Communication Conundrum

Can high school students revitalize the art of communication and public discourse?

By Elena Auclair


Preparing for the last debate round of the day | Photo by Elena Auclair

It’s a Friday morning inside the Washington, D.C. beltway, and the halls echo with phrases like, “Please join my partner and me as we affirm that The United States federal government should substantially reform its agriculture and/or food safety policy in the United States. Observation One: Inherency….” This is legalese; but this isn’t Capitol Hill, it’s Capital Baptist Church. And the people debating this topic aren’t Congressmen and women, they’re teenagers. In their world, phrases like this one make sense. But outside these halls, it just draws a confused look, and a slow edging away from that kid in a suit.

These high schoolers represent something that is declining in society today: ethos, pathos, and logos. Character, emotion, and logic. In this age of prolific social media communication, one where 81% of millennials check Twitter at least once a day, according to Pew Research Center, teens are immersed in sound bites and blurbs.

By contrast, speech and debate students rely on these three Greek words as a plan of attack to win a debate round, get to finals in speech, or succeed in college and life. Normal high schoolers, college kids, or even some adults might consider it unusual, and even nerdy that a 9th grader would choose to invest time in learning how to speak and debate. What do they hope to achieve?

As an alumnus of speech and debate, Bentleigh Bogacki who is now going into her freshman year of college defined debate and her experience in it as a “search for truth.” She said that in the real world, and in our governments, it should be a search for truth, “a search for the best thing, the best option, the best choice.” Bogacki was very earnest about this, perfectly displaying the first thing every speech and debater tries to learn, or be: ethos. The Greek word for character, this is what makes an audience disposed to listen to the speaker. Aristotle taught three modes of persuasion in his book, Rhetoric, and what he said of ethos, character, was that it was the first kind, the one that “depends on the personal character of the speaker.”

Gabrielle Bernescud is in 9th grade, and has never done speech and debate. While she was speaking, she gave a unique perspective of someone who has never done debate but would be interested, and the reason she gave was that, “What interested me [about debate] was arguing with people with beliefs.” While talking, Bernescud displayed, one at a time, the three things that contribute to ethos: good sense, good moral character, and goodwill. What she wanted to learn from speech and debate was, “The ability to defend arguments and ideas, to find flaws in other people’s arguments, and to try and convince them of my side.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.” Debate aims to do exactly that, teaching its students to think critically about all subjects, and building their ethos, character, with the audience they speak to. Whereas in social media, people can fire off 140-character tweets at any hour of the day and night, debate trains its followers to think before speaking.

But seemingly contrary to that, speech and debate alumnus Sofia de la Peña, who is currently in college at NoVA doing speech and debate said that, “In college, being called on in class you can sound smart, without knowing much about the topic.” On the surface, it might seem like all that speech and debate taught her was how to fake it. This is the other side of debate, the one that teaches people how to argue a point they don’t believe in. It could be called “faking it,” but by faking it, she learned the deeper skill of being confident, and passionate in an issue, even in the ones she wasn’t personally invested.

Sarah Umhau, another high school speech and debate alumnus who is going into college hoping to do filmmaking and acting, explained that her experience with debate boosted her confidence in public speaking. Reserved and soft-spoken, she said that at first, “I thought that debate looked very difficult and professional, and that you had to know everything that you were talking about—which isn’t true, you don’t have to know anything at all, you just have to know how to think, basically.” Just like de la Peña, she learned how poise, even when she wasn’t feeling it, helped her to think clearly and connect with the issue and the audience. Her advice to people who are nervous about speaking was, “When you’re stressed, just calm down, time isn’t passing as fast as you think. Just take a breath, and start talking, and it’s okay if you don’t know what you’re saying.” In other words, Keep Calm and Speech On.

What both de la Peña and Umhau are saying is that poise and passion can take you anywhere. In the speech and debate world, poise and passion would be filed under the Greek word “pathos,” since they deal with how a speaker connects with the audience and keeps them captivated. This emotional influence of the speaker on the audience is the second of the three modes of persuasion taught by Aristotle, and in his book Rhetoric, he says that it is “putting the audience into a certain frame of mind.”

“In speech, even though you’re the one talking, strategically, speaking is all about the audience, they’re the ones that can hear you. But the only way to get to them is through yourself.”

In the dictionary, it says that words like “sympathy” and “empathy” are derived from that Greek word “pathos.” In society today, how often are people sympathetic online? The speaker’s presentation of themselves is very important especially in offline interactions. Thomas Ray, a sophomore in high school who is currently doing speech and debate said that, “In speech, even though you’re the one talking, strategically, speaking is all about the audience, they’re the ones that can hear you. But the only way to get to them is through yourself.”

Getting a message across relies on whether or not the speaker can connect with them, and this is a skill that can be useful in many fields. Billy Escobar, a 10th grader at Annandale High School is someone who has never thought about speech and debate, and never wants to do it. He said that he might consider doing it to help him with his music career, and that, “I think that as a musical artist, I can put a message out there, in like, a song. A good choice of words.” In all these different people’s experience, pathos, poise, and passion are a pivotal part of their way of showcasing themselves. Escobar, applying the perspective of someone who doesn’t want to do the sport of speech and debate, still says that how he presents his choice of songs and words can connect him with the audience, as the second mode of persuasion, pathos, teaches.

Nicolette DeFrank is former speech and debater who has been debating since she was 12. Now in college where she can study abroad at Oxford, she believes that the value of debate was that it, “Number one, heavily relies on logic, and knowledge of the Constitution. On knowledge of how the system works. And number two, it relies on evidence. How things are affected.” Although logic may be number three in the list of Aristotle’s three modes of persuasion, the other two modes, character and emotion, rely on the third, “on the proof, or apparent proof, provided by the words of the speech itself.” Logos, or logic is what makes debate understandable. Ethos makes the audience listen to the speaker, pathos keeps them connected, and logos makes sense—literally.

The speech and debate alumni all mentioned that they thought there needs to be more debate in the world, but only if it was a real debate, not an emotional appeal. De la Peña explained that, “Right now, debate is more of ‘Let me be right, so I can satisfy my emotional appeal, instead of finding out the truth.’” finishing up with the decisive statement of “The world needs more good argumentation.”

Cole Thompson, an alumnus of three years of debate and now in his college’s politics club said that what kept him in debate was whenever he got into an actual round. He said that he loved the logical aspects of it, and compared it to a game of chess, where “strategically, you had to think about what the judges wanted, what your opponents were going to say ahead of time, and find ways to counter that.” Thompson said that debate was a battle of wits, where debaters fight with their minds.

It turns out that people do that a lot when they’re in college and in a job, and Alexis Ramerth, who’s thinking about doing debate said that she’d do it just for the “Life skills… in college, I’ll be able to explain an equation or a phenomenon. I’ll need these skills in the future, so I’ll just learn the skills now, and perfect it.”

These debaters represent that special something that is declining in society today, something that gets flooded in 140-character packets at a time. They demonstrated the skills of ethos, pathos, and logos during their time in high school speech and debate, and now in college and their careers. Many high schoolers and college kids may not have these skills, but there are those in the world of speech and debate that do.

And so debaters all bring something distinctive to the table: their own special spin on the three modes of persuasion. Everybody might have learned to speak when they were three, and learned to argue later on, but as Jessica Creech, who did speech and debate throughout high school said, “Regardless where a person feels their abilities or circumstances are, everybody should have a little of that speech and debate experience.”


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