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Editor's Note - Let the debates begin

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By Tom McDonald

Last year I wrote a column about some “great debates” that took place at West Las Vegas High School. Educators Molly Smollett, Mike Ulibarri and Margaret M. Johnson led several students in a series of debates that I had the privilege to attend and help judge.

Well, they’re at it again. West’s student debates are scheduled for this Wednesday and, again, I get to be a judge.

I write this column in advance of the debates — rather than after the fact, as I did last year — because I want to drum up some interest in this educational exercise.

School-based debates used to be a much bigger deal than they are now, and I wonder if some of our national conversations have been dumbed down as a result. Debate teams must go through some rigorous mental exercises — they must set aside their own opinions and prejudgments and be able to reasonably argue both sides of an issue. They must arm themselves with logic and reason, not beliefs, and be prepared to counter others with equally compelling arguments that support the opposite position.

Smollett got her original inspiration to establish the debates at West from the movie “The Great Debaters.” That movie gives you an idea about just how big of a deal — and how positive an event — formal debates once were.

Today, competitive debating continues, but it’s a lost art here in Las Vegas and we really should revive it. Public speaking, the power to persuade and the ability to rationally analyze an issue from all sides are some of the skills that come with debating.

West wants to enter into competitive debating with other schools and, according to Smollett, might be able to pull one off with the United World College soon. But she’d also like to be able to debate a team from Robertson High School.

I’d love to see that too, and I don’t think it would be that difficult to pull off — if the interest is there.

If a debate team got started at Robertson, we’d be just a step away from a citywide debate competition. Robertson needs someone to sponsor the debate team as well as students who are interested in learning how to win an argument. Then, after some in-school debates (like the ones West has been doing for about three years now), Las Vegas could be treated to a competition of intellects — we could call it the Great Las Vegas Debates — between West, RHS and the UWC.

Right now, West has a leg up, since history teachers Ulibarri and Johnson have been leading internal school debates there for three years now. But I think Robertson could catch up pretty fast. In fact, I’m certain that the debate enthusiasts at West would be happy to help organize an RHS debate team and set up some preliminary in-school debates.

I’m willing to throw some of the Optic’s resources behind such an effort — we could sponsor the Great Las Vegas Debates and promote it — to help make such an intellectual competition memorable and fun.

Las Vegas is supportive of and competitive in our sports arenas, as well we should be. It’s not that big a leap to create another form of competition, one that challenges the mental abilities of our young people.

Wednesday’s debate at West is an in-class activity, so for security reasons it’s not open to the public. However, if you’re interested in learning more, contact me and maybe I can get you in. I assure you, it’s something to see.

And for anyone interested in starting up an RHS debate team, to eventually compete with West and maybe UWC, contact me about that as well. I’d like to do more than judge; I’d love to help get something bigger off the ground.

Tom McDonald is editor and publisher of the Optic. He may be reached at 505-425-6796, ext. 237, or tmcdonald@lasvegasoptic.com.