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Introduction to Policy Debate

What is Debate?

Most simplistically, debate is the exchange of arguments.  Each side will advance a number of arguments that are related to a given topic – as spelled out in more detail in a resolution – and then will answer their opponent’s arguments throughout the debate.

The goal of the constant argumentative sparring is to produce an answer to the question of whether or not the plan in particular, should be supported.  The affirmative will advocate supporting the plan and the negative team will argue that the plan should be rejected. At the conclusion of the debate, a judge will decide which side has prevailed based on the arguments made in the debate.

Developing arguments in support, or in opposition to, the plan, requires a number of general steps.

Advocacy.  Advocacy involves making your arguments in a given debate.  You need to present arguments in a way that will convince the other judge to accept them and consequently vote for you.

Inquiry.  Inquiry involves research.  Debaters do research on the resolution under discussion in order to be prepared to present specific knowledge in support of what they are arguing for, and to refute the arguments that are being made by the other side.

Invention.  Invention involves creating arguments and will be necessary if you wish to become a more advanced debater.  During the process of inquiry you will discover arguments that have been made by others, and you will often take the arguments of your opponents and make many of those in your debates. Invention, however, is the next step – creating your own arguments based on your reading.

Synthesis.  Synthesis is being able to organize and combine and package a set of arguments in a way that supports an overall conclusion.  Such a synthesis may involve a recognition that some of your opponent’s arguments may be correct, but that the negative or affirmative position is still overall the one that should be accepted.

Learning the process of inquiry, advocacy, invention, and synthesis will be a challenge.  You will start your debate career simply advocating basic arguments in a debate with other inexperienced students.  The goal of this stage of debate is simply to develop some basic advocacy and refutation skills.

Your participation in basic advocacy will encourage you to develop an inquiring mind because you will want to learn how to defeat your opponents’ arguments.  To defeat stronger and stronger opponents you will need to invent your own arguments and eventually learn to synthesize a combination of arguments.

The main reason that the process of inquiry, advocacy, invention, and synthesis is so challenging is that it is a process of active learning – it is about you creating arguments, figuring out how answer the other sides arguments, and creating a synthesis of arguments. It is really not about simply obtaining knowledge from a teacher and then demonstrating your mastery of the content on a test.  It is a new way of learning – one that you may very well may not be familiar with.

Hopefully you have a teacher or coach who can help you through this process, but even if you do not you will be able to succeed.  Many students without one have done so, but it does require drive and determination.

Why Debate?

Many adults say that debate was one of the most, if not the most, important educational experiences of their lives.  John Sexton, the President of New York University, has noted that, “Admissions could go to the quarter-final round at any of the top debate tournaments in the country and admit the students that were in that quarter final round. … Put simply, the education the folks are getting in debate, if they’re doing it at the highest level, and doing it for the right reasons, is unmatched.”

Studies have shown that debate improves critical thinking skills, enhances reading comprehension, improves note taking skills & research skills, and boosts information management abilities.  Jeff Parcher, former coach of Georgetown University, produced a comprehensive assessment of the available literature. 

Successful people with debate backgrounds can be found everywhere.  Supreme Court justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito both debated.  Thomas debated in college at Georgetown and Alito debated in high school in New Jersey.  Former President Clinton was a high school debater in Arkansas.

Many of my contemporaries from my college debate days in the early 1990s have gone on to quite amazing careers.

Neal Kaytal (Dartmouth 92)  won a ground-breaking Supreme Court case related to the protection of the rights of Guatanamo Bay detainees (Hanand).  He also played a pivotal role in writing the Department of Justice guidelines that prohibit the prosecution of a sitting President by the DOJ.

Neal was a law professor at Georgetown, where he was a colleague of Rebecca Tushnet (Harvard 94), who is now a Harvard law professor.  

Neal was assisted in the case by Tom Goldstein (UNC 92), who has successfully tried a many cases before the Court and teaches Supreme Court litigation at Harvard and Stanford Law schools.  Tom was the first lawyer to specialize in Supreme Court litigation and built his reputation by doing pro bono work in front of the course – taking cases for free from clients who otherwise could not afford attorneys.

Mark Wilson (Dartmouth 95) co-founded Apian Software with his high school debate partner Michael Beckley. Mark and Mike both attribute their business success to their debate experience.

