By Josh Herring
Competitive debate gives the efficacy of classical education a place to shine.
It is an exciting time at Thales Academy Rolesville JH/HS—the work of more than a decade is coming to fruition. Five years ago, our first graduating class all headed off to UNC Chapel Hill. They have now graduated, with one student proceeding to graduate school and two entering the workforce. Our senior class sizes continue to grow, hitting a range of forty to sixty each year, rather than the five to ten we initially had. The colleges our students show interest in continue to develop in diversity of cause, prestige, and selectivity. At the same time, our debate program continues to expand. Over the past two years, our relatively small program of twenty or thirty students has begun competing on a national level.
What unites these elements of our school life is something common to the classical renewal movement as a whole: we are beginning to earn a seat at the table in terms of wider acclaim, and in doing so we are proving the legitimacy of the classical approach to education.
Both the collegiate and competitive debate spaces have a lot to do with tradition, in the sense that it is difficult to break into the core of established, recognizably renowned programs if your school is not already part of the in-crowd. Certain schools in our region, based around Raleigh, NC have a recognizable pipeline to Ivy League universities; interestingly, many of these are the same schools that also regularly compete at the highest levels of debate. The schools I have in mind have been around for decades. How can a young school get a seat at the table?
I propose two options. Such a school can decry the progressive ideology of the establishment and simply decline to participate, and this approach has its merits. Independent schools often have values opposed to either the secular or religious arms of the classical renewal movement. Alternatively, a school could seek to prove that its students can score as highly, compete effectively, and put together strong applications. This positive method of competition is what Thales Academy seeks to do.
We have had a speech and debate program for four years (which I have written about here and here). Last year, I learned about the annual Harvard University tournament. Unlike the Tournament of Champions, Harvard (along with several other prestigious universities) hosts an open tournament where schools from around the nation can gather to compete. No qualifications are necessary; we only had to conquer the logistics of travel. Several chaperones and I took seventeen students from Raleigh to Boston for four days, over President’s Day weekend in February of 2020. We had a phenomenal time, and we had winning rounds in every division we entered.
Perhaps the most important win was a shift in imagination. Witnessing competition at this level inspired my students to dream. What would it take to compete at this level and win? Of course, we also had a lot of fun on this trip: late night conversations, a trip to see a college basketball game, a day touring Boston. Little did we know that the pandemic was about to start; at the end of the season, four students secured bids to the National Catholic Forensics League’s Grand National tournament in Chicago, but that event was cancelled. We did not end up competing at more travel tournaments—but the fire had been lit.
This year, I structured our competition to hit a variety of goals: I wanted to continue building the local Coolidge league we began four years ago, as well as our regional tournaments. The pivot to online debates also made it logistically easier to compete on the national circuit. In the 2020-2021 season, we have already competed at Duke, Yale, and Princeton, with hopes of reaching Stanford in February. At each tournament, our goal remains the same: to compete with unfailing integrity, bringing our best to each round. This is how we earn our seat at the table.
I see a parallel in our college applications this year. Our fifth graduating class has some amazing students in it, and they are reaching high. MIT, West Point, UC Berkeley, Georgetown, Notre Dame—my students are applying for some of the best known colleges in the country. At the same time, we have students who are applying to some of the strongest liberal arts programs: University of Dallas, Christendom, Hillsdale. These two categories are of course not mutually exclusive; many students apply to prestigious schools, yet still see the smaller liberal arts college as an excellent fit.
The verdict is still out on what my debaters will achieve at Stanford, or whether our students will win the admissions lottery that is the Ivy League. The decisions of both the judges and the admissions counselors lie beyond the ability of the student to control. What we can control is the effort put into the process. We celebrate small wins along the way—a senior who competes at Princeton and breaks to the first level of elimination rounds (octofinals), and his friend who is the first Thales Rolesville student to be accepted at The Citadel. Our goal is not to guarantee admissions or victory; no school can. But this we can already see: a classical education prepares students to go into society ready for success at the highest levels. Results like these validate the efforts of our school. In our students’ success, the effectiveness of a strong classical education becomes visible.
Josh Herring, M. Div., is Dean of Students, Head of Debate, and a Humanities Instructor for Thales Academy Rolesville JH/HS. In his spare time, he is working on a PhD in Humanities through Faulkner University’s Great Books Honors College. He also co-hosts What’s the Res?, a podcast for the high school debate community. He and his wife Jennifer live in Wendell, NC.
If you enjoyed this post, you might also like Dr. Anika Prather’s short series on how she discovered the treasures of classical education, or Miss Chloe Berger’s student essay on the relation between Aristotelian and Platonic definitions of happiness.