Hurdles to and Recommendations for Improving Access to Schools Debate

By Team India 2019 • India

The following is an article written by Team India, on their experiences with debate and what it means to them. Team India won the World Schools Debating Championships in 2019, their first victory, after coming in second the previous year.

Debate can change lives. And for us, the five members of Team India 2019, it did. It gave us friendships, people we could relate to, coaches whom we value, and of course, the capacity to think about issues that seemed distant, but affected us more than we realized. In that sense, most of us would agree that it is important both to expand the number of people who have access to debating and ensure that those who join debating do not experience exclusion.

Equity and access are frequently discussed in our community. This is not, however, to say that there aren’t access barriers that are under-discussed —both ones we have faced, and ones which we have had the privilege to not encounter. For the former, we would also like to offer some suggestions to remedy them, and point to things that have significantly improved our experience.

Language

All five of us, to varying degrees, are English-as-a-second-language speakers. Despite being, on average, likely some of the most fluent English speakers in India, it is harder for some of us to watch debate videos, to pronounce our arguments correctly, to be fluent, or even to learn to speak slow enough for an audience. This means that language imposes a more substantial access barrier than it appears to, for those who do not have the English fluency that we do.

Given that, we have one suggestion: at the level of introductory debate education, particularly in countries where English is not the dominant language, it is more important to build core critical thinking skills than to begin with an emphasis on style. Style, we recognize, is integral to the World Schools format:we are merely suggesting a change in when speakers learn to utilize style effectively. This is because it is harder to speak confidently when one struggles with the language in which they are speaking — and it is easier to develop this fluency when one is confident in what they are saying. That is the approach that worked for the five of us. Furthermore, building these critical thinking skills should be language-inclusive — it is possible to teach debating by integrating non-English languages into the curriculum and making the teaching environment as comfortable as possible. This is especially critical at the point of expanding debate access to students for whom it is the most beneficial, for instance, students in Indian public schools, rather than only national teams. 

Social Inclusion

We must remember that debate tournaments are rarely just about debating. For us, the people we have had the privilege of meeting and befriending have been critical to making our debating experiences meaningful. During tournaments, many debaters will inevitably feel self-doubt and acute loneliness (something often accentuated by gender, sexual orientation, cultural differences, and preexisting psychiatric conditions) which have the potential to further damage their ability to debate. As a result of this, social scenes that are accepting and warm are crucial to both debaters’ tournament performances and, more importantly, their mental health. 

It is crucial, thus, to build social spaces that feel inclusive. Some of us have been at debate tournaments where the entire concept of socializing at a “break night party” has seemed alien. For those who are comfortable in such events, we suggest that we remember to use this position to make social spaces as accepting of those who might struggle to navigate them. Some of us have even found sharing smiles with members of other teams helpful to our extent of comfort and sense of belongingness in the debate sphere. Gradual exposure to debating has allowed us to gain the benefits of a caring debate community: this is a process we hope others can experience too.

Expectations

There will always be people one does not expect to see at a debate tournament — but people who nonetheless become world champions. Our team this year had the first fully visually impaired speaker in a WSDC final. To avoid biases against individuals who do not fit our mold of a successful debater, and perhaps, more importantly, ensuring we don’t become complacent towards the questions of widening access, re-examining the kinds of disprivilege we try to accommodate is important. Adjusting the debate community’s expectations accordingly means accommodating for those who do not have the privileges the vast majority of debaters, even the least privileged at WSDC, do — whether in physical ability, education, or background. 

In the end, we want to note this: that the debate community is actually incredibly welcoming. No institution or sport is free from access barriers. However, in our experience, the people who make up competitive debating have consistently been more conscious of these barriers. We are a team that is majority-LGBTQ+, comprising members with physical disabilities and diagnosed mental illnesses. And in the past, Team India — much like so many other teams at the World Schools Debating Championships — has been home to women, people who are genderqueer, and those of different religions and backgrounds. We think that this is evidence of a larger point that is sometimes missed when people point out and try to fix the barriers to access and inclusion that do exist: that high school debate is, in many ways, an inclusive space. And it was for us. For those of us who often struggled with self-esteem and a crippling sense of not belonging anywhere, debating gave us a community that would hear us even when we didn’t ourselves. We felt at home. And we want this home to welcome more people in.

Manya Gupta, Bhavya Shah, Saranya Ravindran, Prithvi Arun and Tejas Subramaniam were members of the 2019 Indian National Debate Team.