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Cornelius: Speech, debate are essential to a solid education
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"... we've become / the most aggressively inarticulate generation / to come along since ... / you know, a long, long time ago!" — Taylor Mali, from his poem, "Totally like whatever, you know?"

Teressa Glazer got it right in her Friday column, "Memories of a debate mom." Each Hall County high school should have a speech and debate program and, along with that, a class in public speaking should be required for graduation.

Speech and debate are not frills. They're at the core of an excellent education. As with writing, speech and debate are tools for learning and teaching, tools for improving critical thinking.

In all this, they assist a wide range of young people.

Competition in speech and debate develops essential skills for leadership in some of our most talented youngsters. Clear thinking is at the top of the list.

Such competition is of course academic. For skeptics who need a more practical nudge to support speech and debate programs throughout Hall County: Speech and debate are useful in a career.

Obviously, there's the law, where eloquent arguments can win the day. But there's more. In field after field, those who can speak and work through complex problems in front of a group have an advantage. Ask anyone who has spent years in corporate life, in a state capitol, around the Capitol in Washington, or around any state or federal bureaucracy.

Ask Hall County School Superintendent Will Schofield how much of his time is spent communicating with people inside and outside the school system, including with policymakers. I am not talking about media relations. I am talking about the hard work of thinking through policy and problems, of discussing and setting priorities and purpose, the hard work of making hard choices and communicating them, of getting others to buy-in to your decisions.

Youngsters in speech and debate learn the rudiments of such thinking and speaking and persuading.

Mrs. Glazer's second suggestion is more necessary for our time than in the past: requiring a course in public speaking for graduation.

All of our youngsters can benefit from a basic class, many from an advanced one. A basic course begins to ease this primal fear: Speaking in public. Some young people actually begin to enjoy speaking and discover they're good at it.

But in today's world, a basic class is about much more than getting over a fear of speaking.

A growing and troubling problem is illustrated by Taylor Mali, a former teacher, now an advocate for teachers, and a poet. In his 2005 poem, "Totally like whatever, you know?" he speaks of an "aggressively inarticulate generation."

Clearly, that isn't everyone. But it is far too many.

The problem is more than the sowing of random distractions such as "like" and "you know" and "whatever" throughout a conversation. Mr. Mali finds an interrogative tone hanging over conversations, brought on by "invisible question marks" and more.

Declarative sentences? They no longer declare.

Conviction? Drained away.

Mr. Mali is on to something. His 309-word poem is filled with insights.

The problem continues to grow. Attention spans shrink, vocabularies shrink, ideas shrink. So does knowledge of the world that was and is.

The ability to speak simple sentences smoothly continues to slip away.

Requiring classes in public speaking is one small step toward reversing such trends among the young. Solid schooling all the way around is the long-term solution.

With "aggressive inarticulateness" all around us, speech and debate programs are a marvel of contrast.

As Mr. Mali might put it: I entreat you, I implore you, I exhort you, I challenge you.

Every high school in Hall County should have speech and debate programs. Travel should be adequately funded.

Speech and debate feed and complement other academics: They all feed one another: History and government, economics, drama, literature, English composition, the arts - with speech and debate drawing substance from them, young people building conviction on them.

Together, all might speak to the beginnings of a wider collective eloquence among us or, on our present course, of how aggressively inarticulate we might continue to become.

Tack Cornelius, a Gainesville resident, was a Washington correspondent, an aide to Kentucky Gov. Martha Layne Collins, and from 1989 to 2002, wrote speeches for two CEOs at Bellsouth in Atlanta. He is an occasional columnist.