HOUSTON — The U.S. presidential and vice presidential debates are of special interest to young high school debate teams which compete regionally and nationally for awards, as they hone their skills in argumentation. But their experience also makes them critics, not only of the candidates, but of all the political discourse they hear around them.
Oak Ridge High School, on the outskirts of Houston, has a debate team that has placed in the top 10 percent of high school teams nationally. In an age when young people favor casual dress and speech, debaters follow a more formal routine.
As the affirmative team presents its case for a renewal of the federal ban on assault weapons, the other team, arguing the negative, prepares for rebuttal.
At one point, a member from each team shares the podium for a question and answer session. The boy from the affirmative team tried to explain the proposal as a long-term ban on military style weapons that have little value for hunting or other recreation, while the girl from the negative team challenges him on the basis of the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.
"How long will this ban have to go on? How long will we have to restrict people's rights?" she asks.
Debaters must know the topic well enough to answer such questions on the spot. They make their case with evidence and logic, while questioning the arguments of their opponents.
In another point in the debate, a boy from the affirmative team challenges an assertion from the negative team that a ban on one type of weapon might lead to an eventual ban on all guns.
"The biggest fallacy we can possibly talk about is the 'slippery slope fallacy' because it relies on so many other variables," he says.
Although these young people have their own opinions on this and other subjects of debate, bias has no place in these contests.
In competition, debaters have to be able to argue either side of a question and they find that, in general, this helps them to see both sides of any issue.
As members of various teams prepare their cases, they often come together to help out each other. In one such exchange, a boy asks a girl to clarify her position about the cost of a proposal she is making. He says, "That is good, but you have to show evidence."
Assembling evidence and learning how to use it in argumentation is a large part of what debaters learn in this extracurricular program. But many of them find the skills they learn here help them in their regular studies.
Oak Ridge High School debate coach Deanne Christensen is in her 11th year of helping young people learn how to think and argue effectively.
"It's great when they disagree with each other, it is awesome to see them trying to defend their position," she says.
High school debaters can be great critics of candidate debates and adult political discourse, in general. They watch all the debates leading up to this year's presidential election and discuss them later. What troubles many of them, though, is the increasingly nasty tone taken by many adults when discussing politics.
Debater Jonathon McClanahan thinks partisanship today is undermining civility.
"I don't think we should have to hate the president to disagree with him," he says. "That is why I honestly believe that with partisanship we need to be more respectful to each other. We need to have bipartisan bills passed. We need to work together more."
Bryce Brady thinks high school debaters maintain higher standards of civility than most politicians.
"I definitely think that politicians today could get a real lesson from a high school debate team," he says.
He says political leaders need to listen to each other and try to bridge partisan gaps.
Bryce's sister, Brie Brady, followed him into debate and now works with him at home on research and argumentation.
"We just sit there with the opposing cases and just go back and forth; I will read my case, he will read his," she says.
She says debate helped her overcome shyness and find her voice.
"I was a really reclusive child, I did not talk a lot," she says. "But since I joined debate, I have gained a lot of knowledge of world events and just been able to learn how to talk to people."
Her teammate, Daniel Champagne, says debate has given him confidence and maybe even a little feeling of superiority.
"I definitely see where my parents are one-sided, " he says. "Maybe my teachers seem a little less informed than I, even though they are my elders and teachers."
Coach Christensen doesn't necessarily encourage students to challenge their parents. "I am a mom, too," she says with a smile, "and what I say goes!"
But she encourages students to politely challenge people of any age to back up their assertions with evidence and reason. Christensen thinks the confidence her students gain from their debate experience will serve them well in life.
"They are very savvy politically," she says. "They are smart and they want to see this country be successful because they are that future of our country."
She believes some of these award-winning debaters may enter politics themselves one day and become the leaders of tomorrow.