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Network Perspective: The Importance of Public Debates in an Age of Sound Bites

An American Cornerstone Endangered

This month’s reflection is written by NAUDL’s Sara Sanchez, Director of Programs & Communications

February 28, 2022 – Debate has a long history as a public institution in America. The founding fathers debated the finer points of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in a series of letters and pamphlets known as The Federalist Papers. During the Senate election of 1858, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas held a series of seven debates, attended by thousands of citizens, publicly exposing the issue of extending slavery into the territories recently acquired in the Mexican-American War. However, these historic debates would be almost unrecognizable to the general public today. In both instances, these were long, nuanced conversations that unearthed the struggles at the core of American political life. More importantly, they were closely followed by an American public that was interested in detailed conversations on complicated issues – a pastime that has sadly been replaced by political events where candidates often ignore tough questions in favor of insulting their opponents or repeating sound bites.

As the more than 6,750 debaters across the Urban Debate Network know, real debate is far more complicated than any sound bite. It takes time to research a case and make distinct points to support an argument. It takes care to listen to counter-arguments, process them and respond to them seriously. What passes for debate on Twitter or the cable news networks is a far cry from the institution that laid the foundation for our civic life, and democracy, at critical moments in our nation’s history. NAUDL is working to revitalize the art of debate for the public with platforms — like our I RESOLVE Public Debate Series — that showcase high school debate for a greater audience. As Black History Month comes to a close, we are thrilled to celebrate similar work thriving in our leagues with programs like the Houston Urban Debate League’s (HUDL) Dr. Thomas Freeman Virtual Campus Forums.

HUDL started the Freeman debate series in 2020 to honor Dr. Thomas Freeman, legendary coach and founder of the debate program at Texas Southern University – one of the nation’s largest Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Dr. Freeman led the program for 60 years and also served as a visiting professor at Morehouse College. In his time as a coach, students included renowned names like Denzel Washington, Representative Barbara Jordan, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Prior to his death at 100 years old in 2020, Dr. Freeman was honored with a lifetime achievement award by the National Speech and Debate Association, where he shared some of his wisdom and experience with students and coaches in an inspiring conversation. In listening to Dr. Freeman discuss debate, it is clear that the activity he loved and championed was an art. He believed that debate taught communication and storytelling in a way that drew the public in while inviting them to consider and evaluate the issues of the day.

As part of the Thomas Freeman series, HUDL provided debate teams with grants to host virtual public debate forums on the most compelling issues students face today. There were 10 separate virtual debates that covered topics as diverse as policing, accessing mental health services and reforming qualified immunity. The grants arrived at a critical time for debate programs in the early months of the pandemic, as teams were adapting their practices and competitions for virtual platforms. The Thomas Freeman series also provided a way for coaches to recruit new students onto their teams at a moment when recruitment was particularly challenging. Even more importantly, these forums channeled the legacy of debate as a heighted form of political discourse that elevates pressing topics in our society.

According to The New York Times’ obituary of Dr. Freeman, the Texas Southern University debate team’s unofficial motto is “What we do, we do well; what we don’t do well, we don’t do at all.” Debate as an activity for public consumption should take a cue from this inspiring figure. What currently passes for debate during election cycles and on cable news programs is the worst facsimile of debate imaginable – and understanding the difference is what NAUDL and its leagues strive to promote each day. A first year debater can quickly spot the logical flaws as political representatives resort to ad hominem attacks rather than substantive responses to the issue at hand. A veteran debater can not only spot these flaws, but identify the true crisis that is on display within these vengeful arguments.

With the support of our community, NAUDL will continue to invest in public debate series like I RESOLVE – and to highlight league initiatives like HUDL’s Dr. Thomas Freeman Virtual Campus Forums. These programs demonstrate that civil discourse can cut through the polarized perspectives that frequently grind our search for policy solutions to a halt. We’ll continue to drive our mission forward, so that the next generation has a platform to introduce well-researched cases and inspire in-depth conversations around what they value most in their leaders, for their communities, and for the country at large.

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