After coming to terms with the sad fact that I would never be a varsity baseball catcher, I opted to find a new extracurricular activity to start my sophomore year. Debate was appealing (I argued incessantly with my siblings), and after attending an impressive information meeting and tearing a page from my Dad’s checkbook, I was officially registered for Edina High School’s Lincoln Douglas debate team.
While I liked the concept of debate, I at first felt out of place on the team. Having spent most of my pre-debate years playing rec league baseball, hours of video games, and fishing in Northern Minnesota, I could rarely relate to my conscientious and studious teammates, who were considered to be among the smartest students at my high school. To make matters worse, debate was a serious time commitment and required intense research. At the time, my befuddled friends asked, “why would you sign up for something that gives you extra homework?”
I didn’t have a good answer.
Thus, fed up with an activity I barely liked and didn’t understand, I told my Dad I was quitting. He urged me to at least attend the first tournament, I thankfully did, and fell in love with debate. Lincoln Douglas taught me how to find truth. I won rounds when I discredited my opponent’s evidence, poked holes in their argumentative links, and outweighed their impacts. When I lost, I had failed to do these things and the in-round truth flowed to my opponent.
Moreover, debate taught me about nuance. Most issues, I learned, are much different than they initially appear. This knowledge informed my research. When reading critically, subtleties became more valuable to me than generalizations. Debate also changed my thinking. Understanding the intricacies of arguments taught me how arguments operate and, more importantly, how they interact with one another. It became easier to separate falsehoods from truths and confidently take the correct side on hot-button issues.
Plus, as I learned, everything is up for debate in round. Even the strongest cases could be taken down, even the most compelling ideas could fail. As such, I learned that no one ideological framework is infallible, that no ideologue has all the answers. The world became more complex and my understanding of it deepened.
After the debate season ended in early December, my coach suggested that I try extemporaneous speaking in the spring. I was hesitant. In my mind, speech was an activity for performers, a title I felt uncomfortable with. Luckily, I gave it a try. I quickly learned that extemp was different than I imagined. Not only did it strengthen my research and critical thinking skills from debate, it also expanded my horizons—forcing me to develop a fundamental understanding of economics, foreign policy, and international affairs. Extemp taught me where to read and, more importantly, who to read. In this way, I learned how to learn.
I also grew to value the performative aspects of public speaking. Tasked every Saturday with persuading judges that I had the answers to the nation and world’s problems, I had to learn to deliver complex arguments in a digestible manner. Properly placed anecdotes and analogies, I found, helped people see truth more than the data alone ever would. Striking a balance—conveying the facts and explaining what they meant in real terms—allowed me to find competitive success.
Finally, extemp taught me how to generate and defend a thesis. I learned to distill general principles from broad sets of data and phrase said principles as durable theses. The quality of the thesis, I noticed, determined the quality of the speech. My worst speeches offered superficial answers and could only muster disparate supporting points. My best speeches provided overarching theses and preempted reasonable responses with cohesive points. Rather than limiting my answers to exclamations and simple nouns (yes, no, increase, decrease), I learned to offer my judges a complete answer to the question (yes, because…). Learning to create a thesis enhanced my capacity for truth-seeking, a skill valuable far beyond speech and debate.
I continued to compete in speech and debate the following two seasons before I graduated from high school. I now am again a novice, competing in collegiate policy as freshman. I recommend speech and debate to all students with the opportunity, it continues to me more fulfilling and valuable to me than anything else I do.