Debate Can Revolutionize Education and Help Save our Democracy

Growing up I was plagued by stuttering. It didn’t affect my singing – it doesn’t for most stutters – but speaking, especially in classes, or heaven forbid, before large audiences petrified me. I almost never gave my Bar Mitzvah talk out of fear that I would stutter (how I made it through that short speech I don’t know).

Thanks to my mother, who had a friend recommend that as I entered high school, I enroll in a debate class as a way of curing my stuttering, my life changed forever. I know that doing it was like throwing a small baby into a pool and hoping she has skill enough to survive. But it worked, not just through the class but through participating in competitive debate tournaments, both in high school and for two years in college (before moving on to other things). I became quite good at it, it enhanced my confidence enormously, instilled in me the ability to think quickly on my feet, to speak persuasively backed by facts and reason, and gave me research skills that have benefited me throughout my life in different jobs.

As I grew older, I didn’t give all this too much thought until I was in between books, looking for another topic, when totally by chance, on April 11, 2018, an article in the Christian Science Monitor about how competitive debate in high school in Kansas was flourishing came across my Twitter feed (Coincidentally two months later, a Kansas team from the Kansas City suburbs would win the national high school championship tournament, and the following year, two other Kansas teams from Topeka would co-win it, as they both made, or “closed out,” the championship round!).  

After reading the CSM piece (, I had a sudden flash: why not write a book about the virtues of debate, not just in improving education but perhaps, naively, in helping to reduce the political polarization that even then was tearing our country apart? After all, if you have to argue both sides of any issue, as you learn to do in competitive debate, you can’t escape the fact that most issues are complex, and there are good arguments on both sides. In my early thoughts I knew, just knew, that if only every student (and ideally adult) had competitive debate training, voters would see the merits in being respectful of others’ views and penalize – by not voting for – candidates who violated basic norms of decency, substituted name calling for fact-based argument, strayed from the truth or outright lied, or who reduced everything to slogans and sound bites without substance.

So, I began furiously calling around to everyone I knew who had debate experience, or was a debate coach, and then reading whatever I could find that had been written about the virtues of debate. And while everyone agreed with that the country would be in a lot better place if every voter had debate training in at least high school, I also realized that I couldn’t write a book recommending every student become a competitive debater. That would have been totally unrealistic, like recommending that every student participate in and qualify for an inter-scholastic sport.

But then I got lucky. Turns out that the best book written about competitive debating, at least at the high school level, is Golden Tongues, by a sociologist at Northwestern, Gary Fine, who I later learned had been one of my college classmates at Penn (same year)! I learned from Gary that his son Todd was a national champion high school debater and through Todd I discovered one of the two individuals who not only would become the central figures in the book I eventually wrote, Resolved (with the same subtitle as the title of this post), Les Lynn. He had been teaching other teachers in the Chicago area and elsewhere how to ally the basic principles, logic and decorum of competitive debate into every classroom in every subject in middle and high school. Shortly thereafter I found out that the Boston Debate League, then led Mike Wasserman, and now Kim Willingham, had been doing the same thing. I only learned later, after my book was published in October 2020, that there were other remarkable educators out there like them (more about them soon).

The basic idea is pretty simple: teach the material, without any change in textbooks or even adding new readings, by having the students themselves teach each other, through debates. As Les Lynn puts it, virtually any major lesson in any teaching unit can be “debatified” — that is, stated as a proposition or question and then have students debate either side. Examples:

“Resolved: The US Should not have Entered World War I?” (“Or Hitler would have risen to power in Germany, given the depression, even if the US had not entered World War I”).

“What did Scout learn most from her father, Atticus Finch, in To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“What should be done about climate change, taking into account the severity of the problem?”

Or take any word problem in math, how best should it be solved and why?

Classes can be broken up into groups of two or four students learn how to verbalize their thoughts and speak persuasively, before their peers. Only later, once they get the hang of having to do this, would students debate before an entire class. Teachers take on the role of mentors, circling the room, providing encouragement and help along the way, rather than always trying to be the “sage on the stage.” A range of other debate-centered instructional (“DCI”) techniques, short of requiring students to debate, are also available.

As I discuss in the book, both Lynn and the BDL arranged for me to personally witness classrooms where DCI is used. The excitement of the students is tangible. The classrooms are “noisy” with good noise. Full of energy. Debates make learning fun, they are engaging, which is key to keeping up students’ interest in all kinds of learning. This is especially important in low-income minority communities where many students can’t see how education will improve their lots in life. Both Lynn and the BDL work primarily with schools with high concentrations of these students, and it makes a difference. That’s why I do not think it an understatement to claim that if we really want to close educational achievement gaps – and thus eventually to overcome income and wealth gaps – then our educational systems really need to make use of DCI and similar speech-related techniques in all classrooms.

Fortunately, after the book came out, the Kauffman Foundation agreed to fund a program run by Christi Griffin of the Ethics Project in St Louis to help train teachers in DCI techniques. With the assistance of many of the fabulous teachers who have been using some form of DCI in their classrooms whose names you can discover elsewhere on this site, and under the leadership of Steve Fitzpatrick and Radley Glasser in New York, a DCI summer program was conducted during July 2022. Under the “Teaching” tab on this website, you will find some of the videos from this program, which justifiably received rave reviews from the teachers who attended (all by zoom).

Special attraction: in coming months, a new website, Argutopia, should be live that will really take the DCI revolution to the next level.  Its founder, Steve Johnson, a professor and debate coach at the University of Alaska, was one of the outstanding presenters at the summer DCI program. Argutopia will provide web-based “debate kits” (topics, key arguments, and resources) for teachers of all middle and high school grades and subjects. A really cool feature is that the site will enable students to record their presentations and for others to respond asynchronously. I’ll let you know when it’s live, it will knock your socks off.

There is one other instructor at the summer institute I must highlight, Michael Harris, one of the top high school debate coaches in the state of Kansas, and highly respected on the national high school debate scene. Michael was the first person I talked to when I had only the slimmest idea of what kind of debate book I wanted to write. He and I have since become great friends. I also greatly admire him, and here’s one story why.

For many years, Michael was the debate coach at Wichita East High (Wichita is my hometown, as a number of readers of these posts know), which over the past several years has produced some of the best debaters in the state who also have had great success at the national level. East is also somewhat of a magnet school, so it attracts the best and brightest in the city. Last year Michael felt he needed a new challenge, to go to a school where the kids needed more help and where he might have more value added. So, in a super-gutsy move that demonstrates the depth of his commitment to really educating, he moved back to Wichita Southeast High, his high school (and mine, more than 50 years ago) to essentially start over. Already he has gotten that program off to a great start, while setting up his own network to begin DCI instruction for other teachers in Kansas. His non-profit is called Ad-Astra, and it is off to a great start enlisting school districts in Kansas in programs to teach their teachers how to use DCI in their classrooms. This is just too good a story not to be made public.

DCI can also be a powerful and, in my view a much-needed, instructional technique at the college level. As readers of this post surely know, there is a raging debate going on in this country about the extent to which colleges, especially elite ones, are “canceling” outside speakers who offend some portions of their student bodies. This is not just a rallying cry promoted by conservative pundits, but a very real problem, as thoroughly documented in my friend Jonathan Rauch’s latest (and perhaps his best) book, The Constitution of Knowledge (which also amply documents the attack on truth by former President Trump and a vast majority of Republican political leaders who continue to promote the false narrative about voter fraud in the 2020 election).

In my view, “cancellation” – whether from the left or the right — wouldn’t exist if all incoming college students had debate experience at least at the high school level. They would not then be so easily “triggered” into being offended by others with different views, since they would have had to argue both sides of many questions routinely as part of their education.

Because DCI will not be universally used in middle or high school for time, colleges should address this problem now by including some debate training, preferably using DCI techniques, in at least one or two freshman classes; or if they can’t do that, then as I suggest in the book, at least as a fallback include one or two days of debate training during freshman orientation week.

John Sexton is one of the most articulate and experienced supporters of using debate at all levels of education, including college. Sexton, a former debater and high school debate coach, who headed New York University after serving as the dean of its law school, ranks high on any informed list of America’s most successful and admired college presidents of the last several decades. His latest book about the challenges that universities today face and how they should confront them, Standing for Reason: The University in a Dogmatic Age, draws heavily on his debate training and is a “must” read.

Finally, it’s never too late for adults who have never had the benefit of debate training to benefit from debate, as well, either by watching experts do it through the Intelligence-Squared website, by participating in discussion groups that deliberately promote civility, like Braver Angels, or by participating in many online platforms, such as Kialo, and for the classroom use, Kialo-edu.  Information about all these sites is available in this website.