The Culture of High School Policy Debate

By: Megan Huynh

The two most common phrases I hear when visiting family around the holidays are “Wow, you’ve gotten so tall!” and “So, what do you debate about?” Unfortunately, I don’t really have an answer the first question, so instead, here’s a preemptive response to the latter. 
Policy debate is arguably the most difficult of four main types of high school debate, in which teams of two debate with incredible nuance on a yearlong topic. This year’s resolution is “Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its economic and/or diplomatic engagement with the People’s Republic of China.” Each team debates both sides of the topic, with the affirmative team proposing a plan of action and the negative team proving why that plan is wrong. For example, the affirmative side could present evidence that the US should include China in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the negative team’s job is to explain to the judge why that is a bad idea. 
Several things make policy debate unique including “spreading,” which is short for speed reading. In order to fit as many arguments into an 8 minute speech as possible, debaters speak around 300 words per minute while gasping for air in between, which also makes a round extremely difficult to understand for an average person. Typically, for the biggest effect on the judge, debaters tend to illustrate long hypothetical and hyperbolized scenarios that boil down into the most popular impact in debate: nuclear war. For example, the US not including China in the Trans-Pacific Partnership could undermine relations between the two countries, emboldening China to attack the US, causing, of course, a nuclear war. However, on the other hand, some choose to forgo debating about the chosen topic, instead speaking about causes they truly believe in, such as issues of race, sex, and class. Other debaters opt to debate about works of old philosophers, including Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean Baudrillard, applying their writings to real world situations. No matter what topic, after a year’s worth of debating, policy debaters research and speak about complex problems in society with extremely in-depth analysis, allowing students to become mini-experts on their subjects. 
To me, the debate community is an incredibly tight-knit niche of students across America, who all share a common interest. Each summer, most debaters go to debate camp ranging from one to seven weeks, where students from across the United States prepare for the year’s coming topic. Debate camp has always been the highlight of my summer; it’s where I’ve met some of my closest friends from all around, including Florida, Illinois, Georgia, Iowa, and California. It’s where no matter where you come from or what your background is, you’ll always fit in because there’s always going to be someone with the same common interest as you: debate. 
After camp is over, the only time you can see your friends is at tournaments, which occur almost every weekend at a high school or college, on the local or national level. There, teams debate five to seven rounds over the course of two days, from waking up as early as 5AM and getting home as late as 11PM. As a result of only getting minimal hours of sleep due to prepping, procrastinating, or both, debaters are energized by a combination of caffeine and adrenaline to keep them going through the day. Not only are tournaments a great excuse to miss school, they’re what I look forward to each weekend to compete in an activity that I love while getting to see the people I love. 
The community is what I really love about policy debate. At tournaments, everyone is always so supportive, whether it be calling out “How are you doing?” passing by in the hallway or an uplifting pep talk after a devastating loss. Even if you hardly know someone, you can always start a conversation with “How were your rounds?” I’ve found the debate community to be one of the most inclusive of high school extracurriculars. It’s where important issues about racism and sexism can be discussed, where people of any gender or color can talk about their issues, and where student advocates and future policymakers are born. No matter how cheesy it may sound, through debate, I’ve not only learned important life skills like critical thinking and research, but I’ve also made some memories and friends that I’ll cherish forever.



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