The competition for the Harvard Debate Council is so rigorous that members start preparing weeks before the school year starts, and they don’t let up until the final tournament in March.
Theirs is an all-encompassing effort that demands as much extracurricular effort as a year’s graduate degree work. Required are hundreds of hours of research, a talent for formulating pointed arguments on the spot, and exceptional speaking skills.
Podcast directed and edited by Ned Brown/Harvard Staff
“I do fundamentally believe it the most important thing I’ve ever done,” said Tripp Rebrovick ’09, coach of the current team of 15 students.
“It governs the whole year, and in a tournament there will be eight preliminary debate rounds and the top 32 teams go to a bracket-like NCAA March Madness,” said Rebrovick, a former member. “It’s an entire world.”
The council competes in policy debate, with two teams of two arguing a topic (this year’s is national health care) with specific rules for the affirmative and negative sides. Students such as Emily Gordon, a sophomore who is concentrating in the history of science, call it the biggest component of their Harvard experience.
“Every morning I wake up and do some debate work,” she said. “The more you learn, the more you want to learn and keep practicing and keep getting better throughout the year.”
Policy debaters are known for their command of “spreading,” the auctioneer-like ability to speak quickly in order to make as many arguments supporting your team’s side as possible. Whereas typical conversation is about 150 words per minute, policy debaters can speak 300–400 words per minute.
“In an activity that is competitive, the teams that are most successful are the teams that can introduce the most arguments. The more scholars you can cite who support you — if you cite 12 people and someone else can cite two — gives you a huge advantage,” said Gordon, who lives in Lowell House.