Jun 14, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Life lessons from high school debate

Illustration of a golden podium on a pedestal
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Four Supreme Court justices (including the recently confirmed Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson), Bruce Springsteen, Oprah Winfrey, Twitter's Jack Dorsey, former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi and multiple U.S. presidents all have something in common: They were high school debaters.

Why it matters: Most parents want their kids to put a sock in it and stop arguing. Turns out, we should encourage them to do more of it — more systematically.

  • Diving into speech and debate in high school and college is one of the most effective ways to prepare to lead and influence community groups, cities, companies and even countries, two-time world debate champion and former Harvard debate coach Bo Seo writes in a new book, "Good Arguments," excerpted in The Wall Street Journal.

Here are three of his lessons from debating that we can all use to live and work better:

1. Disagree better. We live in a divided world in which our differences are amplified over our similarities — and we're terrible at disagreeing with one another respectfully. Just look at the toxic Twitter fights and the madness on cable news.

  • Seo lists the four points debaters learn that teach them how to argue — or whether an argument is even worth having: What is the point? Why is it true? When has it happened before? Who cares?
  • We can all pay better attention to this next time we're in disagreement.

2. Truth takes work. In debate, even if you're arguing the right side, you might still lose. It's all about how persuasive you are. With misinformation and disinformation on the rise, take the time to calmly and kindly convince people of the truth — even if you think it's obvious.

3. Agreeableness is bland. We're increasingly likely to self-sort into like-minded groups. A Generation Lab/Axios poll found that 71% of young Democrats wouldn't even go on a first date with someone who voted for the opposing party's presidential candidate. 37% said they wouldn't consider friendship. Among young Republicans, the shares were 31% and 5%, respectively.

  • Debate teaches kids to argue passionately one minute and show camaraderie the next. We can all learn to do that.

The bottom line: Don’t be afraid to disagree — respectfully — and let's teach our kids the same. Many of those with this critical skill go on to do big things.

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