Young lives. Old problems. New solutions.

Need help winning an argument? Ask a Kansas high-schooler.

At a time when reasoned discussion seems to be vanishing from US politics, the speech and debate scene is brimming with articulate teenagers. Among the top producers is Kansas.

Christa Case Bryant
Isaiah Eaton, who just qualified for the national high school debate tournament, rehearses a speech in his living room. His mother, an attorney, encouraged him to join the debate team as a way to come out of his shell after moving to a suburb of Wichita, Kan., freshman year.

Isaiah Eaton takes the Senate floor with a three-ring binder in his hand and braces on his teeth.

His mission: to convince his fellow senators in this high school congressional debate to support a resolution for Puerto Rico to become the 51st  state in America.

“Democracy is the lifeblood of a functional society,” begins Senator Eaton, referencing the late Yale political scientist Robert Dahl. “As the Congress of the United States of America … we must allow Puerto Rico to have statehood because firstly, the people want it and they are part of our democracy. Secondly, the only reason they aren’t a state is because of misguided 1920s policies.”

Four years ago, Eaton joined the speech and debate team here at Andover High School as a new African-American kid trying to fit into an affluent white community. Today he performs so well in the competition that not only does the Puerto Rico resolution pass, but he is also one of two student senators chosen to represent his district at the National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA) tournament this June. The other is Mel Tamhane, who is just a sophomore at Wichita East – one of America’s top schools in speech and debate, where the team is set to grow from 72 to more than 100 members next year.

Last year, 5,200 students competed in speech and debate events at the high school national championship, which has more than doubled in size since the 1990s. Some 140,000 students around the country are now involved in NSDA. At a time when the country seems to have forgotten how to have reasoned argument, these participants are displaying skills their coaches say are even better than adult politicians’. 

Qualifying for nationals is no small feat in Kansas, where the competition can be fierce. For a state with more cornstalks than people, it has done extraordinarily well on the national stage for nearly a century. The tight-knit community of dedicated coaches, many of whom have been involved since they were in high school, cultivate students in a pipeline that stretches from 9th  grade through college graduation. A pair of University of Kansas debaters just beat Harvard and Georgetown to win the school’s sixth national collegiate debate championship in late March. 

“We punch above our weight,” says Eaton. “I believe there’s a stigma around Kansas that we’re just a bunch of farmers…. They’re like, ‘Oh, you grow corn – and the Wizard of Oz.’ ”

Why Kansas?

Kansas accounts for less than 1 percent of the US population, but it supplies 5 percent of participants in the National Speech and Debate Association, says NSDA Executive Director J. Scott Wunn. It is not far behind California, which accounts for 8 percent of total participants but has 13 times more people than Kansas. Overall, the Sunflower State is one of the top five states in the US in terms of per capita debate participation. 

There are various theories as to why Kansas has so many home-grown debaters. For starters, the state itself was conceived amid a debate over the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, which forced residents to take sides over slavery. The situation turned violent and led to the seven years known as Bleeding Kansas. Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas drew massive crowds debating the merits of the act in 1858. And in high-school debate, Kansas has a strong tradition going back to the 1920s, when it established some of the charter chapters of what later became the NSDA, and from there developed a robust local circuit.

“My argument has always been – I can go 20 miles with my best teams and we can get beaten,” says Pam McComas, who coached Topeka High School to an eight-year winning streak at state championships and also produced five national champions before retiring several years ago.

Kansas debate teams attract everyone from competitive swimmers to budding thespians. Some wear red Make America Great Again hats; others participated in the recent walkouts over guns. They come from schools where every child has a laptop, and others where the coach scrounges together a dozen computers for 40 students.

But everyone works hard. They spend up to 30 hours a week or more on debate. They immerse themselves in the Constitution, quote Noam Chomsky, and cart around plastic tubs full of research, while their underpaid coaches spend lunch breaks poring over law reviews. They want to be senators and judges, and maybe even president. Famous former debaters range from Vice President Mike Pence and Malcolm X to former Attorney General Janet Reno and Oprah Winfrey.

Seeing both sides

While they are still just gangly teenagers, they are doing something that many polished politicians rarely do today: understanding and articulating both sides of an issue.

“I do think debate forces you to talk about it, to hear the other side,” says Ben Engle, a student at Kapaun Mt. Carmel Catholic High School in Wichita, Kan.

“Not just hear them, but defend their beliefs,” says Kapaun student Bobby Phillips, who along with his partner Dominik Lett is one of the top nationally ranked policy debaters.

“That’s the thing that we don’t do well as people anymore is looking at the other person’s perspective and understanding their position, and what their arguments are, and then finding a way to engage in that productively. And that’s what debate creates,” says Mike Harris, who coached Mr. Phillips and Mr. Lett last year before taking over Wichita East’s program. “So hopefully you’re creating a model for young people to try to transcend some of the nastiness in the world we live in today.”

They bring that home, too.

Amit Tamhane, who drops Mel off at Wichita East by 6:50 a.m. every morning for debate and picks him up between 5:30 and 6 p.m., says he’s learned a lot from the discussions they’ve had about issues, such as genetically modified organisms. He even concedes that his views have changed as a result.

“It’s good to see things from a different perspective – good for all of us, not just the kids,” he says.

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