CBS2 Chicago, February 17, 2021–Unifying America: High School Students Learn Debate Can Help Them Build Skills, Understand Perspectives

With deep divisions across the country, CBS News is embarking Wednesday on a day of stories with the spirit of Unifying America.

The CBS 2 Morning Insiders were eager to participate, including a bit of surprising story.

You’d think debate is all about arguing and disagreement. But as CBS 2’s Lauren Victory discovered, the exchange of ideas is perhaps the best way to Unify America.

It has escalated to the point that Americans called for a mute button. Whether it was Joe Biden vs. Donald Trump in the presidential debate last year, Lori Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle in the Chicago mayoral debate in 2019, or Bruce Rauner and JB Pritzker in the Illinois gubernatorial debate the year before that – not to mention many others – snippy and snarky videos of bickering politicians are what most of think of when we hear the word “debate.”

That is not the case for Asha Noralez or Kourtney Johnson. The junior varsity debate partners thrive on slicing apart a counterargument.

“It just makes debate all the more beautiful,” said Johnson, a high school sophomore. “The clashes – it’s just great. I like it, personally.”

And there’s more to it than winning.

“It helps with your public speaking,” said Noralez, also a high school sophomore.

The students say debate – remote or in person – forces them to become better listeners, critical thinkers, and for first-year debater Ajani Cunningham, more confident.

“I’m a very nervous person” Cunningham said. “I want to become a prosecuting attorney.”

Criminal justice reform is this year’s debate assignment for the 800 participants across Chicago Public Schools. All season, they have researched issues like defunding police and gun control, and must be prepared to advocate for every side of the issue.

Victory asked the students how they reconcile making arguments for positions they do not actually personally believe in.

“I tried to poke as many holes in the argument that I believed in most so I could say, ‘Well, this isn’t right,’” Cunningham said.

“It just helps out your knowledge and it helps you look at the world differently,” Noralez said.

Chicago Debates Executive Director Dr. Toinette Gunn added “That in itself increases diverse thinkers, and we’re all looking for that in the workplace.”

Gunn proudly runs Chicago Debates, the organization shaping those future leaders. The non-profit connects CPS students with famous politicians, trains coaches, and sets up debate tournaments.

“It really does teach a level of respect – respect for, someone is speaking and I allow them to finish their thought before I jump in and say something,” Gunn said.

It is an extra reminder from this extracurricular about the need for healthy debate and civil discourse.