The young men and women arrived for their debate dressed in jackets, slacks, and skirts. They wanted to look the part, as a strategy for winning. This was to be their very first debate in their weekly homeschool co-op class day. The subject was a sobering one: The federal government should discontinue capital punishment.
Jane, a shy, 15-year-old student who eschewed attention of any kind, nervously organized her papers at her assigned table next to her partner Mary, who barely concealed her own apprehensions. Jane was particularly anxious about the portion of the debate known as “cross,” where her opponent could question her openly about any of her research or her position on the topic. The coin toss earlier had resulted in Jane and Mary arguing for the affirmative and against the death sentence punishment.
Teaching debate is a lost art. Today, students typically learn simply to memorize information the teacher provides and then regurgitate it on the exam. But argument is our bulwark against violence. We should be instructing children in the art of persuasion and debate as a means of discovering truth and reaching understanding. While most public schooling cements rigidity of the mind, purposely instructing young people in forensics affords them flexibility of thought such that one day they might win in the marketplace of ideas. Debate is the very means by which this country discovered itself and offered freedom and its accompanying explosion of prosperity the world had never before seen.
The cramped office in the church where they all met hosted both debate tables, the speaker’s podium, and several chairs for visiting parents and other students. It would have been standing room only if there had been any room left to stand in.
Suddenly, Jane looked sternly at her mother, rose from her table, and walked briskly outside the constricted space. The hallway was vacant, and Jane’s mother came up behind her. “What’s going on, Jane?”
Jane turned to face her mother, her face streaked with tears, her lips trembling. “I… can’t… do… this.”
“Yes, you can,” her mom told her sternly. Her own mind was reeling. There’s no crying in debate! If she gave in to Jane’s panic, then the loss might be permanent. No, she thought to herself. She has to get through this somehow. But how? Jane was melting down before her eyes. “Mom, look at me. I can’t stop crying. I can’t do this. I don’t know what I’m doing… what to say!”
“Jane, we’ve gone through this. You have your papers. You’ve prepared for this. Everything is written down.” “Not for cross!” Jane hissed vehemently. “I have no idea what he’ll ask me!” “You will simply answer to the best of your ability, Jane. You can do this. You march in there, and go through with it. They’re counting on you. We all are. And you’ve done the work.” Jane’s mother sounded more convicted than she felt, but fundamentally she understood that giving in was worse than standing firm.
Through alternate hounding and cajoling, Mom managed to get the young woman to walk back into the room. She was to begin the debate, presenting the affirmative’s side. She turned twice more from the podium to attempt to gather her composure before beginning. Then, tears continually flowing down her cheeks, Jane sobbed through reading her well-prepared pages. She even withstood cross-examination, and by the end of the debate, she had proven to herself that she was stronger than she had previously believed.
A first debate is always a struggle. We’re naturally intimidated by new experiences, especially growing ones. Debate stretches the debater if they want to win. We need to teach our children how to win in the realm of thought.
Which brings us to the second debate, where the debaters discover opportunities to correct previous mistakes and test further strategies. This time Jane knew she would be on the negative side, and she organized her approach based on her initial experience.
The day arrived, and Jane felt less than half as nervous as the previous week. She had battled many demons that day and conquered the bigger ones. “Is killing wrong?” Jane asked the tall, dark-haired young man she was crossing. “Yes,” he answered quickly and decisively. “All the time?” “Well, yes, of course!” As a Christian homeschooler, the young man knew the commandment not to kill.
“What about in war?” Jane asked, nervous, but committed to her strategy and convinced of its efficacy. “Well,” the young man looked up off to the left, considering. He obviously understood there was a trap, but he couldn’t see avoiding it. He believed that some killing was righteous, especially in wartime, and so, he answered honestly. “In war, the killing is justified.”
“Thank you. No further questions.” Jane smiled to herself. Another demon defeated. When Jane took the podium to argue her rebuttal, she offered that the state views serial killers as warring against the public. Her specific case was a particularly heinous tale of a murderer who had been freed, who then committed eight more monstrous murders before being put to death.
Jane won her case. But more than that, she won her battle with fear. Studying and engaging in debate paves a path to freedom. Failing or avoiding teaching young people this skill shackles them.
Unfortunately, most public schools these days don’t tolerate argument or encourage independent thought, seeking uniformity and coerced agreement, instead. Kids in public schools should be crying over their inability to debate.
Sam Sorbo is an actress, talk radio hostess, and author of “They’re Your Kids: An Inspirational Journey from Self-Doubter to Home School Advocate.”