What "Peabrained" High School Debate Teams Can Teach Us About Our Politics

Tonight, my friend and I found ourselves watching Oxford Union debates. What better way to unwind… right?

Joking aside, we were seriously watching a debate about the nature of Islam and whether or not it’s “a peaceful religion.”

The prestigious Oxford Union ultimately voted in favor of the debate’s proponent, Mehdi Hasan:

Muslim journalist Mehdi Hasan, political editor of the Huffington Post, warned Anne-Marie Waters that her “astonishing claims” might endanger her future as a Labour Party candidate… Hasan asked why, if Islam is “responsible for killing,” such a tiny percentage of believers actually participate in violence. He asked the audience if they really believe that 1.6 billion people are all “followers, promoters and believers in a religion of violence”. Hasan urged them not to “fuel the arguments of the phobes and bigots and legitimise hate”, but to “trust the Muslims that you know and that you hear.”

This particular statement, in and of itself, could lead into one of many robust musings. But tonight, I ask that we appreciate and reflect instead upon the open debate forum in which this statement was made. As for me and my friend, it was precisely this forum that inspired us to reminisce about our respective experiences on the high school Debate and Model UN teams.

After watching, the two of us waxed nostalgic about how—in preparation for our adolescent political showdowns—we were required to familiarize ourselves with both sides of the debate. This was because, of course, we wouldn’t know which side we’d be arguing until we approached the podium.

To think that high school students were—and remain to be—held to such a high standard of debate; a standard so absent from our nation’s political debates (to say nothing of our general political discourse).

Could you imagine if Donald Trump were forced to acknowledge the other side, if only in the vein hope of winning?

More important than the presumptuously desirable “win” is almost certainly the high school student’s necessary reliance on facts.


For instance, I remember, at the wee age of 13, being assigned to debate school vouchers. I remember this vividly because, when asking the teacher what a “voucher” was, a friend also tricked me into asking what Viagra was, so… that’s how I found out about THAT. Needless to say, both concepts were equally as foreign to my naïve, teenage self.

But I was assigned the topic, so I researched it (school vouchers, that is. Just to clarify!). I researched both sides of it. Because I had to.

At that point, my prepubescent peabrain had me leaning in opposition to school vouchers. I can’t remember exactly why, but alas, I was ultimately assigned to debate in favor of school vouchers, in opposition to myself.

My team won the debate. And we won because we could cite facts. Because, at the age of 13, my peers and I had the basic decency and self-respect to seek out the facts; to keep them in our tiny little brains; and to conceive of arguments based on these facts, even at the expense of arguing against our own limited political leanings.

The point of this article may seem, at best, unclear. But what I mean to say is, this kind of inquiry and internal debate—this kind of seemingly adolescent learning—is one that promotes a study and an understanding of what the other side thinks. Of how the other side thinks. And that is both fundamentally lacking and necessary, more so today than ever. Our failure to tap into this wrongfully-categorized prepubescent “debate team”-esque, open-minded inquiry is only going to lead us to further polarization in the years to come. It will only lead us to more Trumps.

So, I will end with this challenge—or rather, with this thought experiment:

I challenge you to think about sitting down with a trusted friend, and I challenge you both to draw a card. One card may compel you to argue against US involvement in Syria. The other may compel your friend to argue for pro-life regulations. Or perhaps, the card may require that you argue against infrastructure spending. Or, in favor of a special inquiry into Trump’s ties with Russia. Or against Obamacare.

You get the idea.

The idea is to pick a card, any card. And do what the high school debate student must do: put yourself in the shoes of the other. Learn what they think, even if you can’t get on board with why they think it. Just learn. At best (or at worst), you are convinced. At best (or at worst), your own thinking and argument are made even stronger by knowing the intricacies of what you’re up against.

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