Rosenblum: Young debaters unafraid of complex issues

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 15, 2013 - 9:01 PM

If there were debate camp for adults, would you sign up?

I haven’t found one, but the idea occurred to many of us watching an impressive exchange last week at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.

Four high school debaters, working in pairs, argued the merits and pitfalls of the federal government increasing its investment in the U.S. transportation infrastructure.

A timely topic, yes, but what made the exchange humbling wasn’t how well each team argued its case with conviction. It’s that all of these young people could argue — and have argued — their opponents’ view with equal conviction.

Sure, these kids want to win. But not before they’ve had a civil, mind-expanding discussion first.

There are many reasons to champion school-based debate programs. Debating increases reading proficiency, boosts self-esteem and helps dreams get realized. Debaters have 100-percent on-time high school graduation rates, and a 99 percent college-acceptance rate.

Most compelling, though, is that these future leaders are mastering the largely lost and precious art of critical thinking. They are the answer to Yale University Law Prof. Stephen L. Carter’s passionate plea.

In his essay to college seniors, first published in Bloomberg News and reprinted Wednesday in the Star Tribune editorial pages, Carter implored graduates to be better than their elders, “to regain the high ground my generation once championed and has long forgotten — the freedom to think for yourselves.”

Stop looking for easy answers, Carter said. There aren’t any.

“When you look at those with whom you disagree on issues large or small, see them as neighbors rather than enemies,” he implored. “Consider the possibility that some issues are hotly divisive precisely because both sides are making good arguments.

“Serious thought,” Carter said, “is what this world desperately needs.”

The great news locally is that serious thought just got a generous shot in the arm. The Augsburg debate coincided with the announcement of $100,000 in funding for one year from the Minneapolis Public School District to support the Minnesota Urban Debate League.

That means the addition of debate programs in seven Minneapolis middle schools, (most Minneapolis high schools already have one), and nearly 300 new students honing their critical-thinking skills, said Amy Cram Helwich, the league’s executive director.

The St. Paul Public School District already committed $100,000 for two years to support the debate league, with programs soon to be added to Johnson and Harding high schools.

“I love the fact that they find their voice, become engaged learners,” said Cram Helwich, who attended college on a debate scholarship. “You can start the year with an opinion on a subject but have to switch sides at every tournament. They’ve truly looked at it from multiple perspectives.”

The Urban Debate League was started by volunteer Karon Garen, whose four sons debated at the Blake School. She wanted to extend that opportunity to city students. The first city chapter was formed in 2004 at North High School, with Augsburg as the fiscal sponsor. South, Como Park and St. Paul Central joined a year later.

In 2009, with 150 students and 15 schools involved, the league became a full program of Augsburg’s Sabo Center for Citizenship and Learning. The college also offers a popular summer debate institute (www.augsburg.edu/urbandebate). The league serves 500 students, from fifth to 12th grade this year.

The May 9 event, “The Mayors’ Challenge: The Great Transportation Debate,” featured Browerti Koffah of St. Paul’s Washington Technology and Yassin Ahmed of St. Paul’s Como Park arguing that (in very simplified terms) only the federal government has the resources to implement comprehensive transportation policy. Sheldon Samuelson of Minneapolis Edison partnered with Lillie Ouellette-Howitz of Minneapolis South to argue that federal involvement interferes with states’ autonomy.

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