The sport that opens minds

In the last three years, the Princeton High School debate team has grown exponentially. When its current president, Gavin Alcott, was just a freshman, there were approximately 15 members and the team was often disregarded by its competitors. Now, as Alcott enters senior year, there are nearly 100 debaters among the team who have had members make it to Nationals to compete with some of the nation’s best schools.

The key to their success, explained Alcott, was the willingness of students teaching students with an organic approach. Unlike many private schools that provide the debate team with a financial infrastructure similar to that of its football team, PHS has had to work on an individual level to make success a constant.

PHS alumni Ryan Protter and William Meyer were the team’s captains when Alcott first joined.

“They were great leaders,” Alcott said. “They took the team seriously and used their own talents to pave the road for us.”

With passion for debate oozing from their pores and an optimistic future ahead, members discussed just what it is they love about debate.

Sophomore Devansh Chauhan, on the team for one year, said he joined because he wants to be a lawyer.

“We learn to make arguments and learn to speak in a way that helps me in life. My mom often says ‘If you keep arguing with me, I’m going to kick you off debate team…’ But I don’t stop,” Chauhan said light-heartedly.

“I love the team because the people you meet in it. Debate attracts a lot of people who are passionate and smart. It is fun to be able to argue with someone and have intelligent responses,” two-year debater and sophomore Amy Wang said.

Debate Team Congress Captain Nick Pibl, a senior on the team for four years, voiced, “I think the biggest part of debate is its ability to have high school students see both sides of an argument. It prompts open mindedness and allows you to see the pros and cons and not think in black and white. We’ll be able to go off into the real world and tackle any problem from different perspectives.”

Ben Dodge, a junior on the team for three years, agreed with Pibl.

“I originally joined debate with a bunch of friends. But the thing that got me hooked was public forum – political events that you hear about outside of debate, outside of school,” Dodge said. “I learn a lot that I apply to other topics and contribute well to conversation. You’re learning a lot in the way that you want to learn it and becoming more politically aware in the process.”

Both Alcott and Vice President Madi Norman, also going on four years with the team, regarded debate for its ability to encourage critical thinking in a way that is so easily left by the wayside among peers.

“Soon to graduate next year, I can say with certainty that there is no larger contributor to my intellectual development [than debate],” Norman said. “I think this will be true for many of us here. It has forced me to think with a high standard intellectual integrity, stray from dogmatism, and examine rigorously and constantly.”

“I think a lot of high schoolers are content to puppet the opinions of their parents and content to see just the headlines of news articles,” Alcott said. “People so often let their opinions be shaped by what they have around them. Debate forces people to understand that the world is not as simple as they see it in their head. Debate helps people see that when they have to passionately defend both.”

At a debate, there is a coin flip to determine which side the team will have to defend just before the debate begins. Members must always be prepared to fight for the affirmative or negative side and fight first or second.

“The tournaments get very intense,” said Treasurer Taran Krishnan, who is going on four years with the team as a PHS senior. “It is similar to a work environment with a sense of maturity from participants. As seniors, this is great preparation.”

For now, the team is running on the manpower of 100 students led by a think-tank of six officers. Despite their devotedness to debate, they are without a coach and without a stable financial framework to support the expenses required for travel and tournament fees. As they face the new school year, the team is eager to grow even more – gracious to accept any contributions or interest from the community in helping them find a coach.

About Erica Chayes Wida

Erica Chayes Wida is a writer, mom, and complete zealot when it comes to poetry, paella and globe collections. After graduating with a degree in Anthropology from UCLA, Erica moved to Italy where the seasons and old architecture inspired her journey back to the East Coast. Since then, she and her husband have created a nest egg locally and, over time, developed a rather grand love affair with the town of Princeton. Erica is senior editor at The Princeton Sun and enjoys fulfilling her Princeton affections on a daily basis. | View all posts by Erica Chayes Wida