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( Originally Published 1922 )

I. The Value of Debating

The increase of interest in high school debating is fortunate. It is a mark of the growing tendency to make education an active force in fitting boys and girls for the duties and opportunities of citizenship. A democracy such as ours draws its life blood from the full and free discussion of matters of vital concern to the individual and to the State. Only so may keen thought be directed to the issues of the day. Debating is a means of arousing interest in public questions even when other methods have failed. The promised contest where brain is to be matched against brain, as on the athletic field brawn meets brawn, moves the student to hard study quite beyond anything that could be brought about by the prodding and scolding of the teacher of civics or history. With such a spur to prick him on he delves more deeply into his subject, and reasons more closely than he otherwise would. For the first time, perhaps, he learns the joy of really mastering the thing in hand. From the knowledge thus gained comes an interest that usually lasts through life. Were this the only good received from debating it would be worth while, but there are other benefits quite as evident. It helps to make the student open-minded, and leads him to see that the opinions of other people may be as good as his own. Having studied a few questions carefully and so dis-covered that there are usually two pretty well balanced sides to every proposition, the student no longer flaunts his own cock-sure views in the face of those who differ with him. Instead he weighs their arguments with patience and fairness and listens courteously to any earnest, thoughtful speaker who really has something to say. He will become impatient of shallow, hasty reasoning and loose, empty speaking. He learns to come to conclusions only after careful weighing of the facts in the case. He insists on first-hand, exact information, not hearsay evidence that, too often, has been bandied from "inaccurate mouth to inaccurate ear" until even the likeness of truth is lost.

The debater is trained to detect the weakness of false argument. Practice in rebuttal sharpens the wits and works for swift, clean thinking. The training to reason clearly and in order on a basis of fact, and to be able to judge when others are doing the same thing is of the greatest value. President Eliot, of Harvard, charges that there is among Americans evidence of an "absolute incapacity to form judgments on the presentation of facts and arguments." The trouble, he goes on to affirm, lies in our inability to judge between facts and fancies. We have got into the sad way of inaccurate thinking and slipshod speaking, of leaping to conclusions without sufficient evidence, and of going off at half cock with nothing much to say. The truth of all this is too plain to need comment. It is time to call a halt to such harmful habits; that halt is .called when our high school students turn seriously to debate, with its power to develop real mental fiber, its demand for virile, pointed speaking.

II. The Foundation for Successful Debate

More should be done in our schools to stimulate thoughtful classroom discussion. To bring about natural and free expression of opinion by students should be the aim of every teacher of English, history, civics, and other human interest subjects. The more informal the speaking here the better, just so it is honest, earnest, and to the point. This same practice may be carried outside the recitation hour. Professor Perry, of the University of Arizona, believes that every school should have a discussion club where students can get together for informal exchange of ideas on matters of common Interest. The writer remembers a most helpful plan worked out by the president of his alma mater, who personally led a weekly round table for students who cared to come. Here live topics of every kind were brought on the carpet to the mutual benefit of all.

"There is something peculiar about ideas," someone has said. "You have three ideas, I have two; we get together; each gives his ideas to the other, and when we separate we each have five."

For the more formal speaking nearly every school has its organized society where debates on set questions are held at stated times. A good method of keeping up interest in these debates is to give every member of the society a chance to answer any argument advanced in the course of the debate. This is done after the set speeches are over and after the judges have voted. This gives a capital chance for training in rebuttal. A student who expects to do well in debate should speak in public as often as he can. Success comes only as the result of ceaseless effort.

III. The Selection of a Question

The first thing in a debate is the choice of a question. In real life questions are not chosen; they arise through natural differences of opinion. There is some wrong to be righted; some need to be supplied. How to do it? Delegates from twenty-three nations meet and frame a peace treaty for the world; is it a good treaty? Should we adopt it? Some believe one way, some another; so debate arises. As nearly as possible propositions to be debated by students should be fixed upon in the same way. School people are, on the whole, interested in the same things that other folks are; they differ in opinion on like points. The topics they choose for debate, then, should be everyday questions.

