When talking about the many benefits of debate programs, most educators, students, and parents think of developing oral communication skills such as public speaking. They immediately conjure up images of Martin Luther King delivering his famous “I Have a Dream” speech or one of President Barack Obama’s speeches on the campaign trail.

Though debate programs definitely help develop public speaking skills, they also expand ability in two areas that are very important and often overlooked — understanding current events and developing leadership skills. Following is an example that illustrates this point.

Last October, just before the general election, APEX College Prep held an open house and invited students and their parents. During the gathering, debate teachers asked the audience how many of them were familiar with Proposition 2. A few hands went up, including several middle school students who are enrolled the debate class. One eighth grader explained that it is a ballot measure about treating farm animals humanely. (Incidentally, the proposition passed in November.)

When asked about Proposition 1, even fewer hands went up and another eighth grade debate student explained it concerned a high speed rail system between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Many parents were not familiar with it and none of the students other than the debate class students knew what it involved.

Propositions and ballot measures are important issues we all need to know. Most young people these days neither read newspapers nor watch news broadcasts on television. They get their news, if any, from their parents, friends, or the internet, all of which can be twisted or biased. Debate programs enable students to receive news from unbiased sources so that they can research, analyze, and draw their own conclusions based on facts. They develop the ability to think and make sound decisions, one of the qualities that leaders of our society are asked to use every day.

When leaders in politics, business and various professions were surveyed, 100 of 160 had debated, and 90 of 100 believed that their debate experience had been extremely valuable in their careers (Klopf, p7). William Jefferson Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton, John F, Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt are a few leaders who participated in debate programs at their schools.

Debate programs empower students to learn among their peers, grow, and become experts in their fields. In such programs, students become familiar with current events, research, analyze, organize and present arguments in a logical and succinct manner. Senator Edmund Muskie, former Democratic candidate for Vice President and Secretary of State under President Jimmy Carter, said, “The development of leadership in a democratic society has a very direct relationship to the art of debate. One becomes a leader by molding public opinion to support a given course of action, not by dictating such an action. This involves the ability to pinpoint the critical issues of the day, and the willingness to apply oneself to the task of research in order to assemble all considerations bearing upon those issues. It requires the ability to apply logic, rather than emotion and prejudice, to the assembled data, the courage to accept the decisions thus indicated, and the ability to present the opinions thus developed in such ways as to persuade others to a like point of view (Hunt, 13).”

At APEX College Prep, some of the topics students have debated recently are: Should we drill for oil in ANWR? Should the US adopt the Universal Health care system? Should the US close Guantanamo Bay detention facility?

Julie Yi is director of Apex College Prep with locations in Walnut Creek and Cupertino, Calif. She may be reached at julie@apexcollegeprep.com.