September 23, 2019

A community of arguers

Jewish day schools have a curious relationship with speech and debate programs. Argumentation is central to the Jewish tradition and to enduring stereotypes of the Jewish people — two Jews, three opinions — but speech and debate as an extracurricular activity has not been universally embraced across campuses. 

Some Jewish schools, including the high school I attended and now coach for, have strong and growing programs. Others are beginning to enter the field, and still others have been, at best, sporadically involved in the speech and debate world. We may be a community of arguers, but institutional enthusiasm for speech and debate often lags behind that for many other after-school opportunities. 

Why should Jewish schools have robust speech and debate programs? What value do they have for the students who join them and for the schools that support them?

The practical benefits are obvious. Members of speech and debate teams sharpen the skills that we associate with success in the 21st century. They hone their research and writing skills, gathering information on complicated topics and condensing it into concise speeches that any reasonably educated person could understand. They develop their communication skills, delivering arguments or speech scripts or impromptu remarks to judges who evaluate their performances. They work in teams, bouncing ideas off of each other in brainstorming sessions and coordinating with partners for team events. They become ambassadors for their schools and enhance the look of their college application packages. 

But there’s much more to it than that. We live in a demanding and complex world for which speech and debate provides excellent preparation.   

Speech and debate helps train students for the lifelong work of American citizenship: the ability to distinguish between good and bad evidence, recognizing that arguments appearing in reputable publications are not automatically true; appreciation of the many dimensions to a speech or debate topic, resisting the temptation to evaluate it solely with one’s opinions; the capacity to engage in civil discourse, firmly defending one’s position while fully respecting that of the opposing side. A democratic society relies on citizens who possess and use these talents, who participate in contemporary debates without losing their wits in the process. 

Andrew Delbanco, in his 2012 book “College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be,” writes that liberal-arts colleges are “rehearsal spaces for democracy” that promote “inclusive democratic citizenship,” giving undergraduates forums within which to scrutinize popular wisdom and cordially exchange viewpoints. The same can be said of speech and debate programs. Students examine enduring and controversial questions, and articulate their arguments within the structured and intense environment of tournaments. They try to find a balance between conviction and respect, detail and brevity, complexity and clarity. Whatever the outcome of a round, they will develop the character and intellectual traits that permit sustained and substantive involvement in democratic discourse. 

If speech and debate is fundamental to the American story, it is all the more fundamental to the Jewish story. Abraham argues with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, and compels Him to change His test of justice for the cities. When God tells Moses He will destroy the Israelites for worshipping a golden calf, Moses beseeches God to spare them, and He relents. The Sages argue with Rabbi Eliezer over whether Akhnai’s oven is pure and proclaim that interpretive discussions of the Torah should be mediated through human debates, not divine intervention. 

Argumentative exchanges are ubiquitous in foundational Jewish texts and millennia of commentary, and are the process by which we seek truths that contribute to the peace of humanity. We cannot understand Judaism without understanding what Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks calls “argument as a sacred duty.” Jewish students in speech and debate programs embrace this central part of their religious heritage. They understand the power of a strong argument and recognize the obligation to use their argumentative prowess to repair the world. They join a rich intellectual tradition that has produced some of the world’s greatest thinkers and reformers, and that will produce new Jewish heroes in our lifetimes.  

Speech and debate programs are not perfect, nor are they for everyone. They represent one of many extracurricular offerings from which students can choose. But students should at least be able to make that choice. Their schools should at least have a debate club, or a speech elective, or a speech and debate team. Few activities give students such a vast array of professionally useful skills and such meaningful training in American and Jewish life. 

Making speech and debate more widely available on Jewish day school campuses will strengthen students’ educational journeys and the Jewish day school community writ large. And it will prove, perhaps once and for all, that the “two Jews, three opinions” stereotype is a gross understatement.

Danny Hirsch is the assistant speech and debate coach at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills.