Local high school debaters get a taste of UChicago

On a recent visit to the University of Chicago, high school students from the city’s South and West sides learned they already had taken a step toward preparing for the rigorous inquiry for which the University is known—by joining their high school debate teams.

“Debate prepared me for college by teaching me how to express a position clearly and to defend it convincingly,” said Janae Meaders, a fourth-year student at UChicago, in an exchange with the high school students. Meaders had graduated from Morgan Park High School, where she was on the debate team.

The discussion came during a campus visit by more than 100 debate team members from Kenwood Academy, King College Prep, Lindblom Math and Science Academy, Morgan Park and Solorio Academy High School on Nov. 7. They visited to learn about the University and its admission process, meet students and administrators, and take part in a discussion about freedom of expression.

“We’re doing this now, in part, because we’ve been following the presidential election with concern,” said Darren Reisberg, vice president and secretary of the University. “How people, including the candidates, have been talking about the issues and each other has been disconcerting.”

The University, which partnered with the Chicago Debate Commission on the program, has a long tradition of supporting freedom of expression, including an influential report issued by the Committee on Freedom of Expression last year. David Clark, assistant vice president of campus life and associate dean in the College, said with the ongoing conversation on freedom of expression this fall, it made sense to discuss the topic during the visit.

“We want you to know that we don’t limit speech or cancel controversial speakers here,” Clark said. “Here we believe that the richest ideas often come out of conflicting opinions. We also believe that the best ideas will win.”

The students, all of them debaters who are used to constructing and deconstructing arguments, could relate to the discussion. They participate in the Chicago Debate League, administered by the Chicago Debate Commission in partnership with Chicago Public Schools. With more than 1,200 members, the league is the largest urban debate league in the United States.

Prior to the UChicago visit, the students had been to university campuses to participate in debates, but rarely for a tour or program, said Edie Canter, executive director of the Chicago Debate Commission.

“It was a great way for the University of Chicago to reach out to neighborhood schools, and the experience will empower these high school students by helping them to envision themselves as college students, here or somewhere else,” Canter said.

To help the high schoolers envision the transition to college, they heard from four UChicago students who talked about how they adapted to college and how debate helped them prepare. All of the UChicago students who participated debated in high school, and some have been members of the Chicago Debate Society, the University’s debate team.

Sean Lee, a fourth-year student, said debating helped him “learn how to gather and synthesize information.” But while at UChicago, he also has come to understand the differences between being on the debate stage and in the classroom.

“The goal of a debate is to win rounds and trophies, but a college class is more about understanding other perspectives,” Lee said. “In class, sometimes I just sit back and listen.”