Why I Debate

Historical Testimonials

“Maybe you could be a mayor or a Senator or a Supreme Court Justice, but you might not know that until you join student government or the debate team.”

– President Obama, State of Schools Address

“Those 4 years in debate were the educational foundation of everything I did. And I don’t mean that in some simple form…I’m saying the finest education I got from any of the institutions I attended, the foundation of my mind that I got during those 4 years of competitive policy debate; that is, 90% of the intellectual capacity that I operate with today–Fordham [University] for college, Fordham for the Ph.D., Harvard for law school–all of that is the other 10%.”

 John Sexton, President of New York University, Former NYC Debate Coach of 10 years

“The skills I developed in debate were of inestimable value in my later graduate education, in my training and research, in my government service: learning to think on my feet, or organize ideas, to take and use notes, to marshal evidence, to use my voice effectively. But the more important lessons were not these more technical ones. I was fortunate to have a debate coach who also taught that intellectual effort can be exciting; that ideas are more important than things; that pursuit of the truth is more important than winning contests; that intellectual honesty and integrity are among the virtues most to be cherished; that one need never be ashamed of idealism and strong convictions…” (Klopf, p7-8).

– Gardner Ackly, former presidential advisor

“My speech and debate experience and training at Pennsylvania State was the most important single educational experience of my life….Dialectical and communicative competencies and insights are the major educational values which result from participating extensively in forensics and debate. From my experience as a participant, coach and teacher, I believe those competencies and insights are better developed through forensic and debate experiences than any other educational experience” (Hunt, p15).

– Jerry M. Anderson, President of Ball State University

“Years of observing high school and college students in forensics have convinced me that this is one of the major contributions we in speech communication can make to the education of youngsters. It is our various forensics activities, more than in any other of our programs, that most of what we believe in and study can be brought together and passed on to each generation of students. It is in our various forensics activities that we can most effectively communicate the values that form the base of speech communication. And it is these activities that can best help our students to develop their capacities for leadership. It is no accident that such a large percentage of the outstanding leaders in our country have been high school or college debaters” (Hunt, p15).

– Sam Becker, former president, Speech Communication Association of America

“Debate not only improves one’s ability to speak publicly but improves the thinking process of the debater” (Huseman and Goodman, p226).

– Representative Charles E. Bennet of Florida

“As a Senator, my principal responsibilities are threefold: First, a Senator must do his best to reach logical policy conclusions about issues with which our nation is confronted. Second, a Senator should be able to effectively translate technical aspects of a position into language that will clearly communicate it to the public. Third, to be effective, a Senator must have the ability to persuade others to accept his policy conclusions. No aspects of my education was more useful in preparing me to meet these responsibilities than my training in speech and debate” (Hunt, p14). – Senator David Boren of Oklahoma

“My debate experience at Bates was helpful in my post graduate study at Oxford. At all times the necessity of organizing ideas and presenting them vigorously has been pertinent to newspaper writing, asking questions at press conferences or interviewing statesmen was aided by my public speaking experience” (Hunt, p14).

– Erwin Canham, editor of the Christian Science Monitor

“I learned how to think critically, how to develop arguments, how to speak clearly, and how to research. Everything I do – teaching, writing, and advocacy – uses these skills. Perhaps less obviously, I learned word economy which has been enormously valuable. . . . in teaching, sign-posting and labeling is much appreciated by my students. In doing media interviews, the conciseness that comes from word economy is invaluable in doing soundbites. Also, very importantly, as you know so well, debate forces one to be efficient in using one’s time and prepares one for juggling the many things we all must do.”

– Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of the University of California, Irvine School of Law

 “As a former debater I know of the tremendous benefits which can be derived from the process of educating oneself to take part in discussions of vital national issues (Huseman and Gordon, 226).”

– Senator Frank Church of Idaho

“The principal value of debate lies in the development of logical thought processes, and the ability to articulate your positions publicly” (Huseman and Goodman, p226).

– Senator Dick Clark of Iowa

“I cannot think of any one in the country who owes more to his participation in the national Forensic League events than I do” (Freely, 1960, p121).

– Frank G. Clement, Governor of Tennessee

“Debate was the single most important activity I participated in at the Naval Academy” (Lundquist).

– Admiral William Crowe, Four Star Admiral, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Ambassador to England

“If I were to choose any single activity in college which has contributed most to my career, I would certainly choose debating” (Hunt, p16).

- Samuel B. Gould, President, Antioch College

“Debating is one of the most valuable academic exercises in which I have ever engaged. It taught me to speak on my feet, to organize my thoughts, and to defend and refute a point. All of these abilities have stood me in good stead during my career as an attorney, as judge and now, as a U.S. Senator” (Hunt, p14).

- Senator Howard Heflin of Alabama

“The group developed fellowship and team camaraderie which had important by-products for personal growth. The visits to other schools, and travel experience, the living and working together – all under the high expectations of the ‘Coach’ and his most gently administered but ever firm supervision – made for an individual development which has remained for me a high point in my educational experience. The meaning of scholarship, the ‘feel’ for the handling of ideas, the fellowship of professional service were for me but some of the outcomes of my debate experience” (Hunt, 16).

– David B. Henry, President of the University Illinois

“The wisest advice I can give to persons considering debate as an activity is: ‘participate.’ In my opinion, hour for hour, the reward for time spent debating is greater than any other activity available to the typical student… In addition to the “academic” benefits, potential participants should be alerted to the life long friendships they will develop, the opportunity to associate with competitive, creative and bright young people, as well as the favorable view of the activity taken by potential employers” (Matlon and Keel, p201).

– Thomas F. Hozduk, Los Angeles Attorney

“…I joined the debating team, which was sponsored by Mr. Virgil Parks, our Latin teacher. That’s where I developed my speaking skills and learned to think on my feet. At first I was scared to death. I had butterflies in my stomach – and to this day I still get a little nervous before giving a speech. But the experience of being on the debating team was crucial. You can have brilliant ideas, but if you can’t get them across, your brains won’t get you anywhere” (Iacocca, 16).

– Lee Iacocca, CEO of Chrysler

“It was my experience with debating and public speaking in both high school and college that led me to become a lawyer, and ultimately, a member of Congress” (Williams).

– Representative Paul E. Kanjoriski of Pennsylvania

“I think debating in high school and college a most valuable training whether for politics, the law, business, or for service on community committees such as the PTA and the League of Women Voters. A good debater must not only study material in support of his own case, but he must also, of course, thoroughly analyze the expected arguments of his opponent….The give and take of debating, the testing of ideas, is essential to democracy. I wish we had a good deal more debating in our institutions than we do now” (Freedom and Union, 7).

– President John F. Kennedy

“I truly believe I would have been as prepared for law school had I simply debated and not attended college at all. I have found that the practice of law – and I assume this is true of a large number jobs – consists basically of trying to solve problems in an organized manner…Debate placed a premium on the factors that I believe are essential to effective problem solving, including—breaking an argument down into its smallest components and then marshaling the factual data…for each element;…talking a problem through with others over a period of time that a contention or issue becomes fully perceivable;…verbally articulating ideas rather than just having a mental conception to appreciate the stresses and rewards of competition” (Matlon and Keel, 197).

– Raoul D. Kennedy, noted San Francisco attorney

“I consider [debate] the most rewarding activity that I engaged in during my school years. Quite frankly, I considered it more important in preparing me for my life as a trial attorney than any of the academic courses that were required in order for me to get both my undergraduate and law degrees” ( Matlon and Keel, p197).

– Gerald Kogan, Circuit Court Judge

“Forensics has influenced my personal and professional development more than any other activity or experience. Those who have participated in forensics often share this view. A survey of Governors, Senators, and other leaders across the country conducted by the Bicentennial Youth Debates found a high level of agreement about this key role of debate and speech activities. Debate teaches so many things – the complexity of issues, the importance of research, techniques of gathering and organizing information, analytic and verbal skills, respect for opposing views, the interaction of evidence and values, and a variety of frameworks for evaluating arguments and reaching decisions. At the heart of this is something crucial to our society – the open testing of ideas (Hunt, 15).”

