April 13, 2016

Where Arguments Matter

Roots and Growth

In 2008, an Oakwood humanities class launched into an unplanned debate about Gandhi’s act of burning clothes in protest of British rule. Points were made as to whether this was an act of violence. That class alone produced six future Oakwood debaters—the very first group of many that would go on to be a signature program of our school.

In those early days, establishing a debate program became the common goal of students and parents alike. Susan Schechtman, former Middle School dean, had long sought to establish a debate team and offered unwavering support. From that point to today, the program has expanded from students attending 4 to 6 local tournaments, to a total of 20 at the local, state, and national levels.

Middle school coach, Justin Sweitzer, and high school coach, Sergio Martinez, are especially humbled by our students’ outstanding achievements. The middle school team has finished 1st or 2nd in 21 consecutive Golden State Debate League tournaments; seven times, Oakwood speakers have finished 1st overall; and only one school has a better record at Nationals than Oakwood (45-20) over the past six years. Ninth grader, Nikki, has won 35 team debates, more than any Oakwood debater ever.

Seven high school students qualified this year for the Tournament of Champions (TOC)—up from three last year and none the year before—and many members of the Oakwood program are nationally ranked. The team also placed 10th at the National Speech & Debate Association Tournament, the largest high school and middle school competition in the country.

As anyone who has ever had a disagreement with an Oakwood student could attest to—debate is in our students’ DNA. This innate ability is actively fostered by a school whose purpose is, above all, to help students find their own voice.

David Frankenberg, Secondary School Director

Building on Success

Although it has achieved many successes, Oakwood Debate is still in its early years. It continues to flourish through steadfast support from the administration, intense preparation, and dedicated students. Unlike larger debate programs that have been active for decades, Oakwood’s program originates from a smaller student body. Additionally, Coach Sweitzer says that Oakwood doesn’t work with uniform arguments or a set format; they strive to strike a balance of individualism and teamwork. “If you walk in on any of our teams debating, you’ll see three separate speakers working as one.”

The middle school and high school teams meet Tuesday through Thursday after school, where practices consist of research and mock rounds. Once they’re assigned to a debate room, topic, and judge, the kids have thirty minutes to prepare with their teammates. In various places on campus, there are usually four to five rounds happening at the same time. For middle school, parents and H.S. debaters help judge.

At recent tournaments, debaters have tackled subjects such as whether or not we should have made a nuclear deal with Iran, whether the government should curtail its domestic surveillance program, whether the government should impose a carbon tax, the colonization of Mars, the definable good that iPhones do, and banning handguns.

The Value of Debate

How do the Oakwood teams define “debate”? According to Sweitzer, “Debate is the pursuit of thorough argumentation and clear, passionate delivery. It should reflect a mind that understands that opinions don’t matter—arguments do.”

Debate is the springboard for lifelong learning, striking a balance between personal thought and collaboration. Students learn the craft of research, presentation, and communication; they fine-tune their abilities to speak publicly, to think subjectively, and to back up their ideas; and that boosts confidence.

It also builds perspective. Debate requires critical and analytical understanding of topics, the capacity to see both sides of an issue and go from there. Students’ beliefs are challenged and broadened, inspiring even greater social and political awareness.

Likewise, the program connects Oakwood students with their community, their country, and the world. Debate creates a network between diverse students from different schools and cultures. It also fosters teamwork, an essential component of everyday life.

Oakwood Debate has not only made me a more eloquent speaker but also a more confident person.

Talia, Oakwood Debate Co-Captain

In this age of information and misinformation, where people have access to online platforms and forums, debate is vital. Sweitzer adds, “Nowhere in history has data, info, and, most importantly, propaganda been disseminated on such a widening and unchecked platform as it is today. It is nearly impossible to see through the haze of messages puffed by any attention-desiring source. This though is clear: If you don’t know how to parse through arguments and learn how to refute others (including your own), you are doomed to accept the fallacies and misinformation of all.”

Debate is about real knowledge and interaction. It’s a chance to consider timely issues with patience, to listen constructively, and to speak avidly. It helps students shape their own points-of-view, in and out of the classroom. But at its heart, the most important thing about Oakwood Debate is that students learn, grow, and have fun.

Photos (except in header) by Alex Zamm.