What High School Debate Nerds Can Teach America

I was a debate nerd in high school. I spent hours in the school library preparing for scholastic meets. Whenever the annual debate topic was announced by the University Interscholastic League, I immediately started collecting stacks of research, organizing the information into indexed, categorized, bite-sized zingers to shoot at my opponents. Debate taught me how to research, how to argue, and how to present a case in an organized way. But it taught me something else that I find lacking in current cultural discourse — the ability to weigh arguments without defending a position.  

In a debate contest, participants have to prepare to argue both sides. Debaters don’t know which position they’ll argue until the day of the event. That means that a debater can’t get away with dismissing either side of an argument out of hand. He can’t assume that people who affirm the opposing side are ignorant or unintelligent or reprobate. And he can’t read and research only his favorite side of a topic.  

In any current cultural debate, most of the people I encounter are only interested in hearing and repeating arguments for their side. Liberals wouldn’t be caught dead listening to Dennis Prager, and conservatives have a permanent block on Mother Jones. There aren’t many Jews reading the Quran, nor Hindus going to Bible Study. Rare is the citizen who shows genuine interest in a viewpoint not his own. This, of course, leads to many arguments, misunderstandings, and Facebook un-friending.  

The one arena where I don’t see this happening is academia. My friends who are professors or students seem to have an ability that others don’t. They say things like, “The prevailing argument against that idea is…” or “Professor Smith would say…” Academics are used to having discussions without winning them.  

This is probably because academia is a place for considering ideas in an dispassionate way. But it’s also because academia is the place where people consider questions that have vexed humanity for generations. Conundrums about the nature of reality, the efficacy of democracy, and the origin of humanity won’t be solved in this election cycle.  

I think our culture could learn from our tweed-clad friends. What if we could cross aisles without crossing our fingers? What if we could engage debate without derision? What if we entered discussions with more curiosity than certitude? What if we acted more like conceptual explorers than conquistadors? 

I’m not saying that we should abandon our convictions. I’m saying that balance usually leads to more fulfilling convictions. In all those hours in the school library, I never researched any argument — and there were some thorny ones in those high school tournaments — without gaining an appreciation for its adherents and a deeper understanding of truth.  

And truth is the enemy of no honest person.