The Value of Debate

Harvard-Westlake Alum and current Harvard student, Ben Sprung-Keyser talks about his experience in competitive debate. This was recorded after he won NFL/NSDA Nationals in Lincoln-Douglas Debate, after his Junior year.

Debate has been a big part in of Ben's life. As a 6th grader he won Middle School Nationals. As a 10th grader he won Novice Nationals. As an 11th grader he won NFL/NSDA Nationals. At Harvard, Ben won the Federal Reserve Challenge, APDA Nationals (College Parli) and WUDC (World University Debate Championships).

In 2015, Ben was a recipient of a Rhodes Scholarship.

Why should you debate?

(note: at the bottom of the page is a note specifically for HW Students/Parents about the debate/school tradeoff with regard to time commitment).

For the Experience in Itself

Debate has been fittingly described as an intellectual sport. As with any sport, the thrill of competition and the uncertainty of outcome serve to energize the whole team. Debaters are players; those who are committed instinctively aspire to ever-higher levels of play. They are judged on the skill evident in their performances.

 A good debate is both serious and playful. Debaters soon become skilled enough to achieve what my students call "the zone," or what psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls optimal experience or flow—the experience of focus and complete involvement in an activity that is often "so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”

- Jon Kendall. “The Case for Debate: Intrinsic Motivation for Thinking and Writing.” Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. April 10, 2014

For Improving Education

Critical thinking and argument skills -- the abilities to both generate and critique arguments -- are crucial elements in decision-making… In all careers, academic classes, and relationships, argument skills can be used to enhance learning when we treat reasoning as a process of argumentation, as fundamentally dialogical, and as metacognitive… It is imperative that high school students, of diverse personal, moral and intellectual commitments, become prepared to confront multiple perspectives on unclear and controversial issues when they move on to college and their careers. This is not only important for assuring students are equipped to compete in the marketplace of ideas but also to maximize their own cognitive development more broadly.

- Rabbi Shmuly Yankiowitz. “A Society with Poor Critical Thinking Skills: The Case for Argument in Education.” Huffington Post. October 13, 2013

The New SAT

This past spring, the College Board announced that they are making changes to the SAT. The most fundamental difference is the focus on evidence-based argumentation (read: debate). The new SAT: “had been redesigned with an eye to reinforce the skills and evidence-based thinking… and move away from a need for test-taking tricks and strategies… students will be asked not just to select the right answer, but to justify it by choosing the quote from a text that provides the best supporting evidence for their answer… The revised essay,.. going forward… students will get a source document and be asked to analyze how its author used evidence, reasoning and stylistic elements to build an argument.” (Source: New York Times, 3/5/14)

For Business

Here is the truth about students who compete in speech and debate.  They’ve spent hundreds of hours perfecting their speaking skills.  Many have done intensive research to write their speeches.  All have endured the pressure that competition brings, and have performed well intellectually under such pressure.  They’ve made connections and friendships with other high performing peers.  All of these behaviors are excellent predictors of success on any leadership team… Be on the lookout for Millennials who have participated in speech and debate training.  Hire them and put them on your leadership fast track.

- Robert Sher. “How to Find Millennials Who Will Lead Your Company.” Forbes.com. March 2, 2014

Debaters must do exhaustive research, be flexible, get to the point and have the courage to discard just about everything they learn on the fly. In other words, debate teaches them to make tough choices.

If there is a single lesson of debating, it's to know your opponent better than they know themselves, says Scott Deatherage, head of the Northwestern University debate team, winner of six of the last 10 national championships. "We teach how to make decisions under pressure and in a timely fashion. My sense is that CEOs are called upon to do that," he says…

Other CEOs who have been trained in debate say that their rise required adjustments to their win-at-all-cost mentality. "Good debaters are ruthlessly competitive," Berger says, which may be admirable when dealing with an opponent, but not always the best tactic for team cohesion. "You can come off as a used car salesman," McKay says. "Aggressive, pompous. Part of business success is the ability to compromise." But debating teaches listening skills and winning allegiances, not pomposity.

- “Debating Skills Come in Handy in Business.” USA Today. September 29, 2004

In College Admission

"... Unfortunately, nearly all high school students make the erroneous assumption that participation in more activities is better than fewer and in an increasingly complex world that demands in-depth knowledge and expertise in a chosen field of study, colleges and universities are now preferring applicants who choose to be the best at single pursuit. "What counts," says Swarthmore College Dean of Admissions Robin Mamlet, "is how committed students are to an activity." Extracurricular activities like forensics are playing an increasingly important role in the college admissions as well as the scholarship awarding processes. Why? Grade inflation is rampant in both public and private secondary schools and test preparation programs are distorting the reliability of national standardized tests like the SAT and ACT. According to the Wall Street Journal, college admissions directors are relying less on grade point averages and standardized test scores, and are relying more on success in academically-related extracurricular activities such as speech and debate..."

- Minh A. Luong, Yale Professor. “Forensics and College Admissions.” PBS.org.

