MEXICO CITY — This summer, Mexican high school students from across the country will undergo intense training and conditioning at a one-week camp for the chance to represent Team Mexico at the World Schools Debating Championships (WSDC) in Stuttgart, Germany.
Not only are these students debating in English, their second language, but they are some of the top speakers in the world. In fact, Mexico has won the bid to host the World Universities Debating Championships (WUDC) in 2018, the first Latin American country to ever host the competition. The WUDC boasts participation of over 400 teams from over 90 countries each year.
This year will be Mexico’s ninth year participating in the world championships, and by the end of the summer, they will have trained and prepared the five students they are sending to Germany to represent Mexico.
“They will commit their entire summer, working 4-5 days a week, 6-8 hour days to practice for the world championships,” said Team Mexico Coach and Debate Camp Director Mark Webber in an interview with The News.
Webber, who had previously began debate leagues when living in Sudan and Venezuela, said, “No matter where I went, I either wanted to participate in debate or start a debate league, and I had many motives for doing it here.
“I wanted to make Mexico one of the top teams in the world.”
Before Webber was named Team Mexico’s coach over five years ago, Mexico had already been to the world championships three times, but their best record was 4-4 in preliminary rounds and they had never advanced to eliminations.
“These Mexican kids are really smart, they’re really good speakers, and to be honest I think they’re naturals at debate, it’s just that they didn’t really have a practicing ground,” said Webber.
Before, only a couple of schools, Churchill College and Edron, were hosting friendly competitions and fielding debaters to the world championships, explained Webber. “It’s like playing the Super Bowl without a practice field,” he said. So that year he began partnering with other schools to start a league, growing larger each year.
“A lot of my Mexican counterparts have told me that when they come and they see the type of debate we’re doing, it’s a bit more complex and a bit more sophisticated than what they previously imagined,” said Webber. There are other groups in Mexico that do debate, but focus on oratorios and prepared speeches. “It’s more rhetoric than it is reasoning skills.”
The two styles of debate that the Mexican Debate Circuit focuses on are World Schools Style Debate (for high school and middle school levels) and British Parliamentary debate (university level).
“We do these not only because they’re international and it allows us the opportunity to go and compete on the international circuit, but we just love the breadth of knowledge and the world knowledge that it brings to us,” said Webber. For both of these styles of debate, he said, “you debate a different topic every single round … and most of the time you don’t know what side you are going to be on, so you have to prepare for that.”
Under World Schools Style Debate rules, Team Mexico will send a five-member team to represent the entire country. Only three of the five members will actually speak during each round. Through a strenuous tryout process that stretches over two weekends, the students are challenged with practice debates, graded on their research, and tested on world knowledge, philosophy, politics and current events, to ultimately be ranked and presented before a practice jury.
“We try to see who has judge appeal,” said Webber, commenting on the diverse panel of international judges that will be adjudicating the world championships. “Even sometimes when you feel like you’ve won, the judges don’t see it that way. It’s an emotional rollercoaster — that’s the way I describe it, that’s the way the kids describe it.”
So Team Mexico Coach Mark Webber prepares them to be top competitors. Some of the skills they hone through practice and training for debate include research, public speaking, making logical arguments, and discerning facts and conclusions from logical arguments.
“But it goes beyond that … you have five members on a team but only three can debate at any given round, so they have to make that decision about who’s the best person to put forward,” said Webber. “It really teaches them about teamwork. You have to be able to support an argument all the way down the bench.”
Every year, Webber has at least one parent tell him, ‘Debate saved my child’s life.’ And in the 26 years that he has been teaching debate — in some country or at some level — Webber has witnessed many of his students to go on and find success in life. “It’s because of debate,” he said.
And when he talks of his students in Mexico, he argues that even the students who aren’t successful, who don’t go on to be a circuit champion or represent Team Mexico at the world championships, might even learn more from the opportunity than those who are successful.
“First of all, we recognize that there are kids that go to these private schools, that participate in debate — that just because they go to a private school doesn’t mean they can afford to go to debate camp.”
Webber considers the summer debate camp he runs to be the seed for everything that’s been accomplished so far for debate in Mexico. “That’s where it all originated from, and why this has grown to be successful. It’s not because of me, it’s because of those that come to help and instruct at this camp.”
“Even with that, it’s out of reach for some kids. Some of these parents spend every dime they have to try and give their kids a good education. And we know what the education system is like in Mexico, we can understand why a parent would make those sacrifices. And when their kid gets involved in something like debate, and their parents can see what debate has done for them, how it’s changed them — to me, that’s a person I want to help.”
Webber noted his own experience growing up in poverty in Texas, facing discrimination as a Mexican-American. “I had a theater teacher in high school, and … she changed my life.” Webber said he also wants to do what he can to help the students who need it the most. He wants to make sure that the students who try out are not just the students who know their parents can afford it.
That is why Webber aims to have the cheapest overnight one-week camp in all of Mexico, to make sure that the camp is successful and that every student is given the opportunity.
Webber said the most important lesson he tries to teach to every debate student is to pay it forward.
“Someone gave it to you, it’s your obligation now to go out and give this gift to someone else.”
The Mexican Debate Circuit and Team Mexico’s participation in the World Schools Debating Championships is largely organized by the English Speaking Union under the direction of Richard Atherton.
Contributions can be made to help fund the Mexican Debate Summer Camp and Team Mexico at their Generosity fundraising page.