Photos by Marilyn Little
Patrick Henry College
This symbiotic phenomenon evidenced itself once again at PHC’s popular Debate Teen Leadership Camp, which recently wrapped up in mid-July. The camp included two weeks of coaching, road trips, and competition, leaving campers inspired by all they had learned from veteran public speakers Isaiah McPeak (PHC alum), Joanna Griffith (PHC junior), and Tim Edelblut (NCFCA alum), as well as from PHC's Dr. James Tallmon, Professor of Rhetoric and Director of Debate.
McCall Anderson from California entered camp in the Novice track, “knowing nothing,” in her words, but anticipating a rich experience because of an older brother’s recommendation. She found debate camp “fast-paced, but still do-able.” Jack Leetun from Virginia, who competed in the Intermediate track, said he “learned patience in working together with people,” and enjoyed “how the lectures and free time were structured.”
Debate campers at the FDR memorial in D.C.
Tallmon began the camp with classes on theory, including fallacies, figures of speech, and how to reason logically. He and McPeak arranged for some of the advanced debaters to do a pilot study on "moral argumentation," an event they hope to introduce to one of the collegiate debate leagues. Researching John Brown, a violent abolitionist from the late 1850s, the campers discussed the resolution: "Should history view John Brown as he wished to be perceived, as God's instrument for Christ and for liberty?"
"This event is about hammering out a consensus agreement, even while agreeing to disagree," explains Tallmon. "It's not combative, like a typical debate, but is more of a shared inquiry."
In general, camp director and PHC alum Isaiah McPeak scheduled debate camp to meet students at their skill level, dividing them into three levels of ability. By the end of the second week, after days of beautiful weather, hard study, and field trips into DC, campers competed in a full-fledged debate tournament. They donned suits, juggled pieces of evidence, and sweated through intense presentations and cross-examinations until only the most convincing debaters remained standing.
“Debate is constant mental competition,” McPeak says. “You’re learning how to speak.”
McPeak, who is entering his third year as Executive Debate Coach at PHC, has also been running one of the three most successful National Christian Forensics & Communication Association (NCFCA) clubs in the country, teaching at a nearby Christian classical school, starting a family and at least one business, and finishing his undergraduate education at PHC. He is a long-time advocate for teaching all people, and especially Christians, how to communicate ethically and convincingly.
“Debate is the capstone of a liberal arts education,” he says. “You are required to do in-depth research and become an expert on a subject, analyze it truthfully, present it, and then answer objections.”
His Purcellville-based Vector Debate Club fielded six out of the seven teams from Region 9 (Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware, and Maryland) that qualified for NCFCA Nationals in 2009. Only two other clubs across the country accomplished the same feat—and they, says McPeak, were “sister” teams of Vector that have trained with his club on occasion.
Chloe Bozarth from the Vector Debate Club and Isaiah McPeak practice
“You’re forced to know both sides [of a topic],” she continues. “It helps you see the whole complex web of thought processes and fit all world events in their greater context.”
At Ivy Christian Academy, where McPeak is also conducting several weeks of debate camp this summer, he and several of his long-time partners from PHC debate and elsewhere are working with director of academics Byung Kim to develop a program called “Debate Korea.” They eventually want to introduce students in South Korea to the power of focused argumentation in English, a skill not typically emphasized, although everyone in South Korea learns to speak English.
Last year, according to Ivy Christian Academy mom Sophia Hong, the school advertised for a small debate club. This year, they have 30-35 kids, from grades seven to twelve. Hong’s own son is in the eighth grade.
“I’ve never seen him staying up late to research something before!” she laughs.
Meanwhile, as more and more Christians and classical Christian schools begin to realize the power of debate as a learning tool, McPeak and other seasoned competitors are reaching out into the world of distance learning through an organization called Ethos Debate. For five years, McPeak has published an extensive NCFCA sourcebook for a low price. Now he and champion PHC debate alumni Kawika Vellalos and Nathanael Yellis have developed a series of classes for high school students to train them in the essentials of public speaking, persuasive writing, Constitutional law, and business.
“Ultimately,” says McPeak, “debate is about training in deep character and life skills, not about victory. Still—“ and he grins… “—we have a history of teaching victorious debaters.”
Enrollment is open on ethosdebate.com from now until August 15.
Meanwhile, debate campers have returned home or remained on the PHC campus for next week’s Strategic Intelligence camp. Whether, like Anna Weingartner, they hope to become a film producer, or, like McCall Anderson, a criminal defense lawyer, they expect their gained skills of persuasive communication will last them a lifetime.