I have spent the better part of two days moving back into my duplex in the scenic and lovely (sarcasm) Bolivar, Missouri. Although it may not be the peak of culture or a bastion of new and vibrant culinary sensations, it does have a certain je ne sais quoi. Much of my longing for this town during the past summer is probably because of one single activity: speech and debate.
Speech and debate has been a very large part of my life for a very long time, I was the president of the debate team in high school, and I have been the president of the debate team in college as well. All told, I have spent 7 years straight completely engulfed in this wonderful activity. Even during my summer I was not able to fully get away from it all. I had an internship with the speech and debate coach of Webster University, and was also a coach for the Mock Trial Institute. More of my life goes to speech and debate than anything else, at least at this point. Most of friends realize that and ask me, “Nik, why do you spend so much time doing that activity?” Well, allow me to explain.
Just for a little background about myself, I really am very shy. I do not like to talk in front of people, or do anything around large groups. It was at the insistence of my high school coach, Randy Pierce, and the fact that it was a requirement at my high school to take the basic speech and debate class that I joined. When I first competed it was magical. Although I was not a fan of the whole ‘talking in front of people’ part of it, the rest intrigued me. The research, the competition, the strategy, the gamesmanship. If you couldn’t already tell, I was hooked.
Now everyone has heard how beneficial speech and debate is for your career, professional and educational. I think that every debater undergoes quiet transformation throughout their time competing, if they stick with it long enough. First, the phase above, doing it for some sort of advantage in ones academics or professional career. Edging out someone in an interview, or being able to research that paper better. Second, this one happens after a year or two, it is purely a game. The goal is to win. Yes, it is all still educational, but the point of the education is to learn how to win. Then comes the final stage, where you realize that winning is not that important, and begin to rethink why you competed at all. Put in 14 and 15 hour days, competed for days or even weeks straight on top of a job and schoolwork. That was where I was at.
Needless to say debating is kind of a niche market. I understand that, and speech and debate certainly is not for everyone, it was barely for me. But what I learned, and this is the crescendo or “a-ha!” moment that made me decide to write this blog post, is that speech and debate taught me how to think. For those unfamiliar, the topics we debate are usually public policy or social policy, and we are expected to debate both sides. Now, peoples personal convictions normally don’t get offended when debating about spiraling deflationary cycles in Spanish and Italian banks, but they might if they debated reproductive rights, aka contraception and abortion. This isn’t hyperbolic, that was the topic area of the finals round at Kansas Wesleyan University that I competed in.
Some students I know at Southwest Baptist couldn’t handle being forced to debate for something like abortion, heck, most regular members of the public on either side couldn’t imagine being forced to switch and debate about it. Somehow, the members of the debate community press on and keep debating. I won’t disclose who won that round, my personal convictions, or what I had to debate about, that isn’t the point. The point is that debate has taught me that, usually, there are a multiplicity of sides to everything, and all of them make good points. Points that if someone took the time to understand the perspective they may be convinced, or at least reticent to make a hard and fast judgement.
That is what true critical thinking is, not just pandering to the opposition, but really engaging in it and allowing yourself to be convinced by it if even for just a moment just to get the point they are trying to make. Debate taught me to do that, and continues to teach thousands of people each day to that. And that’s really why I’m so excited to start school again, and start debating once more, to have my presuppositions challenged and questioned, and maybe, just maybe, something I thought was so right, will become so wrong.