Make America Debate Again

As early as 3rd grade, I had set my sights on a career in law. If you had straight-As before the dot-com boom, the binary career paths offered to you were doctor or lawyer and I didn’t like blood so I chose law. Throughout middle school and high school, I prepared for my future career as a prosecutor with our mock trial teams. This exposed me to hours of exercising critical thinking, writing, and debate skills on topics such as DNA-based discrimination and vehicular manslaughter. I barely remember most concepts from high school math, but I have a deep understanding of vector analysis because it was a critical (and dramatic) component of my cross-examination.

 

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St. Leo’s 8th-grade mock trial team at the NJ Law Center

 

Yesterday, I read this heartwrenching article from the Miami Herald detailing how the survivors of America’s latest school shooting have been relying on notes and research from last year’s class debate topic on gun control. I was gutted with emotion reading the teens’ accounts of debate class and competition, remembering the ferocity and fervor my friends and I brought to debate practice as teens. It was some of the most academically rigorous work of my life – we did exhaustive research on the topics and diligently poked holes in each other’s arguments over countless pizza dinners until they were airtight. With this context, I am not at all surprised how thorough, biting, and compelling the Florida teens’ case has been on the national stage. Their performance is the quintessential assessment of their preparation through the cruelest test.

Their articulation of the issues at hand is turning heads in part because they are, well… articulate. And rational. And supported by facts. And utterly devoid of the rampant logical fallacies and sensationalism that have dominated public debates, social media, town halls, and media coverage of politicians in recent years. They are driving a well-reasoned and level-headed debate about one of the country’s most emotional and divisive issues with charm, poise, and humor.

This is public education at its best. This is America at its best. This is the kind of heated yet rigorous debate on which this country was founded. They are young, scrappy, and hungry and they are not throwing away their shot (I was also a theatre kid).

 

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Red Bank Catholic High School mock trial team

 

The teens’ exemplary display of rhetoric skills is a sharp juxtaposition to the fanaticism around STEM in public education, often at the expense of humanities courses and programs. After my first year of teaching as a middle school social studies teacher, the school cut the social studies program in order to extend English language arts classes and I had to find a new school. Social studies is not a state-tested subject, so it often falls by the wayside of education programming, although history, public policy, and economics are some of the most relevant and requisite topics for active citizenship and preservation of our democratic ideals. They are also some of the most fun, memorable, and defining experiences of schooling for many kids.

After watching a night of mock trial rehearsal, the teacher who coached our school’s Future Business Leaders of America chapter recruited me for the public speaking category. I initially rebuffed the idea, wholeheartedly and exclusively committed to the legal profession at the ripe age of 15, but she talked me into it (probably because of the free overnight trip with my friends, to be honest). It was 2001 and I crafted and delivered a speech about corporate responsibility in the wake of the Enron scandal, which won 1st place in the state and 10th place nationally. I remember scoffing that the experience was wasted on this future lawyer. Indeed, one can never predict when an opportunity will meet preparation.

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