Ky. Voices: Debate is great equalizer, make it accessible to all

National College Debate Tournament winners Ouita Papka Michel, right, and David Brownell, left, with their trophy in 1986.
National College Debate Tournament winners Ouita Papka Michel, right, and David Brownell, left, with their trophy in 1986.

Between the applause for our Final Four basketball players of March and the cheers for a Derby winner in May, it's worth a shout out in late April to welcome some of America's brightest high school students to a speech competition at the University of Kentucky.

Yes, "speech," "oratory," the skillful use of words for or against a proposal — by sharp school kids practicing an intellectual exercise called rhetoric and honored since the classical age of Greece and Rome.

This is not the ravings of Rush, Bill and Rachel on the public airways. It is young people advocating, with elegantly crafted reasons, for and against issues of concern to our nation, urging choices with consequences far beyond a three-pointer just before the game buzzer in New Orleans.

Beginning Saturday and lasting through Monday on the campus in Lexington — home of statesman Henry Clay, the country's greatest orator of the 19th Century — 468 students from 171 high schools in 30 states are talking their way to victory or defeat in The Tournament of Champions (TOC).

This is the premier championship event for high school debaters who have already competed successfully in a national circuit of grueling weekly meets throughout the school year. To become eligible, they received at least two "bids," recognition for winning speaker points at tough venues like Emory, Wake Forest and Harvard universities.

Now in its 41th year, the TOC was developed by J.W. Patterson, UK's now retired legendary director of debate. He then coached a college team captained by Ouita Papka Michel to a national championship in 1986, defeating Georgetown University in the finals after Dartmouth and Harvard were eliminated.

Turning down a career in law or government, the path followed by many whiz debaters, Michel, then 20, studied culinary science and became the acclaimed chef-proprietor with her husband Chris at Midway's Holly Hill Inn.

With Michel's win, UK had become the most successful public university in the history of college speech competition. On the high school level, Patterson, still serving as an adviser to a new generation of professors in UK's College of Communications, expanded the TOC to include four categories of debate. The most intellectually challenging, called "policy," features student stars whose rapid-fire delivery called "spreading" would likely be unintelligible to the great debaters of history such as Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.

(Speed speaking is so hard for a lay person to understand that Daniel Webster might be appalled, but it is supposedly richer in content and, for good or bad, is the norm in policy debate.)

Unfortunately, no Kentucky high school has won a bid to the TOC this year, and no Lexington school since the mid -1990's.

In national policy debate, the costs of travel and summer institutes is a bar to all but elite public and private schools. However, in a bid to interest younger students in the benefits of tournaments that are more accessible, UK has won back the management of the Kentucky High School Speech League after a 25-year absence.

A total of 900 kids competed in those tournaments last month, a 10 percent increase over 2011.

Andrea Reed, director of debate at UK, and William Cooper, director of KHSSL, are seeking outside funds to hire coaches and organize leagues for low income urban kids. They recognize that competitive debate is one of the great equalizers of educational opportunity.

Urban debate leagues help ensure kids in the inner city get the same exposure to academic rigor as teens in wealthy suburban schools.

Any kind of debate experience makes it cool to be smart. Debate challenges the competitive instincts of teenagers; discourages dropping out; raises graduation rates, ACT and SAT scores; and boosts college readiness. It makes school more engaging, gives kids an exciting reason to come to classes.

This was the theme of Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a recent speech stressing that debate has "the power to change the trajectory of a young person's life."

In the early days of the republic, says Kentucky state historian James Klotter, oratorical skills were "the way for a poor youth like Henry Clay to become famous overnight."

With today's rising costs of college tuition, a Kentucky scandal, "arguably," few low-income teenagers can be an Anthony Davis. But all of them can talk, and those who have learned to think before they speak may find college available, and that success awaits them in the knowledge economy.