Second Generation Debaters

I just got off the phone with the director of a major nonprofit who is thrilled about the quality of kids coming out of the homeschool debate world. He’s so pumped, he can barely stand it. Funny, though, I got several calls last week from folks who were not.

We're training them for action, but what are they becoming?

Point Loma Debate Camp in San Diego. Is debate turning them out to be the adults we want them to be?

I have advocated for homeschool debate from Day One, since 1996 when the Home School Legal Defense Association started the first homeschool debate league. (You can read my history here.) From the beginning, I considered it everything homeschoolers wanted to teach their children: logic, reasoning, communication, history, literature, etc. Hands down, academic debate (and speech, too) is the best curricular activity available for homeschoolers. Today, after nearly twenty years of advocating for it, debate is considered the “homeschool sport.”

Not just a debate junkie like me, but lots of people are excited about these young people. College admissions folks, politicians, nonprofit leaders, employers, entrepreneurs — we love what is coming out of the homeschool debate community. Debaters are the sharpest, most well-versed, and daring young people imaginable. They are natural leaders in the midst of change. If you know this community like I do, you have much more confidence in the future than most others.

But not everyone is hunky-dory about them. Some are disappointed, even thinking poorly of the activity because of it.

As I mentioned, I’ve gotten some calls from friends, even homeschool leaders and debate coaches of many years experience, concerned over some alumni who are challenging some of the major subcultures of the greater homeschool community. I even spoke to a local pastor who, quite publicly, tied the activity of debate to playing with the devil himself. (I plan to blog on this conflict later, but I’m still trying to sort it out; it has some deeper, more bizarre elements to it.)

For a guy like me who has made homeschool debate his life, I’m personally vested in this — in all sides, too. Some of these homeschool debate alumni — now adults — are former students of mine, even coaches whom I have employed in the past 15 years of running camps and writing curriculum. They’ve used the power of the Internet to criticize homeschooling and other subcultures that I advocate. The pastor mentioned above — though I haven’t subscribed to his preaching for a decade — used to be a favorite expositor of mine. I consider it an absolute joy to facilitate debate camps across the country that pump out champions in the competitive year. I also collaborate with coaches all across the country (even the world!) to develop curriculum that empowers debaters to be the top champions in the nation, and we have a strong track record of our work.

I’m in deep. You see, I don’t just see this as an academic activity; I see this as a biblical responsibility to “train the mind for action” (1 Peter 1:13). My convictions couldn’t be stronger.

Why is there any doubt at all in the generation of debaters that we raised up?

I suspect that disillusionment has set in because we played mind games on ourselves. We have forgotten what our goals were when we started this machine in the ’90s. We’ve actually achieved them, and now we’re surprised. In three areas:

  1. We Wanted Transformation, Not Conformity . Our debaters are growing up and actually transforming themselves and the status quo. Trouble is, we (parents, educators, leaders) are some of the defenders of the status quo. We are uneasy with some of the things the young people are coming up with.
  2. We Wanted Engagement, Not Isolation. Yep, we tooled these kids up with the best communication and thinking skills on the planet. Why wouldn’t we expect them to engage a fallen world? It’s risky and perhaps dangerous, which also makes us uneasy.
  3. We Wanted Action, Not Apathy. For all the complaining we parents do about the deadbeat Millennial generation, I’m surprised to hear from people who are uneasy when they actually go out and do something.

Are you on board with training young people to be nonconformists, leaders, and action agents? If you are, don’t be surprised when they actually become these things. I’m going to expand on these three in coming days. I’d love to hear what you think.

Does the activity of debate harm or help young people?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Tom Khazoyan


    Thanks for your continuing, thoughtful, conversation about all of this.

    My family has been part of the homeschool speed and debate world for 10 years. I know quite a few of these young people and I want to encourage and love them.

    Participating in debate has given our young people the skills to discern some unhealthy things in some parts of the church and homeschool world. That’s great fruit.

    The response of some, unfortunately, is to reject things that needn’t be rejected. The responsibility for that lies with the unhealthy communities and families, not participation in debate.

    They are calling out what they see and reacting from their own experiences. We can’t deny them their authentic voice to speak from their hearts and we can’t deny their personal experiences.

    I pray that these wounded young people will find true grace in healthy communities and families. It’s tragic that their models were not so positive. It was very easy to see this coming, observing the manner and dogmas of some revered homeschool leaders.

    • Wow, Tom, this is a very thoughtful and wise response. Thanks for posting it!

  • Arden Sleadd

    I look at this somewhat differently. I was a debater in public high school and Christian college, and loved it. I also let pride grow as a result. I blame no one but myself. Scripture points out that knowledge “puffeth up” without the fear of the Lord. I was very supportive of having my children involved in homeschool debate, and three of them did so. But character-training is even more important than training the mind, and both must be done coincidentally. I pray for humility for my son who is in debate right now. I can preach it, read scriptures about it, try to model it, but only God can get in and mould his heart. A good dose of prayer and humility would prevent a lot of the hurtful commentary that is going on in cyberspace among the second-gens right now. I feel for the parents who are grieving over where their children have headed.

    • David Carter

      This is pretty much where I come down. Knowledge is great but wisdom is to be valued much more. I too actually know and have coached these kids turned adults now, what I see now is that just like in debate generalizations only get you so far. Each person and situation has to be taken on its own merits. Ultimately each individual needs to ask themselves; is what I am doing bringing Glory to God.