I developed an acute sense of guilt in my second year coaching the Punahou School Lincoln-Douglas debate team.

I remembered the measly speech and debate program of my alma mater Roosevelt where five students were coached by a single dedicated teacher. Meanwhile, Punahou boasted five paid coaches and more than sixty participants.

While my work was personally and professionally rewarding, I felt as if I was placing my abilities at the service of privilege, maintaining an advantage my students already enjoyed.

Punahou Gate

Private schools like Punahou offer extensive coaching in speech and debate that is rarein Hawaii’s public schools.

In the wake of No Child Left Behind, many public school speech and debate programs were discontinued amid efforts to improve test scores. While the perverse incentives created by No Child are beginning to be recognized and addressed, these programs have not yet experienced a resurgence. For schools that never had them, these programs remain unconsidered due to other, more pressing concerns.

The absence of speech and debate programs weakens the public school as a civic institution and threatens our democracy by depriving students of the opportunity to develop the skills necessary for meaningful civic engagement. I believe debate is particularly vital, as it prepares students for the dual demands of citizenship in our democracy: weighing the competing claims of various political actors and being able to articulate and defend their own interests.

The critical theorist Henry Giroux once said that debate “embodied what a critical public sphere meant… working class kids, no less, debating major issues and getting so excited.” He suggested that, “every working class urban school in this country should put its resources, as much as possible, into a debate team.”

In my two years at Punahou, I coached a young woman to two consecutive state championships, and a freshman to a novice championship. In that time, two uncoached debaters from Roosevelt were summarily crushed in competition.

In her book, No Citizen Left Behind, Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Dr. Meira Levinson made a similar point by advocating that “schools need to teach young people knowledge and skills to upend and reshape power relationships directly, through public, political, and civic action, not just private self-improvement.”

Public speaking, argumentation and critical thinking all prepare students for meaningful civic engagement. Even more important for democracy, debate teaches students how to listen analytically and disagree respectfully.

To counter and disrupt a history of decisions made for, and not by, the people of Hawaii, education must provide the tools necessary for civic engagement and self-determination.

Hawaii, more than a century removed from the overthrow of monarchy, is still an island chain struggling against and contending with foreign influence. Nineteenth and 20th century domination by agricultural interests has been replaced with military and tourist claims. Both the land and ocean are choked by unsustainable development and pollution. Indigenous peoples are squeezed off the aina and into homeless shelters and prisons.

As a debate coach, I helped my students think critically about a range of issues, supplementing their study of argumentation with an understanding of history, moral philosophy and political science. I witnessed my students’ apathy transform into enthusiasm for following current events and seeking an informed position on myriad social issues.

In my two years at Punahou, I coached a young woman to two consecutive state championships, and a freshman to a novice championship. In that time, two uncoached debaters from Roosevelt were summarily crushed in competition.

This result was not unanticipated in a debate league dominated by private schools. There are more than 40 public high schools in Hawaii, but in 2013, only five out of 20 schools in the Hawaii Speech League were public. Furthermore, all six state debate championship categories were won by private school students.

In Hawaii, the opportunity afforded these private school students is unquestioned. Ninety-seven percent of Punahou graduates enroll in four-year colleges — nearly four times the public school average.

I see this promise in the debaters I coached, and I believe all our public school students should have these same opportunities.

These are the students who receive the preparation for engaged citizenship that is provided by debate programs. Meanwhile, an overwhelming majority of public school students lack access to any speech and debate program. This inequitable distribution of civic resources contributes to the prevailing political climate in which civic discourse is increasingly dominated by a privileged elite.

This need not continue.

We improve the quality of civic discourse when we democratize debate. As the analytical and argumentative benefits of debate accrue to students, especially those traditionally denied these developmental opportunities, we strengthen our schools as civic institutions.

This strength ripples and reinvigorates our democracy. Young debaters become community organizers and activists. They make informed electoral decisions, advocate for issues important to them and even run for office.

I see this promise in the debaters I coached, and I believe all our public school students should have these same opportunities. Speech and debate programs are not expensive or difficult to start or maintain. All they require are supportive school administrations, rooms for practice and dedicated coaching staff.

Law and university students are excellent candidates for coaching positions, so we avoid placing increased burdens on already strained public school teachers. I believe that many would gladly volunteer their time to mentor the youth; however, offering pay as an incentive is not beyond reason.

High school athletics cost Hawaii more than $11 million a year, and a statewide speech and debate program could be funded for far less than that, servicing many and providing benefits not only for the personal development of individual students, but for our civil society writ large.

About the Author

  • Sterling Higa
    Sterling was raised in Nuuanu. He graduated from Roosevelt High School and later earned a master’s degree in education from Harvard University. Sterling now works as a debate coach and lecturer at Hawaii Pacific University. By candlelight, he is finishing his Ph.D. in education at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.