– James Luck, Executive Director, Batelle Memorial Institute Foundation

“But I will tell you that, right there in the prison, debating, speaking to a crowd, was as exhilarating to me as the discovery of knowledge through reading had been. Standing up there, the aces looking up at me, the things in my head coming out of my mouth, while my brain searched for the next best thing to follow what I was saying, and if I could sway them to my side by handling right, then I had won the debate – once my feet got wet, I was gone on debating. Whichever side of the selected subject was assigned to me, I’d track down and study everything I could find on it. I’d put myself in my opponent’s place and decide how I’d try to win if I had the other side; and then I’d figure a way to knock down those points” (Malcom X, 184).

– Malcom X

There are few other activities in high school or college that are as important as speech and debate. Regardless of an individual’s academic or career goals, the ability to research a complex question, marshal arguments and present them in a persuasive and compelling way, are skills that will serve you well all your life. Both my wife and I debated in high school and college. Before I entered public life, I taught debate and speech at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, S.D. I attribute whatever political success I may have enjoyed, in large part, to the training I received as a participant in debate and speech activities (Hunt, 13).”

– Senator George McGovern, former democratic candidate for President.

“Self expression is truly an art, and its successful development requires steady practice and determination. To articulate one’s thoughts in a lucid and expressive manner – to capture and maintain the interest of an audience, whether it be in the classroom or in the United Nations General Assembly Hall – is strongly supported by the skill and knowledge one acquires from a forensic education (Hunt, p1).”

– Donald F. McHenry, US Representative to the United Nations

“As I look back upon my own experiences, when I try to single out from among the long line of college students some one group which shall stand forth as intellectually the best – best in college work and best in promise of future intellectual achievement – I cannot draw the line around my own favorite students of philosophy, nor the leaders in mathematics, nor those successful in biology; nor could I fairly award the palm to the Phi Beta Kappa men who have excelled in all their subjects. It seems to me that stronger than any other group, tougher in intellectual fiber, keener in intellectual interests, better equipped to battle the coming problems are the college debaters – the students who apart from their regular studies, band together for intellectual controversy with each other and with their friends from other colleges (Hunt, 16).”

– Alexander Meiklejohn, Former President of Amherst College

“The development of leadership in a democratic society has a very direct relationship to the art of debate. One becomes a leader by molding public opinion to support a given course of action, not by dictating such an action. This involves the ability to pinpoint the critical issues of the day, and the willingness to apply oneself to the task of research in order to assemble all considerations bearing upon those issues. It requires the ability to apply logic, rather than emotion and prejudice, to the assembled data, the courage to accept the decisions thus indicated, and the ability to present the opinions thus developed in such ways as to persuade others to a like point of view (Hunt, 13).”

– Senator Edmund Muskie, former Democratic candidate for Vice President and Secretary of State under Jimmy Carter

“One of the most important decisions in my life was when the student body of Warren Central High School in Indianapolis decided I should not be a varsity cheerleader. It meant my weekends were free. For the next three years, I spent most Saturdays on the road with the largest National Forensic League chapter in the country. While the fifteen-year-old girl inside of me still mourns the lost letter sweater, the adult Jane is grateful to NFL for something much more important a – career” (Hunt, 14).

– Jane Pauley, NBC television journalist

“Throughout my public life I have been very grateful for my early experience in formal debates. I believe the encounters are a valuable means of developing in our leaders of the future the ability to express themselves clearly and forcefully on the pressing issues of the times (Huseman and Goodman, 226).”

