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.