Making Our Voices Heard: Public Discourse and High School Debate

When going through some old materials as part of an ongoing effort to construct an institutional history of the National Debate Coaches Association, I came across the following short piece from Alan Coverstone. The longtime debate coach at Montgomery Bell Academy, Coverstone wrote this article for the NDCA Newsletter in April of 2003. It is reprinted below the fold with the permission of the author.

“Making Our Voices Heard: Public Discourse and High School Debate”
Alan Coverstone, NDCA Newsletter, April 2003

With our nation now at war, the voices of debate coaches are more important than ever. In every situation, debate training, patiently and expertly provided by the members of our ranks, offers citizens an important opportunity to preserve and in some cases restore public deliberation and dialogue to the political process. Never are our students more swept up in the emotions and passions of the moment than during this time. Never are we as educators under more pressure to get our jobs right. Often our tendency is to defend the freedom of speech upon which our nation’s constitutional order and the debate activity are based. Yet, too often our usually aggressive defenses of free expression marginalize our own voices so that we end up speaking freely when no one is there to hear us. Yet, if we hesitate as the public sphere is increasingly narrowed by the politically correct definitions of patriotism, we sacrifice important educational opportunities and contribute to the further degradation of public discourse…not to mention modeling undemocratic behavior for our students.

The challenge that educators concerned with public deliberation and debate must confront now more than ever is the difficult one of preserving and protecting the public deliberative realm while avoiding the kind of sudden backlash from principals and parents that can leave an educator silenced or unemployed. With passions running high and nerves raw and exposed on all sides of this conflict, debate educators find themselves in a communicative minefield. Teachers who strive to lead students through the complex emotions, concerns, and facts of war often find it impossible to say anything concrete without fear of reprisals. The chilling of thought and expression that accompanies war is quite common in our nation’s history. Also common is the disdain with which historians view these periods of censorship when the fighting finally stops. Any cursory examination of the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Espionage Act, The House Un-American Activities Committee, military censorship of the media during the first Gulf War, or any of a multitude of other historical occurrences reveals that we regret our censorship when the perceived threats that inspire it dissipate. As educators, we cannot shrink from this truth merely because it is an uncomfortable one at the present time.

Rather, education in general and debate education in particular, must be best able to serve us during these times when emotions and stakes are the highest. Debate offers the opportunity for students to be instructed thoroughly in the logical positions that each side in the present conflict assumes. Journalists play a role in preserving public discourse, but as individual communicators, they are often attacked and marginalized by accusations of bias. Debate education affords the unique opportunity to encourage students to investigate all sides thoroughly and draw their own conclusions. As debate educators, we must facilitate and protect that process as the best vehicle available to teach deliberation and discourse during the heightened tensions that accompany crisis. If we can teach our students to listen to each other and respond carefully, but not timidly to the events as they unfold, then we can and will have a real impact on their ability to understand and cope with their own emotions. In the process, we can and will also exert a tangible influence on the future of public policy and discourse in America and the world.