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Young debaters at the Bay Area Urban Debate League in Oakland, Calif., say that there are a lot of differences between the way that they debate the issues and what they see the presidential candidates doing on debate nights. (Jenny Bolario/YouthRadio for NPR)

Teen Debaters Parse Candidates' Style And Substance

by Ashley Williams
Oct 22, 2012 (All Things Considered)

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The high school debaters at the Bay Area Urban Debate League get together every week in downtown Oakland, Calif., to hone their arguments and debating styles. But the young debaters have had a chance during the recent presidential debates to see how it's done on the national stage.

They watch with pen and worksheet, taking notes and analyzing the candidates' debating styles, hoping to glean some lessons from the pros.

There is a lot for these young debaters to observe and compare, but they have also noticed some key differences.

The biggest difference between teen debaters and candidates is how one wins the debate. In high school policy debates, teens argue over current topics such as education and transportation, and a judge decides a clear winner at the end based on a formula of evidence, presentation and arguments made by each side.

In presidential debates, it's a lot harder to say who wins, says 17-year-old Sarafina Padilla.

"The judge tells you if you won or lost based on points," Padilla says. "In a presidential debate it's all critics saying their perspective and stuff. We just do the debate, we get a grade, and a prize then."

Another key difference is that debaters actually have to prove what they're saying in a youth policy debate, which is not necessarily true for the candidates.

Robin Bonner, who helps run the class, says she was disturbed by the lack of facts the candidates gave in previous debates. She says teen debaters have to meet a higher bar in their arguments than the guys sparring for the Oval Office.

"Ours actually has to have a plan, has to have solvency, impacts. ... What's going to happen to this population? What's going to happen to this budget?" Bonner says of her students. "It's more thought out in a real way."

The whole business of presidential debates is also more chaotic than what they're used to, says 17-year-old Elisa Saavedra.

"The way the presidential debates go is a lot messier than the way we do debates here," Saavedra says. "They do a lot more non-respectful yelling at each other. ... I guess that's the way they think they should do it, but it doesn't really look good to just overpower someone because when it comes down to it, it's not really who can yell loudest or who can talk more; it's about who can get the issues solved."

Of course, solving a national issue in a two-minute window is tough. Teen policy debaters get seven minutes to present their solutions.

The audio for this story was produced by Youth Radio.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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