Quick, think of everything you know about mining rare-earth elements. You have 20 minutes to gather information with your partner and coaches. Then it’s time to deliver a strategic, logical and coherent argument that holds up to rigorous counterargument. You’ll be judged.
Now do it again—and this time your subject is internet regulation, existential philosophy, unmanned combat aerial vehicles, or whether the European Union should admit western Balkan nations.
Collegiate debate is lightyears away from easy. That’s what makes it so fun for the students of the Whitman College Debate Team.
“I’ve always really appreciated how much I’ve learned about international politics or legal theory in the U.S. or political theory through debate,” says Heidi Adolphsen, a junior from Boise, Idaho. “I always am astounded at how much I’ve learned through debate that I don’t even realize I learned.”
It’s been a banner year for Whitman Debate, with the team ranking highly in a number of tournaments.
In collegiate parliamentary-style debate, a college or university’s squad is split into smaller partnerships of two. For the first time in nearly a decade, two partnerships competed in the National Parliamentary Tournament of Excellence, which is invite-only based on points throughout the year. One, Reeve Boyer and Ilse Spiropoulos, placed fourth. The partnership of Kasey Moulton and Jas Liu placed 10th.
At the final bout of the year, the National Parliamentary Debate Association Championship, several Whitman partnerships made the octa-finals (the “Sweet Sixteen” of debate). Whitman also earned third-place in the tournament sweepstakes, which is a ranking based upon the total amount of rounds won by each squad. The team wrapped up the 2021-2022 season ranked ninth in the nation for wins across all partnerships.
These achievements are especially impressive given the challenges of the pandemic and the fact the team was revived only four years ago after a hiatus.
Whitman Debate coach Lauran Schaefer says it’s been incredible to see students learn debate skills and build bonds with each other, despite difficulties.
“It’s amazing to see how much a human being can change just by the influence of people around them,” she says. “You get to see humans be challenged and accept those challenges, and you get to see them have difficult conversations that are relative to what’s happening in the world around us.”
Schaefer—who was a top college debater at Texas and coached a national championship team for William Jewell College in Missouri—emphasizes that debate is a game. It’s fast and technical, with offense, defense and a goal of beating your opponent.
But it’s also an opportunity for students to learn public advocacy, how to take criticism and how to have effective, compassionate conversations with people with whom they disagree. Debaters are assigned a perspective to argue from in tournaments, which enriches their ability to form opinions outside of debate.
“My responsibility as a person who has opinions is to understand the thing that I have an opinion on, to research it, to know it from both sides,” Schaefer says. “To know why I disagree with the other side, but also, most importantly, why I agree with my side.”
Students also learn to value diverse perspectives—the team is made stronger by having people with different experiences. Some Whitman Debate squad members are first-generation or working-class students, including several who would not have been able to attend Whitman without a debate scholarship.
Schaefer says her favorite thing about coaching has been creating a supportive atmosphere for all team members.
“It was really great to create a more nurturing model while still being incredibly competitive,” she says. “I view my students as whole people, not just debaters. I really love the relationships we get to form with students and the way that we get to see them grow.”
Making the Case for Debate
“I’m not going to know when I’m going to start talking about bigger political ideas with someone—it’s just something that kind of comes up naturally. Being able to know all these things off the top of my head is really helpful in classes, as well as just in general conversation settings.”
—Alexa Grechishkin, first-year, Mount Vernon, Washington
“It might seem kind of counterintuitive, but you have 25 minutes to get a lot of stuff put together so you can make the next hour count. And I’m notoriously very good at not giving myself a lot of time to do important things, so it’s really good to prove to myself how much I can get done in a time period.” —Kasey Moulton, sophomore history major, Nampa, Idaho
“Debate requires you to have nuance and rhetoric that I never knew about before. The combination of politics knowledge definitely helps in some of my classes, especially the ones with a lot of political theory. Debate, at least for me, specifically, drastically improves my writing style.”
—Kyle Mathy, first-year, Denver, Colorado
“Debate in college also gets into questions of philosophy, because you can’t have questions about politics without talking about philosophy. You get to learn everything about economic philosophies, to different competing economic systems, to different ideas of everything.”
—Reeve Boyer, senior classics major, Redmond, Washington