Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Making Speech & Debate a Priority at George Mason

By Beth Smith

If I could collect a dollar for every time I’ve heard that phrase uttered by a George Mason High School parent, I would be a rich woman. So…to what am I referring? Until two years ago, George Mason did not have a speech and debate team. That is correct. George Mason High School, a stellar IB school, did not have a speech and debate team until the winter of 2013. When most George Mason parents or interested Falls Church citizens hear this, they are, to be honest, shocked. Speech and debate are most often activities associated with high-performing schools, like George Mason. The skills learned during speech and debate are skills that prepare students for college and life: the ability to form and present logical arguments, the ability to research complex topics and the ability to speak in front of peers and adults with ease…skills that benefit all students long after they leave the halls of high school.

Research has shown that students who participate in speech and debate excel in many areas over their counterparts. For instance, debate requires participants to read and understand high-level research. Students who participate in debate are not only better able to read and understand this complex type of information but also to do so with a critical eye. Debaters learn early on to evaluate the validity of their sources. In addition, students who participate in speech and debate are much more aware of local, state, national and world events. This makes them “informed citizens” who are also often actively engaged in their communities.

Finally, students involved in speech and debate are poised to be become the leaders of the future. Their vast knowledge of the world around them combined with their ability to speak persuasively to a wide audience prepares them well for the challenges of leadership in many different areas. It is also true that those students who participate in speech and debate often have higher GPAs, test scores and more “attractive” college applications than their counterparts. However these are not the real goals of speech and debate. Instead, the main goal is to prepare students to be thoughtful, well-spoken citizens and leaders of our world. I would argue – as I think most citizens would – that this is a very worthy goal indeed.

If Falls Church is truly a school system that values the future success of our students, then we should put “our money where our mouth is” and support the growing speech and debate team at Mason. In many schools, speech and debate is an elective class where the teacher also serves as the debate coach, with extra pay for those duties. Just this year a very small amount of money was allocated to the team’s coach in the form of an extra pay for extra duty supplement. However, given the time needed to build and support a competitive debate team, it is not nearly enough. Speech and debate falls under the Virginia High School League. It is considered by the state to be a sport. Instead of being a sport in the traditional sense, it is a sport of the mind. Debaters spend hours and hours researching, building contentions and then competing in tournaments that last 12 hours or more. The season also lasts from September until at least April. No other sports season lasts that long. To that end, the team should be supported just like any other team.

I would urge our school board members as well as Superintendent Toni Jones to attend an upcoming speech and debate tournament. Walking into a cafeteria on a Saturday morning at 7:30 a.m. to sea of black suits and ties is truly inspiring. Hearing debaters argue whether reparations should be given to African Americans or whether the benefits of GMOs outweigh the risks, is eye-opening and will quickly make anyone see why speech and debate should not only be supported financially but also be considered a necessary part of any competitive high school curriculum…especially a demanding curriculum like the one at George Mason.

As we look at building a new high school and spending millions of dollars on facilities, it is important to consider what happens within those walls as part of a much bigger picture. Making speech and debate a priority for George Mason shows that our school system values the students who would rather argue the pluses and minuses of the global warming issue as much as it values those who play traditional sports such as football and baseball. In doing so, the school system recognizes and celebrates the diversity of learners who attend George Mason In addition, by integrating speech and debate into the curriculum at George Mason as an elective, we open the door so all students have the opportunity to learn the skills they need not only to be successful at Mason but in college and beyond.