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The debate season is winding down. You probably have only one or two tournaments left. As such, now is a good time for retrospection. Perhaps you barely missed your seasonal goals, or perhaps you met or exceeded them. Maybe you are pleased and happy with yourself, or maybe you are facing colossal disappointment.  In any case, it is important to have perspective. And that perspective only comes through an appreciation or reminder of debate’s true value.

Dr. Rod Hewlett at Kochab Human Capital, LLC, reports:

“The National Research Council, in a comprehensive meta-analysis, categorized the key 21st Century skills necessary for personal and organizational success in industry, STEM fields, and education. It should not come as a surprise that the competencies for success in the 21st century include:

  • Cognitive competencies such as critical thinking, problem-solving, decision making, communication, active listening, information literacy, creativity, and innovation.
  • Intra-personal competencies such as intellectual openness, work ethic/conscientiousness, positive self-evaluation and regulation.
  • Interpersonal competencies such as teamwork, collaboration, and leadership” (National Research Council, 2012, pp. 2-12 – 2-14).

There are two types of skills: hard skills and soft skills. Hard skills are specific and technical, and their need changes depending on the situation. Soft skills are general and intangible, and are necessary in every situation. Investopedia says:

“In a 2016 LinkedIn survey, soft skills topped the list of what employers looked for most often among prospective hires. These include:

  • communication
  • organization
  • teamwork
  • punctuality
  • critical thinking

According to Monster.com, oral and written communication skills are the most important soft skills to possess.”

According to Raya Bidshahri writing for Singularity Hub, these are the “7 Critical Skills for the Jobs of the Future”:

  1. Critical Thinking and Problem Solving.
  2. Collaboration Across Networks and Leading by Influence.
  3. Agility and Adaptability.
  4. Initiative and Entrepreneurship.
  5. Effective Oral and Written Communication.
  6. Assessing and Analyzing Information.
  7. Curiosity and Imagination.

Let’s simplify all of this into two main skills: Critical Thinking and Communication.

Critical Thinking

The Foundation for Critical Thinking says, “The word ’’critical’’ derives etymologically from two Greek roots: “kriticos” (meaning discerning judgment) and “kriterion” (meaning standards). Etymologically, then, the word implies the development of “discerning judgment based on standards.”” This is exactly what is done in debate. Debaters use standards to discriminate between ideas. Debate consists of utilizing logic to deduce pros and cons which determines the value of ideas.

Critical thinking inherently involves questioning the majority. “That history allows us to distinguish two contradictory intellectual tendencies: a tendency on the part of the large majority to uncritically accept whatever was presently believed as more or less eternal truth and a conflicting tendency on the part of a small minority — those who thought critically — to systematically question what was commonly accepted and seek, as a result, to establish sounder, more reflective criteria and standards for judging what it does and does not make sense to accept as true.”

As Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Bidshahri writes that: “We spend so much time teaching students how to answer questions that we often neglect to teach them how to ask them. Asking questions—and asking good ones—is a foundation of critical thinking. Before you can solve a problem, you must be able to critically analyze and question what is causing it. This is why critical thinking and problem solving are coupled together. Wagner notes the workforce today is organized very differently than it was a few years ago. What we are seeing are diverse teams working on specific problems, as opposed to specific specialties. Your manager doesn’t have all the answers and solutions—you have to work to find them. Above all, this skill set builds the very foundation of innovation. We have to have the ability to question the status quo and criticize it before we can innovate and prescribe an alternative.”

Business Dictionary defines problem solving as “The process of working through details of a problem to reach a solution.” (And the winner of the most obvious definition goes to….)

Debate involves either discussion of a policy-analysis or exploration of values to see how they “solve” the ontological problems facing humanity.

The American Library Association defines information literacy as the set of abilities requiring individuals to “recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.”

Debate clearly teaches communication skills. You must be able to express your thoughts to others in a manner that is not only understandable, but persuasive. Much of what we do consists of attempts to persuade others to adopt our way of thinking.


Bidshahri continues, “A study by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills showed that about 89 percent of employer respondents report high school graduate entrants as “deficient” in communication.”


Forget about the lack of STEM jobs in America. This inability to communicate, in addition to the inability to think critically, is the biggest problem in the education of my peers today.

“Clear communication isn’t just a matter of proper use of language and grammar. In many ways, communicating clearly is an extension of thinking clearly. Can you present your argument persuasively? Can you inspire others with passion? Can you concisely capture the highlights of what you are trying to say? Can you promote yourself or a product?

Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson has famously said, “Communication is the most important skill any leader can possess.” Like many, he has noted it is a skill that can be learned and consequently used to open many opportunities.”

Further, listening is an underrated skill that debate forces you to cultivate. President Calvin Coolidge once said that “It takes a great man to be a good listener.” He’s right. Listening is essential for any interpersonal communication.

Try to think of another activity that cultivates these skills better than debate. Go ahead; I’ll wait…

I recently attended a talk given by an undergraduate admissions officer who works at a prestigious university. His job is to decide, based on the application, who will get accepted. He said that one of the most important parts of the application is the essay, which allows the applicants to distinguish themselves. This I already knew. But what he said next was incredibly interesting. They don’t really care what I say in the essay. They mostly care how I say it. Specifically, the critical thinking I demonstrate through, say, cause-and-effective analysis, and how I phrase that thinking. They want to see my distinct personality and style come through. I realized I’ve already had extensive experience doing the same thing in debate.

This is why Aristotle labeled “rhetoric” — loosely defined as “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion” — the “subjectless subject.”

So don’t second guess the value of debate. It’s arguably the best activity you can do for education. If you invest well in it, you will reap its rewards for the rest of your life.

P.S. Check out Isaiah’s GIANT list of skills you can learn from debate.

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