The World's Most Exclusive Debate Club

From the National Law Journal (http://www.law.com/jsp/nlj/PubArticleNLJ.jsp?id=1202513655786&slreturn=20120909212022)

There is a tie that binds many Supreme Court advocates, and it has nothing to do with Ivy League law schools, clerking for a justice or service in the solicitor general's office. It is high school and college debating, a common trait that will be celebrated Sept. 8 in a panel discussion at Georgetown University Law Center.

by Tony Mauro
September 07, 2011


There is a tie that binds many Supreme Court advocates, and it has nothing to do with Ivy League law schools, clerking for a justice or service in the solicitor general's office.

It is high school and college debating, a common trait that will be celebrated Sept. 8 in a panel discussion at Georgetown University Law Center. The discussion will be preceded by a screening of the new documentary on college debating, "Fast Talk."

Arnold & Porter appellate partner Lisa Blatt, herself a competitive debater (Bellaire High School, Texas, 1982-3), organized and will moderate the discussion among other top advocates who were once debaters: Paul Clement of the Bancroft firm: David Frederick of Kellogg, Huber, Hansen, Todd, Evans & Figel; Thomas Goldstein of Goldstein & Russell; Neal Katyal, newly of Hogan Lovells; and Judge Brett Kavanaugh of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, formerly with Kirkland & Ellis. Also on the panel will be "Fast Talk" filmmaker Debra Tolchinsky, who is also on the faculty at Northwestern University.

"So many debaters end up in the law," said Tolchinsky, who has been surprised at her film's appeal to the D.C. legal crowd. The documentary follows Northwestern's championship debate team and its fast-talking debate style, which either amazes or turns off those who watch. Lawyers who have seen it say it gives a window into their argument styles.

"Debating is incredible training for conducting an oral argument," said Kellogg Huber's Frederick, who debated in high school and college (Thomas Jefferson High School, Texas, 1975-79; University of Pittsburgh, 1979-81.) He researched a wide range of topics from energy policy to the importance of the merchant marine, and had to be able to argue on either side. It sharpened his intellectual curiosity as well his ability to identify issues and dissect arguments. "In Texas, the debaters were mostly pretty bright, but not such good athletes."

Frederick's firm has just hired a Northwestern star debater featured in "Fast Talk" named Josh Branson. After Northwestern, Branson went on to Harvard Law School, where he worked with longtime professor and Supreme Court litigator Laurence Tribe, himself a Harvard debate champion 50 years ago.

Asked if debating helps Supreme Court advocacy, Tribe said in an e-mail, "Up to a point: It instills a respect for tireless research and some discipline of mind as well as facility in responding concisely to new arguments and questions." But, he added, the fast talking style of many debaters can be a problem. "Successful debaters," Tribe said, "often have to unlearn the habit of equating speed with success and must learn to talk more conversationally if they are to succeed in appellate advocacy." 

Arnold & Porter's Blatt swears she can tell if a Supreme Court advocate she is listening to has had experience as a debater. It is not just the ability to think on one's feet, she says, or the skill at organizing an argument. It is also, among other things, the ability to "turn a question from a justice around and use it to expose a problem with the other side's argument," she said. "Former debaters don't back down. We're fighters."

Goldstein has exemplified that high-speed, forceful style in many of his 23 high court arguments. He lived and breathed debating in his high school and college years (Twin Lakes High School in Florida, 1983-4, Irmo High School in South Carolina, 1986-88, University of North Carolina, 1988-92), sometimes to the detriment of his grades. "There is nothing that compares to spending 60 to 80 hours a week preparing for an argument," he said.

There is a down side to his forensic training, Goldstein said. "After a decade of standing up and speaking as a debater, you sometimes get too comfortable up there," he said. "When I go awry, it's probably because I am too comfortable."

In his early arguments, Goldstein said, "I would show the justices all the things I could do," such as answering a justice's questions with references to comments that or other justices made earlier. "It was a distraction."

Goldstein's unique style still raises eyebrows. In his argument last April in Sorrell v. IMS Health, Goldstein used a tone that was part professorial and part commanding when he directed the justices to open their briefs to certain pages so he could walk them through key legislative language. That approach is rarely seen at the Court. But most justices followed his lead, and he won the case.

That emphasis on key texts came from a debater's toolbox, Goldstein said. "Debating helps you decide what matters in an argument, and what doesn't, and you focus on what matters most. If it's statutory text, you just focus on that."

Tony Mauro can be contacted at tmauro@alm.com

A Note on the Debate/School Tradeoff. (For HW Parents and Students)

The number one question parents ask as success in debate often takes a lot of time, "can my child still succeed academically?" The answer is yes. Not only is it possible to succeed in both debate and school, but the track-record of debaters coached in the two programs at which Coach Bietz has run would indicate that debate was a critical aspect in college admissions. Of all the debaters he's coached, only a handful will stick it out through their Senior years. It has paid off.

If the Ben's video above isn't indicative of how debate has enhanced his educational experience, to be sure, Mr. Bietz is dedicated to running a team that is also focussed on the academic needs of students. His debaters have matriculated at a number of the highest ranked colleges and universities. Indeed, since his time at Edina (with his first class of debaters graduating in 2003), debaters that have qualified to the TOC (the most committed and successful debaters) or have successfully competed through their senior years have gone to attend: Columbia (4), Harvard (3), Chicago (3), Stanford (3), Yale (3), Penn (2), Princeton (2), Berkeley, USC, Emory, Wesleyan, & Cornell.