still was) high school debate coaches. They talked much about winning debates -- a tender topic for this reporter, who experienced the "agony of defeat" on that score during her final two years at college.
"Sacrifice, dedication, and devotion" were the key words used over and over again to describe the work of the students and the qualities of the debate coaches. One English teacher asked, already knowing the answer, if debating would take a lot of "private" time. The response was a roar: "Yes."
But then the talk turned to the skills students would learn in debate -- different from those learned, for example, from football, which also calls for "sacrifice, dedication, and devotion." Analysis, logic, and listening were emphasized.
The debater, it was argued, needs to be a good listener. He can't be half listening while thinking of his rebuttal. He must listen with all attention so that he knows what (and can choose now) to rebut. Of course, every debater learns research skills as he deepens his study of the yearly subject.
All at the session agreed that getting a debate program started was the hard part; once it was going, it carries its own momentum. Some suggestions for stimulating students and administrators:
Approach the student leaders -- basketball champ, honor student, lead in the senior play, etc. -- and tell them they have been "chosen" as the school's greatest honor to be on the new debate team.
If funding is a problem, ask students to pay the costs for travel to compete with other teams. Then when there is a winning record, invite businesses in town to sponsor interscholastic debate competitions.
For more information about high school debating write George Mengert, Pace Academy, 966 West Paces Ferry Road, NW, Atlanta, GA 30327 or Dennis Winfield, Executive Secretary, the National Forensic League, Ripon, WI 54971.