The Gift of a Good Argument

From  The New York Times

I want to tell you about the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues (NAUDL), a cause that I believe in and have contributed to.

I was a moody and listless adolescent who had a hard time following through with anything. This felt like a chronic condition until I walked into a debate meeting my freshman year in high school. The team acted as a magnet for all the bookish, mildly nihilistic kids in our town. If you can imagine a clove-smoking 16-year-old standing outside a record store talking very quickly about the benefits of anarchism and drug legalization all while quietly working on his admissions essay to Swarthmore, you get the idea. I didn’t quite think those kids were cool, but they at least seemed like the best-case scenario for my social prospects, so I threw myself into the activity.

I quickly found that I really didn’t like losing debate rounds, which gave me the motivation to try to do well at something. I couldn’t win without a great deal of research and thought.

Debate was where I first read a wide range of writers, from Michel Foucault to Charles Krauthammer to the authors of critical race theory. My work today, when it’s at its best, still reflects both the structure and the freedom I found in debate. I learned how to back up arguments with evidence, how to understand when someone was simply trying to deflect or misdirect the conversation and how to think on my feet.

But I was exposed to debate only because I had the good fortune to attend a well-funded public high school that had a successful team. As I wrote in the first edition of this newsletter, debate has been dominated for decades by the most privileged private schools in the country, such as St. Mark’s School of Texas in Dallas, Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville, The College Preparatory School in Oakland, Calif., and the Georgetown Day School in Washington, D.C. The public schools that excel in debate are often in wealthy suburbs of Boston, Chicago and New York City. Debate can be expensive: Parents at these top schools pay for travel to tournaments and send their kids to expensive summer institutes where they prepare for the year’s topic.

Urban Debate Leagues (UDLs) were created to address the longstanding inequalities in debate. The first UDL was founded in the Atlanta Public Schools district in 1985 with the help of debaters at Emory University. Over the next decade, they brought over 3,000 students into debate. Today, there are UDL programs in 22 cities across the country that organize teams, coach students and take them to tournaments. Many of the participants would otherwise not have had the access, resources or instruction to reap all the rewards that I continue to benefit from.

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These programs have struggled over the past two years. With the pandemic, participation in high school speech and debate has dropped at least 25 percent, Scott Wunn, the executive director of the National Speech and Debate Association, told me. Compared with prepandemic levels, participation in Urban Debate Leagues, however, which mostly cater to minority-group kids, has dropped by about 50 percent, according to Rhonda Haynes, executive director of NAUDL.

So how do we explain that gap? The challenges faced by schools that have UDL teams do not differ from those faced by other public schools across the country. Recruitment was almost impossible during the Zoom school year. There are students who enter high school with a plan to join the debate team, but there are many more who go to a meeting on a whim — maybe because a friend is going or even because there’s free pizza — and then end up falling in love with the activity.

This year will be the third school year in which tournaments have been moved online, which is a lot less fun, especially if you just want an excuse to get out of the house on weekends. And debate coaches, who in most places are passionate teachers who recruit promising kids they meet in their classrooms, have a much harder time connecting with students through a screen.

At UDL schools, these problems are worse. The magnified effects of the pandemic in a city like Detroit, for example, where schools were recently closed on every Friday for the rest of the year, has made it more difficult for debate coaches to do their jobs. A recent report on the Detroit Public Schools Community District found that the average attendance rate dropped to 68 percent in 2020-21 from 82 percent in 2018-19. Thirty-four percent of families had “a family member who got sick or died of Covid-19,” and 38 percent of parents said that “computer issues” made it difficult for their children to attend school. When you consider what a kid needs to compete in debate — after-school transportation, access to research databases and reliable internet, and the technology to get through a lengthy and intensive competition, which now has been moved online — the gap begins to make a lot more sense.

These problems will only get worse without a meaningful intervention that requires the full attention of federal, state and local governments. But on a personal level, a contribution either to NAUDL or any of the local UDL chapters would help give more kids the opportunity to learn all the vital skills that debate teaches.

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Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Loneliest Americans.”