Speech and Debate Programs Belong in Schools

There once existed throughout Arizona, an interscholastic speech and debate program. I know because I was a part of it.

For much of the post World War II era, at least until the mid-1980’s, a number of school districts in Arizona had competitive speech contests comparable to any well developed sports program. This was true in Tucson, Flagstaff, and my own Phoenix Union High School District. High school students grades 9-12 were part of a school team competing in different categories of public speaking. These included oratory, extemporaneous speaking, humor, poetry, dramatic literature readings, and debate.

The teams typically came out of speech class for elective credit, but class was more than class. It was an event, co-ed club, a talent show, as we drove each other to excellence for the next tournament. Oratorical speeches were originally written, 6-8 minutes long, and memorized. Extempt had you drawing straws for speech subjects, using news magazines as sources. Then we’d have 30 minutesthat’s it- to prepare a speech on that subject, with clear beginning and ending, problem and solution, then speak before a judge with only a notecard at best to help. For 5-7 minutes you had to look and sound like you knew it all.

Dramatic readings, humor, and poetry, were the only categories in which you could use a script. Here, voice inflection, making distinctions among characters, and clear command of the material made for enjoyable listening.

There’s no better platform for learning the art of organized, civil disagreement, than in formal debate.

A speech tournament day started early in the morning, about 6 am. All the school teams would arrive at the host school, reviewing rules, checking who’s going to what room, and last minute preparation before the first round. We had three rounds before lunch. Semi-finals after lunch. Finals at the end of the afternoon. Awards to the winners some time after dark. They were long days.

The competition was fierce. Expectations were high. Everyone looked great and carried themselves well. There was no money won from these tournaments. The prizes were trophies, medals, and the pride of knowing you did your best, and maybe you were the best.

There were lessons learned from the contest experience. You could not be an “I don’t know, I don’t care” bubble-head. You were expected to know, and your team demanded you care. Being on time was a given. If you weren’t, well, the rest of us wanted to dunk you in boiling oil. Preparation, memorization, and rehearsal were valued. Confidence gained from persuasive speaking with artful twists of phrase. Bringing something to life for others that you love yourself. Before we’d ever heard of “dress for success” we learned how we looked made an impression on a contest judge. Our teamwork was as good or better than any sports team, cheering each other on to the top even if we’d personally missed the mark.

I live in Yuma, Arizona. I thought about starting a volunteer speech program at my charter school, and checked around to see if we could join a speech program at the three high schools in Yuma. The answer was no. There is no speech competition program in Yuma. That’s a shame.

Who’s to blame? I criticize a larger state and national educational system that puts test taking ahead of developing lives. Local school districts find themselves falling in line, like it or not. We wring our hands on the lack of preparation for the job market and think knowing a little more science or math will make the difference. Where will they learn the discipline of speaking before a small or large group with confidence? Of making a sales pitch? Of making a compelling presentation? It was because of the tournament dress code I learned how to tie a tie. Where I learned to absorb and organize facts and put them to memory in a short time, or write a speech with thoughts compelling enough for others to listen. Where do they go now to learn that? Not in school. Certainly not at a competitive level, which the job market is. Yet, they do memorize combinations of spells and actions from role-playing games. Or recite endless lines of rap lyrics. The potential and ability are there, if only the school system were equipped to channel them.

Kids who will not stop talking, who demand to express themselves, would be perfect candidates for a speech and debate program, or a theatrical drama program. What a healthy, constructive outlet to exercise those impulses. Have the class clown make us laugh and maybe he’ll become a Robin Williams. Give the angry girl a place to vent what troubles her, and maybe she’ll become a Maya Angelou. A sensitive talker could be the next Dr. Phil. The current drumbeat for more math and science has its place. But it should not be the only place. Give speech a chance.