Debaters from across the country and around the world traveled to Dallas last week for the fourth year of what are known as the Old Parkland debates. The event was held in a new multi-million dollar state-of-the-art “debate-plex.”
A dozen high school debate teams descended on the Old Parkland Hospital. Billionaire Harlan Crow has renovated the site and added something that makes debaters drool - an American colonial-style, state-of-the-art oak debate hall. The goal? Be one of the two best teams to make the final round in this hall.
“This room is magnificent,” said Byron Arthur, coach of the visiting debaters from New Orleans. “I worry that in this age, debate is a forgotten art. A room like this pays homage to the history of debate. It’s a beautiful thing, it’s a civil thing, But yet it’s a very important part of our tradition in the United States.”
A Dallas team is among the competitors. It’s from the Hockaday School, which has a strong debate tradition. Three young women want make it to this grand hall. In order to do that, Hockaday coach Charles Walts says they’ve got to do better than last year.
“We didn’t do well,” Walts says. “It was kind of our first outing into that format and we got worked pretty hard.”
This year’s team has practiced for weeks. They recently gathered in a small room at Hockaday, typing notes on their laptops preparing their arguments.
Kaleigh Beacham, at 15, is the youngest member of the team. She's in the 10th grade. She loves researching tough issues -- she also loves the gamesmanship of debate.
“I like the competition element. It’s really fun to be able to sort of test out your skills and test out your strategy against another person. And I also love to write, so I love writing cases,” Kaleigh says.
Teammate Sahar Massoudian, an 11th grader, also likes the pressure.
“I have seven minutes,” Sahar says. “How much can I get into that seven minutes to make it the most effective thing that’s going to be able to persuade my judge, persuade my opponent, everybody, that I’m right and my opponent is wrong?”
The Hockaday team debated for five hours Friday on five different topics. They knew all subjects in advance. In most debates, they even knew the side they would argue. But not on the last, final round. That was up to a coin toss.
The topic? Whether unilateral military action is justified to minimize nuclear proliferation.
To be ready, Hockaday students, including Emma Deshpande, weighed all sides.
“We kind of set the standard for who is and who isn’t allowed to own these nuclear weapons through a lens of 'American values' and what we see as our democratic principles, which is pretty neo-colonialist because it fails to take into account kind of the relative cultures of those different countries,” Emma says.
The team discussed how to argue the opposing side. Kaleigh was typing her teams’ arguments.
“The opposition part? Should we try to stop nuclear proliferation like doubting whether it would be a bad thing in all cases, like is it a big enough threat to where we should do this anyway?” Kaleigh wonders. “And do we need to stop it in the first place?”
During this final debate Friday, Hockaday won the coin toss and got to pick the side. They chose what may be the tougher route - arguing against unilateral military action.
The team says it likes contrarian views. In this debate, Hockaday may have chosen the steeper climb but also failed to reach the top. Its Canadian competitors won the last debate.
Still, Sahar was pleased with her team’s performance.
“This resolution kind of affects me personally because I’m Iranian,” Sahar says. “So I honestly enjoyed being opposition because I feel like I was able to express views the U.S. may not agree with or the current political sphere doesn’t agree with. I think it’s important to have these discussions, to hear different views.”
Her team did better than last year, but didn’t emerge among the top two. So Hockaday didn’t get to debate in the grand hall. Instead, the team from England defeated the debaters from Argentina.
Hockaday, however, hopes one day to return.