Every summer in high school I spent three week at the Golden West Forensics Institute at the University of Redlands, which everyone called “debate camp” or “Redlands.” As in, “are you going to Redlands this year?” or “I need to fill out my financial aid form for debate camp.” There were three destinations of choice for the ambitious 14-17 year-olds who participated in competitive speech and debate: Redlands, in Southern California; Northwestern; and Georgetown.
Kids came from all over the U.S. to Redlands. Every morning we’d have lectures several hours long about the topic in question, usually led by college debaters in their 20s, and in the afternoons we’d have different “labs” – debate lab, extemp lab, oratory lab, etc. In the evenings, we burrow away in libraries and in dorm rooms, researching evidence, typing quotes on ditto sheets and cutting and pasting selections onto three-by-five index cards. At lights out, which I recall was around 11:30 pm, we’d cram towels around the doorframe so that our lights would be invisible to hall monitors. There may have been social experiences sprinkled through by the Redlands administrators. At the end there was a big tournament. Some kids slept around four or five hours a night for the duration. But who needed sleep when a tournament was coming?
Debate camp was awesome! It was one of the highlights of my high school experience. Debate camp is where I discovered kids
who were really smart and really competitive, and at times
multidimensional. Debate camp is where
I discovered Jewish people. Debate
camp is where I learned how to do real research. Debate camp is where I developed a surprisingly large part
of my knowledge about the world, including topics like alternative energy,
healthcare reform, global trade, population control, and so forth. The kind of debate we did was known as
“policy debate” and highly research-based. So at age 15 I could explain how, in developing
countries, fertility declines when female literacy rises, or how very poor
families have really large families because they assume that many of them will
die, so that when you improve health you reduce family size and population growth. This was all useful for potential
debates, but it sure informed me about the world.
There were stars within the debate camp world. Imagine all of the honor, respect and desirability of being a star athlete, except applied to someone known for his or her intelligence and verbal dexterity. Going into my sophomore year of high school, one of our Redlands instructors was Sandra Seville-Jones, who had just graduated from high school and was bound for Harvard. During her senior year, she and her brother – they were an unusual brother-sister team – had won 18 national tournaments, a remarkable feat. Years later, when I ran into her in front of Lamont Library at Harvard, I still felt breathless at her star power.
Good times, good times.
The reason debate camp was so powerful and great for me, and why I would recommend anyone put their kid in organized speech and debate, if it’s available, is that it was one of the few activities I participated in growing up that had no upward limit. How good could a seven-minute speech be with only a 30-minute preparation? Well, the sky was the limit. How smart could you be in debate? Well, potentially as smart as some of the smartest kids you’ve ever seen, if you put in thousands of hours of work. By entering an environment where I competed against others, in the end I just competed against myself, and pushed myself farther than I thought possible.
A very large percentage of kids who participate in speech and debate end up being lawyers, and often they do something in the public or academic sector. For instance, Evan Caminker (two years ahead of me), who was the first person my partner and I did a practice debate with, is now the Dean at the University of Michigan Law School. Preeta Bansal (one year behind me), a Nebraskan I met at Redlands, became the youngest-ever solicitor general for the state of New York and is now General Counsel of the OMB. High school ultra-achiever star Sandra Seville-Jones (three years ahead of me) is managing partner of Munger Tolles & Olson in Los Angeles. David Sklansky (one of our instructors), is a professor at Boalt, following a decade at UCLA law school. (I add parenthetically that he is another liberal who emerged from Orange County -- I'm not the only one!)
I spent thousands of hours in high school working on speech and debate, and never quite knew where it would go. But I didn’t think much about that because I was so in love with, even obsessed by, the activity. I went from being an insecure kid with a lisp who spoke way too fast, to someone who could easily address a crowd of a thousand. I also learned how to construct an essay, use words with impact, and stick to something hard for a really long time. Which is pretty much what you want an education to do.