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 College, Ben won the Federal Reserve Challenge, APDA Nationals (College Parli) and WUDC (World University Debate Championships). 

In 2014 Ben was named a Rhodes Scholar.

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.