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Program Reintroduces Debate To Public Schools As Political Fractures Widen

Florida Civics and Debate Initiative
Students from Orange County Public Schools show off their wins following a past debate tournament (photo taken prior to the Coronavirus pandemic)

The Florida Civics and Debate Initiative is trying to re-introduce the art of debate to public schools. Program Director Beth Eskin recently talked about how speech and debate programs and clubs can bridge political divisions; how the “Debates” seen on TV differ from true academic programs, and what Eskin sees is the longer term benefit—building relationships.

What is Debate?

"It's a formal process, a form of competitive process, [and] students have rules that they have to follow. What students are forced to do is, they are forced to examine issues from multiple perspectives. And they have to argue both sides -- we call it switch sides debate-- where they're forced argue both sides of any issue. Their arguments should be well formulated and supported with actual evidence, not just opinions, and using good reasoning so as they start to explore these different issues, what they learn is that the world isn't just right or wrong, that there are nuances, that these issues are much more complex than just some easy partisan position. And they really gain a better understanding of the complexity of the different issues that we're facing in our world today."

On How TV and Classical Debate Differ

"A lot of people do when they hear about debate, they think, like the presidential debate models. What's really different is oftentimes in those models, what our candidates are doing are just reiterating talking points. They don't really explore that complexity, they really don't engage in any kind of comparative measure as to the benefits or the harms of a proposed policy. In [academic] debate, they [students] have to dig deeper, then our students realize that they're exploring these ideas, that, you know, that's what debate is about understanding ideas, not necessarily identity, and not just hedging themselves into a corner and saying, ‘Okay, this is where I stand because I belong to this group’ or, something of that sort. So it really forces them to understand the nuances and the complexity of those issues, instead of just referring back to the talking point."

On Building Relationships

"I think that at the heart of all education is relationship building. I felt this way for 30 years, you know, how do you motivate students? And how do you really connect with students? And debate is so wonderful in accomplishing both those ends. I think it's great because students will often, especially as they get a little bit older, they'll sit in a class and they'll think about, ‘oh, I'll never use this’. I think back to the old about when Peggy Sue Got Married --that scene where Kathleen Turner comes back into the high school and says, ‘I'll never use algebra. I've never used it in my adult life’. Well, our kids have that attitude oftentimes. And what debate helps them to do is to see those cross-curricular applications. For example, if they're debating whether maybe a pipeline should be built, then they're learning about environmental impacts and economic impacts, sociological impacts of that. So it helps students to see those connections, the real world connections to what they're learning and it enriches their education by making it more meaningful."

The Florida Civics and Debate Initiative is in 60 schools in 29 school districts across the state. Eskin’s goal is to see it in every public school in Florida. For a list of participating schools and districts, go to floridaeducationfoundation.org

Follow @HatterLynn

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

Find complete bio, contact info, and more stories here.