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Impacts of Debate: Critical Thinking

As part of our series featuring case studies for individuals that have been strongly impacted by debate, RuDI interviewed a member of a collegiate debate team. He has chosen to remain anonymous for the purposes of this interview and will be referred to by the pseudonym Ryan.

Ryan has participated in high school and collegiate debate for six years now. He is currently a member of his college’s debate team, having won several accolades and awards through his career on the debate competition circuit. Ryan aims to attend law school after his undergraduate experience.

For him, debate has been an incredible help in his personal and professional career development, providing him with invaluable skills that he feels that he couldn’t have gotten otherwise.

How Debate Opens Up The Mind

In his interview, Ryan argued that a key benefit for him from debate was the ability to engage with a wide variety of arguments, even those that he didn’t necessarily agree with. Many times on the competitive circuit, he had to evaluate and argue for viewpoints that he didn’t necessarily believe in, or attack arguments that he was personally in favor of. By doing so, he was able to understand any potential flaws in his own reasoning as well in the reasoning of others.

 “Debate definitely helped me expand my own worldview and critically think about things I vehemently disagreed with: this allowed me to strengthen my own perspective, and gain some empathy for others that disagreed with my own viewpoints.” Before doing debate, Ryan felt that he held very strong convictions for the wrong reasons. Many times, when it came to ideological differences or political opinions he had, he would refuse to even entertain the other side, remaining steadfast in his own beliefs. 

But doing debate helped him remove that mental block in his mistaken convictions, and now it’s second nature to him to fully evaluate ideological or personal beliefs that he is in stark disagreement with.

“I feel much more informed and willing to empathize with those I disagree with. When I do change my mind, I do it for the right reasons.” 

Although many people are led away from the activity for this reason, he argued for the benefits of continuing on with debate. “Some people don’t like having to confront the legitimacy of others’ beliefs, or interrogating their own beliefs so deeply. But if you can do that, you come out of the experience much more confident in your reasoning. I feel much more secure about my beliefs, and consider them much more well thought-out.”

It’s easy, especially in the digital age we now live in, to become trapped in a complete ideological bubble. Our social media feeds and our day to day lives are now so intensely filtered by ideology, and as a result it can sometimes be incredibly difficult to engage with ideologically distinct viewpoints. Our algorithms and our new lives in the digital age make it very hard to come across things we may not like, especially content that we disagree with.

“I wasn’t getting a lot of exposure to things I disagreed with. When that kind of thing shows up on your social media feed or the Internet, you can just ignore it, but that’s not always the healthiest thing to do for your own intellectual growth. Debate, in a way, forces everyone to take that leap and engage with the material, which is an opportunity you don’t get often in day to day life.”

Debate and Understanding the World Around You

Furthermore, he argued that debate can provide someone with a very deep and intricate understanding of the world around them. “There’s a rare number of activities that properly allow you to do that.” He described debate competitions as featuring an incredibly wide range of topics. By competing in the collegiate circuit, he was able to gain knowledge and understand critical viewpoints of topics that he was unfamiliar with. 

But more importantly, his debate experience also allowed him to form a mental template on how to approach new topics he’s never seen before, both inside and outside of the competitive circuit. Anytime he’s faced with a new topic or idea he’s unfamiliar with, he utilizes his previous debate experience to methodically understand the facts regarding the situation and form a well-supported belief. This further allows him the capability to argue for and against these foreign viewpoints and ideas, as well as explain them to others easily.

Debate provided him with a framework of sorts to understand new ideas easily, as well as the entire world around him. Before doing debate, he felt that learning about new ideas and arguments could feel overwhelming. But now, with his debate experience and practice, he feels properly equipped to understand the world around him.

“Everyone that I ended up doing debate with feels the same way. We now have a methodical, constant framework through which we can evaluate new arguments and ideas. Doing debate and practicing regularly provides you with a specific way of looking at things which I’ve found invaluable."

"As long as you’re putting in effort and regularly practicing and preparing arguments, you’ll come to find that evaluating new ideas and arguments starts to become second nature.”

Ryan believes that anyone who puts in the effort and regularly practices will start to see this effect, and thinks that it’s a key benefit that will help anybody throughout their life. “I know this benefit specifically has made me a better person, student, employee in the workplace, and citizen.”


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