By Amy Wenk
It is easy to argue that Pace Academy in Buckhead has one of the strongest debate teams in Georgia.
On Feb. 9, Pace once again took home a victory at the Georgia High School Association (GHSA) State Debate Championship, which was held at Whitewater High School in Fayetteville. For the 21st consecutive year, the school located on West Paces Ferry won the A/AA/AAA title. Since the inception of its debate team in 1972, Pace has earned a total of 33 state debate titles.
“It was an interesting experience,” Clay Cook, a Pace junior said. “It was a very close tournament. We were convinced we lost it.”
With just four team members — including Clay, juniors Jennifer Armstrong and Peyton Lee, as well as sophomore Alec Seco — the AA Pace team finished 10-2, beating out larger AAA schools like Grady and Centennial high schools.
“It was pretty nerve-wracking,” said Peyton, who hopes to work in public policy making. “It’s a different structure then most tournaments. In this case, Jennifer and I, who usually debate together, had to be split up. It was tough. We cut it really close.”
Despite this, Jennifer received the top affirmative speaker award and Peyton earned the top negative speaker award at the tournament. Additionally, both students have reached elimination debates at four national tournaments this year, earning three bids to the national championship held in Lexington, Ky. this May.
“We try to keep it fun,” said Peyton, who began debating in seventh grade. “Debate is very little the way people think it is. It’s a mind game. It’s more about seeing logical fallacies, being organized and doing your research.”
Preparation is key to debate success, Peyton noted. For this reason, Pace Academy has integrated public speaking courses throughout the middle and high school curricula and has taken a leading role among the nation’s schools in hosting debate competitions. Pace participants must also attend weekly practice sessions.
“As a squad, we practice twice a week and maybe three to four times a week depending on the level of tournament coming up,” said Pace debate coach Shuntá Jordan, who has trained the team for five years. “A great deal of the foundation of the year comes from the debaters attending workshops in the summer and the coaches teaching workshops in the summer. As the season starts and progresses, we have strategy sessions about what other teams in Georgia and nationally are saying on this year’s topic and we create research assignments accordingly.”
This year, the national topic students debated was whether the U.S. federal government should increase its public health assistance to sub-Saharan Africa. Other topics have included civil liberties and national service programs. Jordan said the skills students learn while examining these serious issues can be applied to a broad range of studies.
“Students learn critical thinking skills and must use them faster and more effectively than they would in a typical classroom setting,” Jordan said. “Exposure to current events and global problems (and assimilating governmental responses to these problems) helps these students gain valuable knowledge they might overlook or not take seriously in a classroom. Additionally, debate allows you to safely articulate your views on any given subject be it right or wrong.”
These skills benefit students long after they have completed their formal education. It is no wonder then that Pace debate alumnus Robert Allen, ‘02, was elected 122nd president of Harvard Law Review in February. The Law Review, a student-run organization founded in 1887 by future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, has the largest circulation of any law journal world-wide.
“Working for the Review has given me a unique opportunity to work with some of the best and brightest people I have ever met — students and professors — and a chance to critically engage with legal scholarship,” Allen said. “Being elected president was an incredible honor; I look forward to every day on the job.”
As a Pace senior, Allen and his partner Brian Smith won the 2002 National High School Debate at the Tournament of Champions in Kentucky. They were the only team to ever win, undefeated, with all panel decisions unanimous.
“Some of my favorite memories from high school consist of strategy sessions, late nights, and tournaments with the team,” Allen said. “I try as best I can to keep in contact with the crew. Brian Smith is still one of my best friends and by far one of the smartest people I have had the privilege of knowing.”
Allen is a graduate of Emory University; he earned a B.A. in economics and political science in 2006. He was Phi Beta Kappa and earned the Jack and Lewis Greenhut Award for most outstanding economics thesis. He will graduate with a Juris Doctor (JD) from Harvard in 2009.
“I think debate is particularly good training for law school; it teaches you the ability to dispassionately consider an issue from all angles, predict and respond to counterarguments, and evaluate the reasoning and logic underlying arguments,” Allen said. “Plus, it exposes you to diverse and new areas of literature.”
For more information on the Pace debate team, visit www.paceacademy.org.