But it is not enough that a question be timely and of general interest; it must be even-sided enough to admit of sound argument on both sides. Suppose a thriving city of twenty-five thousand should grow in a year to a still more prosperous city of fifty thousand. The need for a large new high school arises. A few old fogies oppose spending the necessary money, so there is lively argument on the matter in the community. But it would be folly to think of winning a debate on the negative of the proposition before clear-thinking judges. The evidence and arguments are all on one side. Likewise when teachers were getting an average of $630 a year, and there were one hundred thousand positions in the United States either vacant or filled by those unfitted to teach, no one would care to debate the question, "Should teachers' salaries be raised?" But at the same time the question, "Should teachers unionize and affiliate with the American Federation of Labor?" might well have been debated. This brought up a point in policy upon which there was wellfounded disagreement.

Again the question must be such that it is possible to arrive at the truth or the near truth of the matter under dispute. Who was the greater, Washington or Lincoln? Whose poetry is the more beautiful, Tennyson's or Longfellow's? Such questions, though often good topics for everyday conversation, are not suitable for a set debate. There is no fixed basis upon which to build; opinions and tastes are personal and of almost as many varieties as there are individuals. But in a problem of policy or action there is usually a chance to work out a proposition with a clearly defined issue, the truth in regard to which may be pretty well established by an appeal to the argument and fact in the case. The question should, for the sake of clearness, be stated in the affirmative. The word not should never be used. There should be only one big issue involved. "Should the civilized world condemn England's colonial policy?" is not debatable, for England in dealing with her various colonies uses different methods. In some cases her policy is above reproach. "Should the civilized world condemn England for her policy toward India?" on the other hand, narrows the field to within reasonable limits, and allows a direct clash of argument. Often high school debates should deal with local problems such as, "Should the school board vote funds for a new gymnasium?" "Should our city adopt the commission plan of govern-ment?" "Should the county vote bonds for hard-surfaced roads?" But, whatever the question, it should be of present vital interest; there should be a chance for plenty of good argument on both sides; there should be but one big issue involved; and the statement should be made affirmatively.

IV. The Selection of Debaters

When there is to be a debate between classes or schools, how shall the right men be chosen to make up the team? Methods vary; but one of the best is the preliminary debate. Here is a well-tested plan for conducting the preliminaries.


The question decided upon, a meeting of the students who intend to try for a place is held. Here the subject for debate is discussed by someone able to deal with it — the coach, principal, or, where possible, some public man who is interested. At this time it will be made clear just what the question means, and the big, broad issues will be outlined. There is no taking of sides. The object here is simply to arouse interest, to show the possibilities for a live debate, and to start students to thinking. Before the meeting closes the coach gives directions for the week's work. He will advise each student to make a preliminary analysis of the question in order to get started on his argument. These questions must be answered —

1. What is the situation that has given rise to the discussion; what is the need; what is wrong or said to be wrong?

2. Is the remedy proposed a good one? Exactly what is included in the proposed plan of action?

3. Has this plan been tried before? If so with what results?

4. What would be its effects if put into operation? Would it meet the present needs?

5. What can be said for the plan; what against it?

6. Are there points upon which both sides will agree?

7. Are there points that have nothing to do with the present discussion?

8. What are the really important points upon which there will likely be the most difference of opinion?

Each debater should also make a decision as to which side of the question he will take.


At the second meeting of debaters there is another short discussion led by the coach, but with the students doing most of the talking. The coach also takes a few minutes to impress upon his debaters the necessity for earnest, honest study of the subject. An outline for preparation is given. Young debaters will be told that they need not always go far afield for matter. The home-town business man, the lawyer, the minister, the teacher, the bricklayer, the carpenter may have just the facts and figures that will win the debate. Members of a college debating club got some of their best arguments against a certain proposal by attending a meeting of the local trades' union and discussing the subject with the men there. Conversation with the well-informed person nearest at hand is one of the first steps in working up a good debate. One should read widely, of course. Again, good material may often be had from letters to experts for facts and arguments. There should be a notebook in which to jot down ideas. In this notebook, too, there should be a section for reference to articles and to chapters and pages in books and magazines that bear on the subject in hand. Some of the best places to go for material are here listed.

1. The Readers' Guide — to locate magazine articles.

2. Card index file in Library — to find books.

3. Encyclopedias —for general information.

4. Up-to-date magazines.

5. Daily newspapers.

6. The Congressional Record —if the subject has been debated in Congress.

7. Government reports and bulletins.

8. Census returns, the Statesman's Year Book, and the Statistical Abstract of the United States.

9. The New Hazell Annual and Almanac, Whitaker's Churchman's Almanac, the World Almanac, etc.

10. The Index to Congressional Documents, the Index to Govern-ment Documents, and the Index to U. S. Public Documents.

11. Index to Bureau of Labor Statistics.

12. Bliss: Encyclopedia of Social Reform.

13. Larned: History for Ready Reference.

14. Lalor: Cyclopedia of Political Science and Political Economy.

15. Who's Who, Burke's Peerage, the Dictionary of National Biography, and the Century Cyclopedia of Names.

16. Bibliographies from the Congressional Library.

17. Bartholomew: Library Reference Atlas of the World.

18. Century Atlas.

19. Public Affairs Information Service — "A Cooperative Clearing House of Public Affairs Information." Bulletins, reports, articles. 958 University Ave., New York City.

These suggestions for handling material found in reading should be helpful:

1. Take the title of the article or book read and the name of the writer.

2. Find out who the writer is; and what weight his opinion has.

3. Where important, take exact words, and note page and chapter for reference.

4. Think while reading; let your mind run ahead to draw conclusions before you have read those of the author.

5. Take for your bibliography all references to other books and articles.

6. Write down in your own words the chief points in the article.

7. Never swallow an argument whole; always try to add something from your own experience; always try to find a counterargument.

Test your own reasoning; be content with nothing short of sound logic.


At the third meeting each student is told to begin work on the special point he wishes to develop in his speech. One debater is selected as first speaker for the affirmative. It is his duty to present the question; to define the terms; to outline the issues of the debate; and to bring forward any other introductory matter that may be desirable. For this an extra three minutes, in addition to the six minutes granted each speaker for his constructive speech, is allowed. At this time it will be in place for the coach to make some helpful remarks on the preparation of a debating speech. Students will be told to prepare definite unified argument developing one point rather than many, and to work for conciseness and brevity, but at the same time for absolute clearness. Stress will be laid upon the need for special preparation for rebuttal. Too much weight cannot be given to the need for strong, persuasive presentation of argument. The ability to make one's hearers feel that the whole heart is in the speech has won many a debate.


The coach should take some early opportunity to talk to the students about the courtesies of debate. To address the chair and wait for recognition before speaking is a bit of formality never to be neglected. The opposing team should always be treated with respect. To turn upon opponents and defiantly address questions, demand proof, or point with triumph to weaknesses in argument is inexcusable. Simple, earnest, direct address to the audience, dignified reference to members of the rival team as "my opponents," "the third speaker for the negative," "the gentleman who just preceded me," is a mark of highclass debate and is sure to count for success. "Mudslinging" of every kind is tabooed. Belittling an opponent's arguments, using such expressions as "they would have you believe such stuff," "it is time for our opponents to produce some arguments," cheapens the speaker's cause, and usually acts as a boomerang. Audiences do not like attempts at smartness nor a show of superiority. Then, too, every second is needed for argument that really counts; in debate time is too precious to be wasted.


At last comes the try-out for the actual selection of the team. A definite date has been fixed for a long time ahead. Judges are chosen who are used to hearing argument, to weighing evidence, and to making fair decisions. It is better that each judge should have a known interest in the choice of the best speaker to represent the school. In many places the rule is to use only faculty members. So far as possible the conditions should be those of real debate — affirmative and negative speakers alternating. Each speaker is given six minutes for constructive argument. At the close of the constructive speeches each debater is allowed two minutes for rebuttal. In judging special attention is paid to skill in refutation. Debates are often lost because men are chosen who can make strong set speeches, but fail in rebuttal. The debaters who receive the highest rank are announced not later than the day after the preliminary contest.

V. Preparation for the Actual Debate


The preliminary over, the real work begins. As soon as possible the men chosen for the team come together to discuss and lay plans. There is at this time an honest, full criticism of the speeches made in the try-out. Weak places are noted, and strong arguments are studied with care. A trial brief for each side of the question is made, emphasis being placed on finding the main contentions for both affirmative and negative.

Each debater is now put to work on the opposite side of the question from that which he is to support. If there is only one team a second team is formed so that the first team can get practice. No football coach would expect to put out a winning eleven without a second squad of "scrubs" to oppose the first line men, frequently under the conditions of a real game. This factor has been too often neglected in turning out a debating team. So there should always be two teams working on the same question to meet each other in debate over and over before the final contest. The first clash should come after each team has worked for a week or ten days on the opposite side of the question from its own.

The debaters that make up the regular team now get together in a series of meetings and organize their debate. By this time the main issues have been so well threshed out that it should be possible to outline the argument almost in final form. There must be careful selection of the most valid and convincing mate-rial and a weeding out of that which is less important. Certain points are assigned to certain speakers so that there may fall upon each one the task of working out a given section of the argument.


Teamwork is just as important in debate as on the athletic field. Each speaker must know his colleague's debate almost as well as his own; must be ready to give support at need; to fill out where there is lack; and to repeat the strong points made in earlier speeches. The value of holding before the minds of the judges the chief issues of the debate, and the contentions of a team in regard to them, cannot be too strongly emphasized. Summaries should be frequent. It is said of Patrick Henry that in arguing a celebrated case before a jury he repeated his closing argument in slightly varied form twelve times (" once for every man on the jury"). The writer recently heard a skilful young debater in a two-minute rebuttal state three times, in different form, the main contentions of the negative. Many a judge finds himself confused at the end of a long debate in an effort to call to mind and compare the arguments and relative merits of two opposing teams, simply because the debaters have failed at this vital point.

In a case, however, where one side has throughout the debate kept the progress of the discussion clearly before the minds of the audience, has over and over dwelt upon the merits of certain strong arguments, and the other side has not, there can be little question as to the decision. Even inferior argument thus driven home through teamwork will often win. Debaters must bear in mind from the first that their individual speeches are simply parts of a whole, and must be worked out exactly as if one person were making the entire argument.

The debaters should have a room of their own where they may work without disturbance. All matter that has been gathered, whether in the form of notes or references to books and articles, is brought together and a new list is made for the team. New material, also, is sought everywhere. A debate between the opposing teams is staged every few days. Arguments are tested by having one speaker present a point with all the others in a combination to break down the argument in rebuttal speeches. This will help detect weak reasoning and bring to light the faults common to immature debaters, such as "we think" and "we believe" arguments, illogical and weak conclusions, unsupported assertions, etc.


Good debaters learn early the convincing power of fact and authority, of exact data got from some reliable source as opposed to mere assertion of what may be the near truth. Un-supported opinion may be heard every day, anywhere — on the street corner, in the barber's chair, in the market place but the expression of opinion founded on the logical analysis of carefully selected facts is rare. And that is just what the audience and judges are looking for at a debate.

Proof in the form of facts, and reasoning based on facts is the essence of good argument. It is often well to give exact statistics, to quote directly, naming the source. In such cases it is not best to read; or, if one reads, he should have the matter so well in hand that he need scarcely look at the page. No debater can afford to run the risk of losing control of his audience by gluing his eyes to a book, no matter how weighty the extract. But ready reference to the words and writings of those who know carries conviction. The audience concludes that here is one speaker who has studied and mastered his subject. Skill in debate requires the ability to select the vital, telling details that exactly fit the case in hand. The debater must have reached a point in preparation where he has freedom to pick and choose from a well-ordered storehouse of information.

It takes some practice to acquire skill in the use of facts and authorities. In quoting figures round numbers should be used, as 25,000, not 25,457; second, long series of figures should be avoided; a few that stand out as typical will better catch the attention. Figures can be made to mean much if facts are set forth in vivid comparisons. "More money was spent last year for rum than for education." "The dead in the Great War placed on the ground head to heel would reach three times from New York to San Francisco, and the wounded and maimed would reach around the world." Such statements are of live interest to the average listener; they arouse the imagination and make him think. Charts are sometimes used to put important statistics before the judges. The double appeal to the eye and ear works well. In general, however, the chart is worth while only where a large amount of argument hinges on the facts presented.

There are four principles to follow in quoting fact and authority:

1. Citation should be from an acknowledged expert.

2. Citation should be from an impartial source.

3. Citation should be recent.

4. Citation should apply to the case in hand.

Government bulletins and reports are gotten up by experts and contain the unbiased truth. For this reason, facts drawn from them are of special value. A statement from the Bureau of Labor Report that miners work on an average only 200 days a year would pass unchallenged. So with figures from the report of the Commission on Immigration to the effect that immigration had fallen from over a million and a quarter in 1914 to one hundred thousand in 1918. Likewise the word of men who are of high repute and who are in a position to know along certain lines carries weight. General Maurice is a great British military expert. His published statement some time ago, "Germany is so thoroughly beaten that the talk of war from Germany now is silly," was, therefore, convincing. Herbert Hoover is known to be informed on the world food question; he has also been proved to be of a calm, judicial turn of mind, fair, and non-partisan in everything. Hence the stirring effect of his cable in the fall of 1919. He was referring to conditions in the Near East. "It is impossible that the loss of 200,000 lives can at this day be prevented. The remaining 500,000 possibly can be saved." It should be noted here that it is of value to quote experts only on questions falling within their special field. Elihu Root, an authority in international law, for instance, could not be expected to give expert testimony on the European food situation. Again, debaters often waste valuable time in citing facts and building arguments from them that bear no direct relation to the case in hand. The debater who spoke at length on the election of Victor Berger from Milwaukee in an attempt to show that immigration should be prohibited for a period of years gained nothing; he was able to show no relation between the facts given and the immigration problem. And so in an argument for a return to the protective-tariff policy in the United States any number of glowing facts as to the growth of industries and the increase of wealth under the former plan would be useless unless it could be shown that this progress was due to the protective system.


When we compare the hours and days and weeks that it takes to get ready, the time used in the actual debate is very short. In high school debates each speaker usually has fifteen minutes divided as follows:

For constructive argument:

Affirmative, 10 minutes; negative, 10 minutes.
Affirmative, 10 minutes; negative, 10 minutes.

For rebuttal:

Negative, 5 minutes; affirmative, 5 minutes.
Negative, 5 minutes; affirmative, 5 minutes.

Youthful debaters are all too willing to stop working too soon; to quit just this side of the last hard lick of work. This is the fatal mistake. If for no other reason the fact that the speeches are short makes it necessary that one prepare to the limit of his ability. "It takes longer," says Professor Alden in his Art of Debate, "to prepare a short speech than a long one on almost any subject." It takes longer to round out a fifteen-minute speech than one an hour long on the same subject. "How long does it take you to work up your speeches?" Macaulay was asked. "That depends," he replied, "on the length of the speech; if it is a two hour speech I can prepare it in two days; if it is an hour speech, two weeks; but if it is a ten-minute speech it takes two months." In the short speech every word must count. The speaker must in every sentence strike directly at the heart of the subject, at the big principles involved, letting the minor things take care of themselves. Lincoln had the power to do this; but only at the expense of mighty toil and ceaseless effort. Lincoln was never content with half truths; he always strove to dig down through the debris of side issues to the solid rock of fundamentals. He felt that he must know his subject "inside and outside, upside and downside, and when at last he did speak his utterances rang out with the clear and keen ring of gold upon the counters of his under-standing."

The work of any speaker is to achieve something definite in a given time, and an audience is impatient of anything less. True in all speaking, this fact is all-important in debate. Some-thing definite, very definite, is to be accomplished within a very short space. An argument that owes its force to solid fact supported by the best evidence to be had must be made clearly and forcefully in a very few minutes. In still less time must be made a rebuttal, which is strong or weak in proportion as the speaker is master of his subject, can effectively analyze his opponent's argument, and can cull from a wealth of material just that which is needed to fortify his own position and reduce that of the opposing team to fragments.

There must be no scratching of the surface, but earnest, thoughtful penetration into the depths of the question. The debater must know his subject; he must know it from every angle; he must know that he knows it. He must be able to express what he knows in living, virile English.

No failure of a debater is more certain to prove fatal than a lack of thorough knowledge of his subject. The argument of his opponent must be watched; the slightest swerving from fact or logical conclusion must be noted, must be the signal for vigorous, pointed attack. One statement of the opposing side clearly discredited by an agile-minded speaker in rebuttal with the facts in hand, with the book open if possible to the page from which citation is made, will often be the deciding factor when the vote is taken.

A few years ago in a Michigan-Chicago debate on the Monroe Doctrine one of the speakers for Chicago had based much of his argument on a knotty point in international law. In rebut-tal, a Michigan man brought to the platform a copy of a well-known book written by a noted University of Chicago professor, to whose opinion the Chicago debater had unwittingly taken exception. He then cleverly refuted his opponent's argument, ending with a quotation from the volume in his hand, with the final neat thrust: "Evidently my friends on the negative do not think much of Chicago authority." To the audience the effect was entirely humorous, but to the Chicago team it was as if a bomb had lighted in their midst, and with the judges there was, no doubt, registered a heavy count in favor of the Michigan side of the question. Anyway, Michigan won the decision.


Shall speeches be written and memorized or shall they be extemporary? Much can be said on both sides. With experienced speakers the greater freedom for attack and defense makes the extemporary method the better. Young debaters are sometimes likely to ramble and scatter their energies if the speech is not learned. A plan adopted by many successful debaters is preparation to speak on any issue that may arise, with a short unified speech on each point. Each of these is outlined on cards, and as the debater listens to his opponent's speech he marshals his forces for the attack by arranging the cards he wishes to use in the order he desires, and so meets his opponent squarely. This is a good practice for the negative and in all rebuttal speeches. Nothing is more sad than a set speech that does not touch the argument of the preceding speaker. Affirmative speeches are often written and memorized; even if this is done, however; each speaker after the first should allow a few minutes for direct pointed attack on the argument just given by his opponent. The use of outline cards should be encouraged. It is a safeguard against stage fright and mental wandering.


As the time approaches for the debate, speeches should be rounded into shape and frequent opportunity given for practice. A trial debate may be held before the coach and the teachers interested. Pointed criticism here will be of benefit. After a few more days it is well to hold another practice debate before some literary or debating society. Then each speaker should be asked to give his debate before the school at morning assembly. This will result in the sureness and ease that win success.

A few words of caution to the debater on his conduct in the few days just before the debate. Be a healthy-minded, normal individual. Sleep, exercise as usual. Do not let your speech "get on your nerves." Drop the whole thing from your mind for hours at a time. Go to a party; take a hike. It may be advisable to eat somewhat more sparingly than usual, especially on the day of the debate. The last meal should be fairly light. Sleep a few hours in the afternoon. Go to the platform firm in the belief that you know your subject; and comfort yourself with the thought that your opponent is more afraid of you than you are of him.

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