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The Penn Debate Society is improving its national ranking and global stature. Its members also have a message: more people should learn to argue better.


As they searched for the best local cuisine in Cape Town, South Africa, a few students from Penn and other American colleges couldn’t help but launch into a heated argument about social media privacy laws. That was the appetizer to another debate on the effects of artificial intelligence.

“Maybe from the outside, it would look like an aggressive argument and people’s feelings getting hurt,” says Stephanie Wu W’20, president of the Penn Debate Society (PDS). “But because we’re debaters, there was this understanding we were just attacking the idea. It was wonderful.”

“That’s a staple of what it means to socialize with debaters,” adds former PDS president Alexandra Johnson C’19. “You’re debating, or you’re talking about debate.”

Curious glances from fellow diners aside, the Penn Debate Society’s trip to South Africa last winter marked a high point for a group that’s been undergoing a revival. PDS sent three two-person teams to Cape Town for the World Universities Debating Championship—billed as one of the largest annual international student events in the world. One broke into the top 16 and another placed 47th (out of more than 250, from many different countries).

On top of that performance at “Worlds,” Penn was also ranked ninth and 11th nationally the last two years by the American Parliamentary Debate Association (APDA), which sponsors tournaments between US colleges. And since 2015, several individuals, including Johnson, have placed in the top 10 in the country in the “Speaker of the Year” and “Novice of the Year” categories.

“It’s always fun to argue,” says Johnson, who served as the APDA’s president before graduating in May. “And winning never hurts.”

Johnson credits the team’s rise to an increased focus on boosting its online presence, which has helped engage alumni donors to defray travel costs and, in turn, improve recruitment and retention. “Usually we had to sleep on the floor when we went to tournaments,” Johnson says. “That’s not great for convincing freshmen to stick with your team.” On top of those fundraising efforts, Wu also points to structural changes that includes building up a team casebook, instituting regular practices, and planning more events and collaborations, both on and off campus, to raise the group’s profile. PDS, which was founded in 1984, has tripled in size over the last four years.

“They’ve put Penn on the map—on the national debate map—in a way, I think, that’s never happened before,” says former Penn debater Robert Litan W’72, who began giving money to PDS when the group reached out a few years back. Litan is particularly impressed with how “Penn has become an expert” in the British Parliamentary Debate format that’s used at the world championships today. It’s a style of debate, he notes, that is “much less dependent on reading quotes and much more on using your head and thinking fast on your feet” since debaters are given topics only 15 minutes ahead of time. That’s a big difference to the policy debate format Litan grew up with, which involves more research but sometimes leads to “speakers speaking so rapidly that you honestly cannot understand them.” 

Litan is something of a debate expert himself. An economist, attorney, and non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization, he recently visited high schools and middle schools where debate is a part of the curriculum, and the “buzz and excitement with kids is palpable,” he says. He hopes more schools will follow suit—and he’s writing a book to make his case. Tentatively titled Resolved: Debate Can Revolutionize Education and Help Save our Democracy, the book is slated to be released by Brookings next spring.

“Imagine if every kid coming out of high school had debate training,” Litan says. “If you have to debate both sides of an issue, by definition you’re going to develop much more of an understanding of the other side. If we had an electorate full of former debaters … they would be much more open-minded than our current electorate is. That was the motivation for the book.”

Debate has always been an important part of Wu’s life. Growing up in Sydney, Australia, she “really wanted to be Hermione Granger,” so never took much offense when classmates called her a know-it-all. Instead, she honed her arguing skills, particularly with her older brother, while learning when to have a filter. “If I’m disagreeing with you,” she says, “I’m not disagreeing with you as a person; I’m disagreeing with your idea.” Adds Johnson, a Washington, DC native who had an up-close view of the “logical fallacies” and “ad hominem” attacks permeating US political discourse: “Probably the biggest takeaway I’ve had from debate is to be charitable to your opponents.”

For Wu and Johnson, two of the group’s linchpins (Wu takes pride in how many women are integral parts of PDS), trying to spread that message to the rest of the Penn community has been a central goal. In addition to competitive tournaments, PDS has also hosted demonstration debates on campus. One was against Princeton, comparing Penn’s Greek life to Princeton’s eating clubs. Another was a high-profile collaboration with The Economist magazine last fall on the rights of businesses to refuse service. “The event turned out wonderful,” Johnson says. “When I was a freshman, I don’t think our team would have ever done something like that.” One of the group’s regular sparring partners is the Philomathean Society [“Philo Phorever,” Nov|Dec 2013]. “We try to do a mix of demo debates that are fun and more accessible to the audience,” Wu says, “and also some that are more intellectually challenging.”

Still, there are obstacles. Even though competitive debate has a rich history at the University—in the first-ever issue of the Gazette in 1902, then called Old Penn, a page-two headline blared, “Cornell and Virginia to debate with Penn”—the group’s members often feel overlooked or under-appreciated. “I would like for us to not get confused with Penn Speech and Debate,” which is more of a public speaking organization, Johnson says. Penn doesn’t have a coach, unlike Ivy rivals Harvard and Yale. And despite their recent competitive success, Wu says funding from the Student Activities Council can fluctuate year to year, making the group reliant on alumni donations for travel and conference fees (its giving page is givingpages.upenn.edu/PennDebateSociety).

But the value of college debate remains as clear as ever. In the past four years, PDS alumni have gone on to become Rhodes Scholars, gain admission to elite law schools and PhD programs, and work at major companies like McKinsey, BCG, and Facebook. Johnson, who will attend Yale Law School next year after working as a paralegal, credits the quick thinking she learned in debate as a useful skill in job interviews. And she hopes more Penn students will follow in her footsteps. “If we can find a way to open it up to people without previous debate experience and make it seem like a possible home for them,” she says, “I’d love to see the team go in that direction.”

Beyond Penn, with the 2020 election approaching, the group’s members share Litan’s belief that training more students in debate could go a long way toward educating voters on how to detect bad arguments and, Wu notes, “think in shades of gray rather than black and white.”

“With debaters, you hash it out and you dig deep because you know people won’t be offended,” the PDS president says. “Especially in this political climate, promoting that kind of discourse about really difficult topics that might not always be the most palatable is really important.” —DZ

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