Mock debate

Fifth grader Owen Jett debates with classmates while planning a mock government at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School in Bettendorf, Wednesday, April 10, 2019.

Growth is important for everyone and especially important for young people as they learn how to solve problems and analyze information so they can grow into productive adults. Without critical thinking skills it is difficult to participate effectively in the activities of civil society, such as deciding which candidate to vote for. One way to help ensure young people gain these skills is by teaching debate.

Debating is a process where teams put forward oral arguments on opposing sides of a specific topic. Topics can range from the simple and concrete for younger, less experienced debaters (e.g. students should wear uniforms at school) to more nuanced, philosophical topics that require advanced critical thinking (e.g. the electoral college should no longer be used for presidential elections).

If you want to get a feel for what debating is like, see "The Great Debaters," a 2007 film starring Denzel Washington. It tells the true story of a debate team from a small, black college in 1935 Texas. The team had an undefeated season and were invited to compete against Harvard University’s national championship debate team. I’ll leave you to find out who won.

Many studies have shown that learning how to debate teaches critical thinking skills as well as improving their public speaking skills and gaining in self-confidence. And a byproduct of researching topics and arguing both sides of a question is greater empathy to others’ viewpoints. We can agree that this is something we can use more of in our increasingly divided country.

Therefore, to help our young people grow and gain many valuable skills and self-confidence, I propose that all students in our region, from fifth to 12th grades, learn debating skills appropriate to their age. To expand the positive impact of this approach to the broader community, contests would be held in each school with parents and family invited to attend. Contests between schools would be held in larger public arenas and be open to the public with coverage by regional media.

As the region’s students gain in debating skills, we could invite teams from across the Midwest to come to the Quad-Cities for full-day debating contests similar to the large athletic contests held at the new TBK Bank Sports Complex. Imagine how much positive publicity that would bring to our school systems and imagine also more of our students completing college degrees based on the skills and confidence gained from this experience!

One last thought. Debate is being taught in six New York state prisons with amazing results. This program is run by Bard College and enrolls more than 300 students each year. Incredibly, some of the teams beat teams from University of Cambridge from Britain as well as Harvard University. Only 4% of the prisoners who participated in this program returned to prison upon release, compared with 40% of the general prison population. There is a new, four-hour documentary, "College Behind Bars", which shows how the prisoners in this program are becoming productive citizens.

Let’s start teaching debate in our schools so our students have the opportunity to grow into productive adults.

Linda Baxley is a former director of The Advanced Technology Environmental and Energy Center (ATEEC), which works with the nation's community colleges to improve the quality and quantity of technicians in these fields.