Glen Greenwald (George Washington, 1990) published his first best seller in 2007– How Would a Patriot Act,  Glenn is a former litigator in New York City and successfully started his own constitutional law firm. He also established a famous blog on the internet related to the legality of US government surveillance policy.  Most of the research for Glenn’s book was done by four of his blog readers — an attorney, the president of an information technology company, blogger Dave Johnson, and Dave Harris, “a sophomore at Michigan State University and an assistant coach for Okemos High School’s debate team.”

And you may also associate the name Glenn Greenwald with Edward Snowden. Glenn broke the Edward Snowden story when he was a journalaist for the Guardian. He now runs

His work was the inspiration for the 2016-17 policy debate topic on surveillance and the The Intercept published a story on students debating the topic.

Another contemporary of mine, Colin Kahl (University of Michigan, 1993), was Vice President Joe Biden’s National Security Advisor.  Colin helped negotiate the Iran nuclear deal.

Wake Forest University is the home to one of the strongest college debate programs.  I coached there as a graduate student from 1994 to 1997. Many of the debaters I worked with during that time have gone on to interesting careers.  

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross (97), National Debate Tournament champion, is a graduate of NYU law school and a full-time terrorism consultant and the author of a book on his involvement with inside “radical Islam.”  Daveed now runs his own business that focuses on international security consulting, most recently with an add-in on artificial intelligence.

Daveed’s debate partner, Brian Prestes (97), is a litigator in in Chicago.

John Hughes (96) clerked Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and just argued on behalf of the plaintiff in the affirmative action admissions case against Harvard..  His former debate partner, Adrienne Brovero (95), is the Debate Coach at Mary Washington College.

Paul Skiermont, University of Kentucky (1994) started his own law firm with Paul Derby, a former debater at the University of Redlands.

Debate not only produces, but also attracts, incredibly intelligent and ambitious individuals who are intrigued by the processes of inquiry, advocacy, invention, and synthesis.  If you are reading this text, you have an incredible opportunity to be a part of an amazing peer group that you may not find any place else

Fast-forward my own life 12 years from 1996 to 2008, and I found  myself trying to help my newborn child who was struggling with an undiagnosed medical condition. We had him to many doctors and no one could figure out what was wrong with him, though it was clear something was wrong, as he was nearing a year old and had experienced very little growth, struggling to keep down any non-liquid food that he ate.

After struggling to find solutions, I reached out to a friend of mine, Dr. David Glass, who was then the volunteer Debate Coach at Edgemont High School in New York. Dr. Glass quickly referred me to a leading physician in New York City who he knew as a parent of one of his debaters. Within a week he had him diagnosed, in surgery, and he quickly had a surgical solution to a rare birth defect that affects only 1 in 6,000 children. So, yes, debate can even be life saving.

I hope that debate enhances many academic skills that will serve you well throughout your entire life. Ideally, debate will also give you a bit of a college admissions boost.

But regardless of what academic skills it affords you, I hope you will take advantage of the opportunity to learn and compete with a very special group of peers that will provide you the foundation for life long friendships with some of the most ambitious, caring, an suceessfull people in in the world.

And in the course of developing an incredible skill set and making a lof o greate friends, I hope you will have a lot of fun.  The competition debate provides is a lot of fun, it is exhilarating, and it is something that everyone who participates in it really enjoys. .  

How to Use this Book

It is difficult to write a debate textbook that neatly orders and organizes debate instruction.  All students who use this book receive a different amount of instruction before attending their first tournament, will receive instruction that emphasizes different types of arguments, and will bring their own unique set of skills to the table when preparing.  

With that in mind, there are two things worth emphasizing. First, there is only a very minimum amount of knowledge that you need before you participate in your first tournament. If you understand the material in chapter II, you will at least be able to debate at your first tournament.  Second, the earlier you debate the better. Debate is an active learning process, and you will not begin to see what is involved, or be able to take advantage of most of what is discussed in this book, until you have debated at least once – either in practice or in a tournament. The earlier you are able to debate, the better off you will be because you will be able to understand more of the content of this book if you have debated.  Every debater you speak to will give you that piece of advice.

Third, reread sections of this text as you gain experience in debate.  The more experience you have, the more that what is written here will make sense to you.  

Fourth, complete the review questions. The questions aim to capture the essential issues that are being discussed in the chapters.  Many of the review questions are best answered in a discussion either in your debate class or in conversation with other debaters.