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Debating with depth in Eagle-Vail

Matt Terrell
mterrell@vaildaily.com
Eagle-Vail, CO Colorado
Kristin Anderson/Vail DailyShea Wilson, left, and Brianna Johnson practice debating Wednesday after school in Eagle-Vail's Battle Mountain High School.
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EAGLE-VAIL, Colorado ” The presidential debates are like televised sporting events for members of of the speech team at Battle Mountain High School in Eagle-Vail, Colorado.

Watching John McCain, Barack Obama, Sarah Palin and Joe Biden bloviate on stage, they keep a mental tally sheet as if scoring a boxing match, docking points for shaky arguments while cheering when they land a good one.

The students tally-up the grimaces, sighs and gaffes, sometimes thinking of their own personal quirks while at the podium ” how they play with their sleeves or their tendency to babble. They’ve debated many times themselves, know what it’s like, and especially know what to avoid.



Shea Wilson, a senior, says a Sarah Palin style wink would probably cost her big points at a competition. Wilson herself was once docked points for wearing a pair of converse sneakers with her suit.

“It makes it more fun watching debates, whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, if you can tell when they get a good point,” Wilson said.



These student debaters also see through the theater of it all. It often feels what they do at their school debates are more complete, civil and pure than what they witness on television.

“More or less, it’s a facade of a real debate,” said senior Adam Borne. “They try to make themselves attractive to their base and possible voters.”

Have you ever watched a high school debate? The debates are certainly more structured ” they’re neatly organized into timed segments of arguments, cross examinations and rebuttals, all dedicated to one topic.



Some students work in pairs, debating more topical matters such as should the United States increase use of nuclear energy. Others go it alone in so called “value debates,” one-on-one bouts of reasoning about what’s right and wrong, in the spirit of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

Every contention you make will likely be challenged by your opponent. Sentences are picked apart. The very meaning of words are disputed. Fundamental beliefs are torn apart and reassembled. Every assertion must have a well reasoned response.

The one with the best arguments wins the competition ” instead of who is best able to repeat stale talking points and beat so called “expectations.” It’s a real debate.

At a practice this past week, Wilson and Borne debated a cliche that many people live by: the pen is mightier than the sword.

Wilson argued that power is established by opening people’s minds to different ideas ” Borne asked her though if the “pen” could truly be upheld without the power of the sword. Wilson argued that wars are too often a result of corruption ” Borne argued that wars were more often about cultural differences.

It’s not the sort of conversation that they can make a career out of. But they’re learning how to reason, organize their thoughts and make a case to a skeptical ears. Speech coach Suzanne Foster is trying to teach her students that much of their success in life will depend on their ability to command information.

“No matter what they decide to do post high school, they need to be able to communicate effectively,” Foster said.

The students realize this. Borne said it’s difficult to influence adults at his age, but really, it will be difficult to change minds and influence people at any age. The most you can do is be prepared, be sharp and know how to make your case.

“Having that framework of a debate in mind, it makes your argument more powerful,” Wilson said. “You know how to make a point, and it puts you on the same ground as others when you go to the negotiating table.”

Andreas Calabrese, a new member to the speech team, joined to refine those skills.

“Everyone has a voice, and it’s good to have your voice heard,” Calabrese said.

Later in Wednesday’s practice, Wilson went up against first-time debater Brianna Johnson on this phrase: “When in conflict, honesty is more important than trust.”

Everyone seemed to agree this was a tough one. Wilson argued that honesty, being a building block to trust, is more important. Johnson contended that trust is something bigger altogether than honesty.

Afterwards, everyone in the room gathered in a circle and critiqued their arguments. Sarah Billings, the assistant speech coach, says they both made good points, but were a little dull. What was missing was the human element, a fleshed out, real-life example to connect with the audience.

“People love hearing a story,” Billings said. “I want to hear a story that proved your point.”

Being a debater does require a good deal of empathy. Students are told before every debate what the topic is ” but they’re never told until moments before the debate which side they have to argue.

So, they must be prepared to argue either side and are often forced to be proponents of something they naturally disagree with.

“It requires you to walk in another pair of shoes, Foster said.

Staff Writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 970-748-2955 or mterrell@vaildaily.com.


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