News / USA

US High School Students Debate Politics, Issues of Day

Greg Flakus
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.

You May Like

Brutality Eroding IS Financial Support

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper says IS's penchant for publicizing beheadings, other brutal forms of punishment hurts group’s bottom line More

Studies: Climate Change a Factor in Disasters in Syria, California

The studies point to the possibility of clear and present dangers from a threat often considered to be far in the future More

Video Afghan Refugees Complain of Harassment in Pakistan

Afghan officials and human rights organizations assert that Pakistani authorities are using deadly attack at school in Peshawar as pretext to push out Afghan refugees More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Kerry Seeks Assurances of Russian Non-Interference in Ukrainei
X
March 03, 2015 3:11 AM
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has told his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, that his country could face further consequences to what he called its “already strained economy” if Moscow does not fully comply with a cease-fire in Ukraine. The two met, on Monday, on the sidelines of a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, where Kerry outlined human rights violations in Russian-annexed Crimea and eastern Ukraine. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports from Geneva.
Video

Video Kerry Seeks Assurances of Russian Non-Interference in Ukraine

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has told his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, that his country could face further consequences to what he called its “already strained economy” if Moscow does not fully comply with a cease-fire in Ukraine. The two met, on Monday, on the sidelines of a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, where Kerry outlined human rights violations in Russian-annexed Crimea and eastern Ukraine. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports from Geneva.
Video

Video Smartphones May Help in Diagnosing HIV

Diagnosing infections such as HIV requires expensive clinical tests, making the procedure too costly for many poor patients or those living in remote areas. But a new technology called lab-on-a-chip may make the tests more accessible to many. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Refugees Complain of Harassment in Pakistan

Afghan officials have expressed concern over reports of a crackdown on Afghan refugees in Pakistan following the Peshawar school attack in December. Reports of mass arrests and police harassment coupled with fear of an uncertain future are making life difficult for a population that fled its homeland to escape war. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports from Islamabad.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Prepare to Defend Mariupol

Despite the ongoing ceasefire in Ukraine, soldiers in the city of Mariupol fear that pro-Russian separatists may be getting ready to attack. The separatists must take or encircle the city if they wish to gain land access to Crimea, which was annexed by Russia early last year. But Ukrainian forces, many of them volunteers, say they are determined to defend it. Patrick Wells reports from Mariupol.
Video

Video Moscow Restaurants Suffer in Bad Economy, Look for Opportunity

As low oil prices and Western sanctions force Russia's economy into recession, thousands of Moscow restaurants are expected to close their doors. Restaurant owners face rents tied to foreign currency, while rising food prices mean Russians are spending less when they dine out. One entrepreneur in Moscow has started a dinner kit delivery service for those who want to cook at home to save money but not skimp on quality. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video US, Cuba Report Progress in Latest Talks to Restore Ties

The United States and Cuba say they have made progress in the second round of talks on restoring diplomatic relations more than 50 years after breaking off ties. Delegations from both sides met in Washington on Friday to work on opening embassies in Havana and Washington and iron out key obstacles to historic change. VOA’s Mary Alice Salinas reports from the State Department.
Video

Video Presidential Hopefuls Battle for Conservative Hearts and Minds

One after another, presumptive Republican presidential contenders auditioned for conservative support this week at the Conservative Political Action Conference held outside Washington. The rhetoric was tough as a large field of potential candidates tried to woo conservative support with red-meat attacks on President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress. VOA Political Columnist Jim Malone takes a look.
Video

Video NYC's Restaurant Week: An Economic Boom in Fine Dining

New Yorkers take pride in setting world trends — in fashion, the arts and fine dining. The city’s famous biannual Restaurant Week plays a significant role in a booming tourism industry that sustains 359,000 jobs and generates $61 billion in yearly revenue. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports.
Video

Video Brookhaven at Cutting Edge of US Energy Research

Issues like the Keystone XL pipeline, fracking and instability in the Middle East are driving debate in the U.S. about making America energy independent. Recently, the American Energy Innovation Council urged Congress and the White House to make expanded energy research a priority. One beneficiary of increased energy spending would be the Brookhaven National Lab, where clean, renewable, efficient energy is the goal. VOA's Bernard Shusman reports.
Video

Video Southern US Cities Preserve Civil Rights Heritage to Boost Tourism

There has been a surge of interest in the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, thanks in part to the Hollywood motion picture "Selma." Five decades later, communities in the South are embracing the dark chapters of their past with hopes of luring tourism dollars. VOA's Chris Simkins reports.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More