According to data from Renaissance Learning, the average college freshman in the United States reads at a 7th grade level. Statistics like these don’t just appear overnight; this is one part of a larger trend of illiteracy among students in America—not illiteracy in the absolute sense, but a lack of affinity and ability to read well.
Reading isn’t simply the ability to look at text and translate the written words thoughts in one’s head. Reading is about understanding how to interpret all of those words put together. For example, examine these lines from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, “Surely he that made us with such large discourse, / Looking before and after, gave us not / That capability and godlike reason / To fust in us unused.” How is one supposed to gain much from the text if one doesn’t understand the meaning of the word “fust”, or more importantly, who the “he that made us” is referring to?
I once heard a hilarious comedy skit by Brian Regan about the pros and cons of reading. Aside from the gaffs, the point was that there’s nobody who would reasonably take the side of “Reading is bad”. Our world is more educated and more literate than at any point in history, and yet we squander the incredible amounts of information we have access to and don’t take advantage of it.
Just as Sir Philip Sidney once took it upon himself to embark on a “Defence of Poesy”, I will undertake a defense of reading, specifically to highlight the benefits that learning to read better provides for middle/high schoolers who want to improve their debate skills. For those of you who hate reading, the TL;DR is: if you want to become a better debater, read more.
As a clarification before we jump into the reasons for reading, what you choose to read matters. Modern fantasy novels that neither showcase literary talent nor edify the reader are not what I would suggest you spend your time reading, but even reading those would be better than failing to read altogether. In general, the older and more important the text has influenced the development of literature/philosophy/theology/etc. after it, the more you will gain from reading it. It has stood the test of time, so it is probably worth your time.
First, reading makes you a better researcher. Research is one of the most important skills in our modern, information abundant world. Our problem is no longer with a lack of access to information, but too much information to sift through. Research is about finding out what’s important in an article, or on the internet at large, and summarizing the results to utilize it effectively. Reading teaches you how to do just that by increase your textual comprehension speed, which is fundamental to being a skilled researcher.
Second, it helps you become a better critical thinker. Critical thinking is crucial for both argument generation and responses in a debate round. It’s possibly one of the most valuable things one gains from participating in competitive debate. Reading intentionally will exercise your brain by forcing you to interact with and carefully consider the text at hand.
Third, foreign policy analysis and current events start to make more sense. Reading great books and classics gives you a better perspective on the development history, politics, and culture. America was built on the actions of various important people, and most of those people have had a much greater effect on what happens today than anyone alive now. Take for example, Elon Musk and Thomas Jefferson. One wrote the founding documents of our nation, the other is a pioneer in various technological fields. Both are important historical figures, but Musk’s cultural and political significance has yet to be determined/realized fully, whereas the effects of Jefferson’s work can be observed all around us. You’re better off reading the Federalist Papers and the Constitution than almost anything Musk has written (not that Musk is necessarily a bad author, but Jefferson’s work was and will always be far more influential to the development of our country).
Fourth, being well-versed in the great texts will win you credibility points with the judge. This is a less significant point than the others I’ve mentioned, but I think it still deserves some attention. Judges can usually tell when the debater knows what they’re talking about and when they don’t. Sometimes debaters are good as spit balling nonsense and selling it as good analysis, but the best debaters do know what they’re talking about. If you’re able to make an argument about how the fatal flaw in democracy is the tyranny of the majority, and that’s why we checks and balances in government are important, that’s one thing. But to make that same argument, while mentioning that Alexis de Tocqueville’s book Democracy in America is where that comes from, now you have some weight behind your argument. Now it’s not simply disagreeing with a 10th grader, they’re disagreeing with one of the most influential figures in early American history.
In summary, reading books, especially great books, will set you as a debater above your peers both now and in your future endeavors. Don’t let your reading skills atrophy, and you’ll thank yourself later.
Nathanael Morgan is a sophomore at the Saint Constantine College in Houston, Texas. As an accomplished debater with 3 years of competitive experience in Stoa and numerous awards, he enjoys researching and coaching others. He is studying to be a cybersecurity analyst and currently works for a telecommunications company based in Wisconsin.
 Shakespeare, Hamlet (London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2019), 91
I’d thought the whole separation of powers v. majoritarian tyranny bit originally came from Edmund Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” which predated “Democracy in America” by 45 years, but it’s interesting to me that two writers from such different backgrounds came to the same conclusion about unchecked democracy. The advice in this column was really good–I was taken aback this past weekend hearing multiple debaters citing to social contract theory but making it obvious that they’d never read any of the original sources when they couldn’t offer more than superficial explanations in cross-examination. Don’t do that! At a bare minimum, reading “Leviathan,” “The Social Contract,” and “Two Treatises on Government” will help you understand references to contractarianism in the secondary and tertiary sources you’re inevitably using in debates, which often presuppose familiarity with underlying philosophical concepts and don’t go out of their way to explain them.