By Erwin Chemerinsky
In the film The Great Debaters, inspired by the powerful story of a debate team at a small all-black Texas college, Denzel Washington’s character, professor Melvin B. Tolson, challenges his students to understand that “debate is combat, but your weapons are words.”
Tolson’s message to his class at Wiley College in Marshall is that if they master the use of language, fine-tune their intellect and sharpen their minds, then nothing can stop them, not even the fact that they are black students in the Jim Crow South.
In both the film and real life, this message rang true as members of Wiley’s debate team used their skills to overcome tremendous odds. They defeated a variety of more prestigious universities and produced such accomplished debaters as James Farmer Jr., a 14-year-old prodigy who later created the Congress of Racial Equality.
Washington, the actor, has donated $1 million to revive Wiley College’s debate team and ensure that future students heed Tolson’s message, but a lot of urban public schools are struggling to do the same. They have suffered budget crises over the past few decades, and few have been able to maintain consistent commitments to their debate programs.
Over the years, the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues — a partnership of public schools and private non-profits — has tried to remedy this. Since the late 1990s, more than 37,000 urban public school students have competed in debate leagues in 18 cities.
Research shows that participation in organized debate leagues improves literacy scores by 25% and grade point averages by 8%-10%. And while many urban debaters come from schools where most students do not go to college or receive a high school diploma, almost 100% of urban debaters graduate from high school and more than three-quarters go to college.
My own career is a testament to the benefits of debate. I grew up in a working-class family on the south side of Chicago. Neither of my parents attended college. During my first week of high school in September 1967, I wandered into the initial meeting of the debate team. It captured my interest and for the next eight years, all four years of both high school and college, interscholastic debate was at the center of my education and my life.
Debate taught me skills in analysis, research and public speaking. Debaters spend a year intensively researching a complex topic and developing sophisticated arguments about it.
Debate also teaches invaluable life lessons, perhaps most profoundly about dealing with victory and defeat. Other than my parents, the two people who had the greatest effect on my life were my high school and college debate coaches, Earl Bell and David Zarefsky. Not a day goes by that I do not use the skills and lessons I learned in debate in my teaching, my writing and my advocacy in courts.
The problem, though, is that debate programs require money, for coaches and for attending and organizing tournaments. Financially strapped inner-city schools rarely have been able to provide these resources. For example, in the Chicago area where I grew up, major tournaments often did not have a single team from a Chicago public school. Urban Debate Leagues were created to rectify this.
Hollywood at its best does more than entertain. By telling a story based on real life and with compelling characters, movies can raise awareness on important issues.
I want others to share the experience that Washington’s film movingly portrays. I hope the film can inspire much more support for and participation in high school debate. All students across the country deserve the opportunity to experience the thrill of intellectual activity and the triumph of overcoming adversity through hard work.
Erwin Chemerinsky is the Alston & Bird Professor of Law and Political Science at Duke University.
USA Today, January 31, 2008, Page 11A