Did you hear that? That was a collective “Wheeeew!” from the Speech and Debate team at Providence at the end of our long season, which started in October. All we have remaining isa pair of debaters who will be competing in the national tournament in Salt Lake City, and that doesn’t happen until June.
So this time of the year is always a good time for reflecting about why we go through all the trouble to keep this program going. Why do the coach and several parents sacrifice Friday evenings and entire Saturdays for tournaments—12 times this year?! What sort of return on investment are we banking on by depositing such a sum of time, work, and energy?Several answers come to mind, and they all have to do with the skills that these activities, especially debate, nurture in our students.
- First, practice makes perfect. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I had a basketball coach who was fond of saying, perfect practice makes perfect. Practice only makes permanent. What’s the point? The tournaments our students compete in include the top schools in the state, large public schools with long-established and highly-successful programs. They know what it takes to win. Our opportunities to compete against these highly skilled students have provided live practice of public speaking, thinking on one’s feet, asking and answering tough, probing questions, and showing poise and dignity in both success and disappointment. Providence students who compete in these events have chiseled away at the rough edges and have developed permanent skills that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. And the innate competitive nature of most high schoolers pushes them to strive for the perfection required to win.
- Second, faith necessitates defense. The apostle Peter exhorted the readers of his letter to be ready always to give a defense of their hope in Jesus. One of the key truths that debaters learn weekend after weekend is that the issues in the world today are not simplistic and should not be engaged in with merely simplistic sound bites. Because our education at Providence teaches the students that their faith in Jesus is relevant for every matter of life, they understand the need for robust and substantive discourse. Debate provides this opportunity. It does so uniquely because the students must research, construct arguments for, and be persuasive about both sides of every topic. (Fortunately, most topics do not come close to the heart of our Christian faith.) Thus, the debaters come to understand that their own Christian faith is better served by coming to a good understanding of what they believe and why as well as precisely what other people believe and why. They are thus more equipped to deal with the tough issues of our day from their own Christian beliefs.
- Finally, ideas are fulfilling. Yes, they’re fun but in a very enduring way. The students who compete all throughout the year in our form of debate (called Public Forum) must grapple with a new topic every month. They get to start from scratch reading many articles, writing cases, and pre-writing responses to opposing views. And these activities are very hard work! Yet the students who go through the process over and over get very skilled at them and thrive in the environment of public discourse. The people with the most lasting influence in our world are those who understand ideas and can persuade people of their opinions. And I can think of few environments more suited for developing these skills than high school competitive debate.
Substantive dividends are realized with long-term objectives. Other activities can also help to develop character that lasts. Some bring immediate payoff. But Speech and Debate at Providence provides a valuable mix of immediate reward (like, as some of our students have done, achieving second place at the state tournament and qualifying for nations) with character development (through teamwork, self-discipline, and poise) and long-term payoff in the form of skills that will reward them for the rest of their lives.