Reviving Civil Discourse Through Interscholastic Debate

The Sir Winston Churchill Debate Society Members
During a time of increasing division across our country, including on high school and college campuses, The Sir Winston Churchill Debate Society at The Thacher School in Ojai, California is trying to help students have productive conversations again. Since last year, the debate society has revived an old Thacher debate tradition on campus, hosting regular student-led debates on complex topics with the goal of celebrating civil and engaged political discourse on campus. 

Tonight, the student-run club shared the stage with the debate team from its longstanding rival, Cate. The resolution: “The United States is a force for good in the world.” 

Participation in the debate society is demanding—the club holds to an intense practice schedule in the leadup to on-campus debates—but the team has tried to make debate fun and accessible to everyone and welcomes beginners from all grades across campus to learn the art of debate.

“The debate society is much like the Thacher community: it has been welcoming, challenging, and fun,” noted ninth grader Sylvie T. ‘27 from Los Angeles. Participating in a Thacher debate is an experience every student at the school should have. It requires work, dedication, and collaborating with peers outside of one’s grade or social circle.”

Debate is also growing in popularity at Cate School, and Cate’s captains, Andrew P. 26’ and Naomi C. 26’ , are hoping to create more opportunities for civil discourse at the Carpinteria boarding school. Cate’s debate club, Ewe Speaks, is still in its infancy, but Andrew said that he has big aspirations for the club. He is excited to deepen the partnership with Thacher through the Thacher-Cate debate, and he hopes that the event will help to grow the debate program at their school.

“By building a bridge between the two schools, we aim to foster the growth of debate at Cate, inspired by Thacher's campus-wide enthusiasm for the program,” he said in an email.

The success of the club has not come without its challenges. Debating sensitive topics freely and openly can be difficult, and the club has to strike the right balance between supporting free expression from students and creating a welcoming environment on campus. Thacher’s debate society is hoping to be a model of respectful and inclusive discourse. Dr. Russell Spinney, Chair of the History Department, thinks that the value of debate is that it can help students practice civil disagreement. According to Spinney, debate helps us open our minds to different ways of seeing things.

“There's value in having a chance to debate big ideas or challenges that we face, and that can sometimes help us see different sides to things,” he said.

Ian S. ’26, a 10th grader from Santa Barbara and a member of Ewe Speaks, agrees. 

“Debate equips students with the ability to articulate their ideas and be more open to accepting others,” he observed.

Ian is excited that the rivalry between Thacher and Cate is moving off the sports field into more intellectual terrain.

“I think while we've always focused on the sports rivalry between Thacher and Cate, we can also grow through competing intellectually," he said. 

On April 26th, this battle of minds took place in the Milligan Performing Arts Center at Thacher. The revival of a tradition between these two schools is among us.

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