What better way to end an extraordinary partnership than by outdoing 123 of the best debate teams across the country to win the U.S. national debate title? That's how the year came to a close for Charles Sprague '10 and Jesse Katz Blumenthal '11 just a few weeks ago, when the amazingly successful debate duo won the US Universities National Championship hosted April 8-11 by the University of Denver. In a competition that included both undergraduate and graduate school teams, the two CMCers defeated students from Stanford (undergraduate and business schools), Yale, and Portland State University in the grand final debate to win the championship. Not only that but during the tournament, the pair were undefeated in their 10, two-hour debates.
The national championship was the last tournament for the Sprague-Katz Blumenthal team, ending an extraordinarily successful semester of debate competition, says their coach John Meany, director of The Claremont Colleges Debate Union.
The US Universities National Championship uses the international parliamentary debate format, the most popular intercollegiate competitive model in the world, which emphasizes impromptu argumentation. That means that topics for debate aren't revealed to the contestants prior to the competition. Students are told which side of the issue they'll argue and are then assigned a topic. Once the topic is given, competitors have just 15 minutes to prep for their debates. In that brief time, the debaters may consult with their team partners, but are not allowed to access any electronic or online resources.
Meany says that a different public policy topic is selected for each debate. At Nationals, topics were vast, including restrictions on aid to Israel to encourage concessions on settlement construction, limits on domestic deficit spending, integration of gays and lesbians in the military, public health care funding for abortion, application of international labor rights to corporations operating in China, and redistribution of benefits and land rights for indigenous peoples.
In their final debate, Sprague and Katz Blumenthal were asked to defend the proposition that terrorist suspects should be tried in U.S. civilian courts.
The two CMCers joined forces after Katz Blumenthal returned from a fall semester in the College's Washington Program. Competing throughout the United States this spring, the pair won every invitational debate tournament they attended, Meany says, including the largest events on the East and West coasts. Their successes led to an invitation to compete in the International Round Robin Debate Championship, a highly selective competition for 16 of the top debate teams in the world.
"Being a part of the Debate Union has been a phenomenal experience," Katz Blumenthal says. "You're constantly having your opinions challenged by incredibly smart people. At Nationals, the level of competition is really quite high. All these bright and challenging people from all over the country come together in one place, each year, and so you get a terrific variety of styles, practices, and habits that you have to contend with.
"So it's really quite an honor to win the tournament," he added. "Without the Debate Union's support throughout the year, traveling to multiple tournaments, we wouldn't have had the level of experience it took to win."
This is the 18th consecutive year that members of the Debate Union have placed among the nation's top 10, including top-five finishes for eight of the past nine years. Meany was impressed by the consistency of the team's performance.
"Their debate success this semester was extraordinary," Meany says. "It is matched by only a few Claremont debate teams of more than 100 prominent award-winning teams in the past 20 years. It is quite remarkable for a debate team to win more than one major event in a yearwith scores of outstanding undergraduate and graduate teams at each competition, the odds are just not in your favor to win multiple events.
"Highly successful teams," he adds, "are likely to consistently place at the elite level at tournaments but it is more common that they might finish first at one event, fourth at another, and ninth at a third. It is most unusual for a team to win all their tournaments, including the national championship."
This was the third year that Charlie Sprague placed in the top 10 at the national championship. He finished second in 2008 and ninth place in 2009. Jesse Katz Blumenthal also was a previous award winner at the tournament, finishing 10th in 2008.
"Debate has been a transformative experience," Sprague says. "I have had the opportunity to travel to China, Turkey, Thailand, Ireland, Canada, the United Kingdom, and throughout the United States to compete against undergrads and graduate students from the best universities in the world. It has tremendously improved my critical thinking and public speaking skills. Participating at these events has been one of the most enriching experiences during my time at CMC."
The tournament was also a success for other Debate Union participants. Ellen Lebow '12 and Adriane Holter (PIT '12) were team award-winners, placing among the top 20 teams in the United States. Nicolas Rosa (PIT '13) and Priya Srivats (SCR '13) were ranked the nation's fifth-place novice team, an award for students competing in their first year of intercollegiate competition.