– Representative Claude Pepper of Florida

“Debate trained me to analyze and articulate the complex national problems that confront our country today. Too, it was a tremendous help in campaign debates for my House and Senate seats…My intercollegiate debate training was the most valuable experience that I had at Penn State. I derived benefits from it far beyond the normal extracurricular activity that it encompassed” (Matlon and Keel, 198).

– Richard S. Schweiker, former Senator and Representative from Pennsylvania and Secretary of Health and Human Services

“No college freshman can project 25 years to decide what he needs to learn – subject matter is easily forgotten and in today’s world, the knowledge explosion makes constant learning an inevitability. But all adults today need to be able to communicate with clarity, to articulate ideas, to reason, to separate key facts from the barrage of ideas we all are exposed to every day. No single activity can prepare one better than debating – the ability to think on one’s feet, to form conclusions rapidly, to answer questions logically and with clarity, to summarize ideas are all processes which forensics activity develop and develop” (Hunt, 14).

– Helen M. Wise, former President, National Education Association

“I used to think one of the most powerful individuals in America was the person who could select the annual high school debate topic. Think of the power to set the agenda, and determine what millions of high school students will study, read about, think about, talk about with friends, discuss with their teachers and debate with their parents and siblings over dinner.”

– Donald Rumsfeld, former Secretary of Defense

“There is not the slightest doubt that by vicious use of propaganda, preying upon the racial and nationalistic hatreds of the peoples of the world, this universe could very shortly again be transformed into a seething cauldron of infuriated nations.”

– Ralph Bunch while on his College Debate Team. Bunch was a high school debater, college debater and Debate Team President. He became the first African American to gain a PhD in political science from an American university, first African American recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, worked for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II (predecessor to the CIA), Undersecretary General of the United Nations, instrumental in creating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UN Chief Mediator of the Arab-Israeli conflict after his predecessor was assassinated, his treaty would be modeled decades later in the truce between the Bloods and Crips in Los Angeles, Peace negotiator in the Congo, Yemen, Kashmir, and Cyprus, Chair of the Political Science Department of Howard University, Civil Rights Movement and March on Washington, and the list goes on and on.


“I realized it [public-speaking] was a skill and a gift,” Robbins told me. “And that the skill and the gift combined could do some beautiful things. I’ve now been practicing it for 39 years.”

– Tony Robbins, Motivational Speaker


“The number one reason people are ineffective speakers is because they’re focused on themselves. If you’re focused on yourself, then you can’t possibly connect with the audience,”

- Tony Robbins, Motivational Speaker. “Remarkably, Tony Robbins—who grew up in an unstable household caring for his alcoholic mother—didn’t recognize his own ability to move people with words until a high school debate teacher, Mr. Cobb, recognized his skill. The teacher told Robbins, “I have never seen anybody who can stand up and speak with no notes, look around to kids who won’t listen, and mesmerize them with just raw communication.” He handed Robbins a speech called “The Will To Win” and made this challenge: If Robbins read the speech and connected to it, he would have to agree to compete in a persuasive oratory competition. If it didn’t move him, Robbins could simply return the speech. Robbins read it and cried his eyes out. He entered the competition and won first place. He won a second speech contest, and a third…” 

“Every protest, every dissent whether its an individual academic paper or parking demonstration is unabashedly an attempt to forge an identity in a particular age…”

– Former High School Debater Hillary Clinton, College Graduation Speech

 “Clinton’s remarks transformed her, virtually overnight, into a national symbol of student activism. Wire services blasted out her remarks, and Life magazine featured a photo of her, dressed in bold striped bell-bottoms. Clinton soon caught the attention of leading figures of the left, including civil rights activist Vernon Jordan and her future mentor, Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman…” – Hillary Clinton’s College Graduation Speech. Hillary Clinton was also a former High School Debater.


“On stage or in the movies, I could do whatever I wanted to, I was free.”

– Gene Wilder, High School Debater, Washington High School, Milwaukee, https://debate.nyc/why-debate/gene-wilder-the-high-school-debater-remembering-gene-wilder-actor-comedian-philanthropist-and-high-school-debater/