How to Bring Your Zombie Child to Life

by Amity Shlaes
High-school debate deserves more of a chance.

Every summer, parents who tour with teens confronts an abyss. That abyss is not Boulder Canyon, the sort of place a family might visit. It is the abyss of conversation.

The trouble isn’t that children don’t know anything, though they may not. It is that the kids won’t talk. And they certainly won’t discuss. Or argue. Even those kids who earned a rare “5,” the top score, on the AP U.S. History test, and so know all about the Boulder Canyon, the Hoover Dam, and even the interstate compact that served as the basis for the Dam’s construction, blink at you, offended, when you dare to ask them. Don’t you see that the earphones are in?

But even more painful is what transpires at the dinner after the Canyon trip, where the child meets a friend of his parents, an old college roommate, say. The parent is hoping, for, um, his kid to drop a bon mot about engineering, New Deal art, or the merits of infrastructure finance. But their kids won’t talk to other grownups, either. And they certainly won’t engage in what used to be known as “general conversation,” arguing two sides of the issue.

The psychologists have been the opposite of silent on their explanation for teen silence: rebellion. The pop-culture experts will tell you something about Marshall McLuhan and the earphones. But there is another analysis. It is not that adolescents won’t talk. It is that they cannot. At some point habit becomes necessity and they are afraid to take the earphones out. Teens are just not accustomed to quality argument and aren’t likely to become so in the monosyllabic or one-sided classes that await them at university.

This trend works out fine for screenwriters, professional athletes, software coders, high-frequency traders, and supermodels, i.e., people who talk only to people in their set. But inability to talk to grownups and strangers punishes those who work in sales, the law, or medicine. Or any other area when you have to interact. The anti-argument trend plays out of course in politics, where the habit of silence eventually does become a habit of ignorance. When, 20 years later, former teens start to talk, what one notices first is the poor quality and evidence-short nature of their argument. All you have to do is watch MNSBC to know what I mean: “Perception is reality” is the network’s mantra. It’s all pretty sad for a nation whose founding, celebrated this week, would not have happened without Publius and, yes, the Anti-Federalist Papers.

Fortunately, there is actually a way to turn the quietest kid into a policy gymnast. That way is the sport of high-school debate. That is, allowing the child to join a team and argue both sides of an issue. Example: “Resolved: The U.S. ought to prioritize the pursuit of national-security objectives above the digital privacy of its citizens.” This is the 2014 topic for one format of debate, the Lincoln–Douglas format, in one league, the National Speech and Debate Association. Infrastructure finance, the kind involving the Hoover Dam, has also been a recent topic. There are other leagues, and other topics, many in fact supported by NR readers.

But debate does not dominate high schools. Very often short of funding, debate teams must woo a history or English teacher to coach them; there is no big budget. And many high schoolers shy away from debate because they sense they might be good at it; their parents back them up in that because they don’t want their child to experience humiliation. In New York many parents think of debate as the province of the Regis or Stuyvesant kids, that is, kids who attend highly academic schools. To expose the rest to debate is deemed a kind of unkindness. Too, there is the fact that some Americans don’t like intellectuals. Hence, the perversity: The very same dad who will not hesitate to stuff a slender, short son into a football uniform at age 8, or diet a 12-year-old in the middle of a growth spurt down to 105 so he can wrestle in a lighter class, will not push that same son into debate “because he doesn’t like to talk.”

This is a shame, because really most anyone can debate. I’ve watched timid teens who don’t know how to say “protectionism” in the morning win a debate on the same subject in the afternoon. As in soccer, football, or sailing an Opti sailboat across a windy bay, competition in debate causes kids to forget their fears. The kids learn arguments they never expected to, both sides. They take in content at a rate even Stanley Kaplan himself only dreamed of.

At the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation, our contribution is to host summer economic debates on topics like income inequality or taxes. Few of our debaters were born rich. None has heard of Davos. Yet by the end of a day of debate, they are ready to appear on GPS and joust with Fareed Zakaria himself. They have become little William F. Buckleys, awfully sure of themselves, yes, but also blazingly insightful. They have also learned how to speak with grownups. Their judges, after all, wear ties, and by the end of the day, some of them want one, too.

At the George W. Bush Presidential Center, where we first ran this program with the National Urban Debate Leagues, we saw quickly that high-school debate opened kids’ minds instantly. Watching 14-year-olds list the merits or demerits of F. V. Hayek, we realized that debate was an innovation as disruptive as any Clayton Christensen would come up with. Attention, philanthropists: This is an efficient charity. Rather than waging the endless fight to deepen the high-school curriculum by forcing content upon reluctant teachers and unions, we were going around the schools. And delivering the same content easily and through sport, after school.

Two kinds of criticism become familiar to debate advocates. The first is that debate habits turn sweet kids into piranhas, to which the only reply is: yes. But so what? Would you rather have a disagreeable informed child, or a passive silent one?

The second comes from the left or right, which charges debate coaches, instructors, or hosts are indoctrinating kids by exposing them to material from one side. The rebuttal is simple: High-school debate has two sides. To win, the kids have to argue both of them — we even flip coins. If our “right wing” or “left wing” content outweighed whatever was on the other side, we would not find many pupils. Kids want to win. In college, ideology does infect the sport, and debates often confront the policy equivalent of “When did you last beat your mother?” But high-school debate remains relatively fair, and therefore, useful.

The data suggest the sport benefits the disadvantaged. Fifty percent of high schoolers in urban schools graduate. Ninety percent of urban high-school debaters graduate. When it comes to that subset of debaters deemed “high risk,” those kids who, for example, might have scored poorly on eighth-grade assessment tests, the data are even more dramatic. Seventy-two percent of high-risk secondary-school debaters graduate, versus just 43 percent of nondebaters. There’s more: Debaters score better on ACT tests, and get into better colleges. And, remarkably, pupils do not need to debate forever to see results — even one or two debate experiences improve performance. But longer is better; for every semester a student debates, his grades go up. In college, debate also benefits students. This outcome differs from others sports at the high-school and college level. In the case of much-loved college football, team participation actually lowers the grades of the players. Debate’s social achievements are so great that the sport even earned the solicitude of the Boston Fed. The social value of debate has also been captured in films such as The Great Debate, about the Wiley College team that broke racial barriers through sheer merit in the 1930s.

But debate offers far more than a poverty program. Indeed, high-school debate’s benefits may be as great for the advantaged. Adults who can argue and know a fallacy when they see one may also see a solution more quickly than those whose form of expression is emotional moral posturing.

One person who gets this is President Bush. With remarkable frankness and grace, “43” stood up in the fall of 2012 told a room with hundreds of Texan high schoolers, “I wish I’d debated in high school.” At the same dinner, a speaker, the Mexican philosopher Roberto Salinas Leon, talked about free trade and Hayek, and President Bush nodded approvingly. Next to me, a freshman from Chicago’s North Shore sat right up and smiled. The kid knew about Hayek, and now he knew that a president had heard of Hayek too. Whatever you think of Bush’s performance, that night he gave free marketeers a great gift. He showed kids that powerful people loved free markets, something they never would have picked up from U.S. television.

My own conclusion is simple. Debate is the best kind of charity, worthy of all support, whether from presidents or regular dads. Fund it, watch it, judge it, give your kids to it: debate is America’s forgotten sport.

— Amity Shlaes chairs the jury of the Hayek Prize and the board of the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation.