When Emily Choi ’17 and Alecia Mund ’17 arrived at Blair as freshmen three years ago, they were eager to get involved in the community. Both girls joined the debate club freshman year to try something new, unaware that they would not only fall in love with public speaking, but also become the leaders ushering in Blair’s most extensive debate season to date.
To kick off a busy season of competitions, Emily, Alecia and their teammates—Irene Choi '18 and Daisy Kahn '19— presented a live public forum debate at the Society of Skeptics on November 1. The special Skeptics event gave the Blair community a unique opportunity to see the School’s debate team in action while they tackle an issue that has taken center stage during the current presidential campaigns: immigration reform. To watch a video of the Skeptics event, click "play" below.
Although the debate season officially begins in mid-November, the two teams of two have been researching the topic—“Immigration reform should include a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States”—by preparing speeches, holding mock debates and giving constructive criticism during regular team meetings since the start of the school year. They also traveled to New York City on October 26 for an Intelligence Squared debate on immigration, from which the students gleaned even more information to back their arguments.
Along with being well-versed in the topic at hand, the debaters must also be able take a stance that is not always aligned with their own opinions, another skill the team practices when preparing to debate, added coach Micki Kaplan McMillan.
“Debaters are like actors,” said the English and performing arts teacher, who also oversees Blair’s public speaking initiative. “Students have to research and study both sides of the topic, then be able to accurately execute whatever role they are given on the day of the debate.”
For Tuesday’s Skeptics event, Emily, who serves as the team's president, noted that she will argue against immigration reform, though as evidenced by her recent summer work with a nonprofit to support immigrant families and plans to study related topics in college next year, she closely aligns with the argument in favor of reform.
“Arguing against your beliefs is one of the most important skills we try to teach,” said Alecia, who will serve as debate team captain, coaching newer members throughout the winter.
At most debates, “for” or “against” stances are chosen by a coin flip on the day of competition, Emily added. “You have to be ready, even if you are passionate about a certain side.”
In addition to giving students an edge in the public speaking arena, Ms. McMillan added, debate allows students to develop many skills that students can take away to other areas of their lives, especially their studies.
“Debate fosters every skill that we want kids to have before they leave Blair—the ability to speak publically, effectively and clearly; a broad, yet deep, knowledge of current events; effective organization and strong writing skillsets; and the ability to have an opinion about what’s going on in the world.”
Looking ahead, the team is anticipating a busy winter of tournaments, which will include six team competitions. New to their program this year is a number of individual debates, which will offer each student another challenging and exciting forum to practice their research and analytical skills and present persuasive arguments.
The Society of Skeptics was established as a forum for students and faculty to discuss and debate important global issues; it has grown to become one of the premier high school lecture series in the United States. Each week, speakers from the political, social, scientific, economic and literary arenas share their unique perspectives with students, who are encouraged to engage with presenters, asking questions and debating points of view.
The program was an outgrowth of the Blair International Society, begun in 1937. Forty years later, former history department chair Elliott Trommald, PhD, Hon.’65, established the modern Skeptics program as a regular forum for student discussion and debate; history teacher Martin Miller, PhD, took over in the mid-1980s and molded the program into a weekly lecture series, one that has since continued without interruption. Under the tutelage of Dr. Miller, Skeptics has featured a wide variety of speakers who are engaging, accomplished in their respective fields and often controversial. For a listing of upcoming Skeptics programs, please click here.