Inner City Debate Team Trounces the Competition At Kansas City's Central High, a school where 2/3 never graduate, the debate team took on racism and elitism, and beat some top-ranked, and much wealthier, schools. Writer Joe Miller talks about the team and how he wound up joining it.
NPR logo

Inner City Debate Team Trounces the Competition

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Inner City Debate Team Trounces the Competition

Inner City Debate Team Trounces the Competition

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

The phrase high school debate team might evoke words like anachronism, intellectual, nerdy, elite, private school, or privilege - most likely not inner-city public school or attitude. But a topnotch inner-city public high school debate team with attitude is exactly what journalist Joe Miller found at Central High in Kansas City, Missouri - a troubled institution that is in many ways an emblem of American public education over the past 60 years or so.

Since Brown versus Board of Education, the school found itself at the center of fights over desegregation, white flight, a riot, reform, re-segregation, and now what the author describes as the despair of urban education.

Over the past 20 years, Central High became a poster child for failed schools and countless newspaper and magazine articles and television programs, including 60 Minutes. Joe Miller decided to cover Central High's debate team in 2001 and found himself caught up in the lives of the kids, their coaches, and the story of race, class, and the path to power in America.

Later in the program, Jay Garner, the first U.S. administrator of post-war Iraq joins us as we continue our series Rethinking Iraq. But first, the Central High debate team and the art of debating. If you're a debater, coach, or judge, give us a call. What's it about? Why does it matter? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is

Joe Miller's book is called Cross-X: The Amazing True Story of How the Most Unlikely Team from the Most Unlikely of Places Overcame Staggering Obstacles at Home and at School to Challenge the Debate Community on Race, Power, and Education. He joins us today from the studios of member station KCFR in Denver, Colorado. And thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. JOE MILLER (Journalist and Author): Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And why the debate team? Why did you get interested in - I know you were interested in education at Central High. Why did you cover the debate team?

Mr. MILLER: Well, I went to Central High for the first time in 2001, when the state of Missouri declared the school academically deficient. And the original story I was going to do was just about why this institution is doing so poorly.

But when I got there and discovered that they had this debate team that was nationally competitive, that had a trophy case full of trophies that they'd won beating teams from some of the topnotch schools around the country, the bell just went off. I just said this is just an amazing story that has to be told. So I embedded myself into the team, eventually became the coach of it, but I spent a solid season following them. And the year I followed them, they finished 10th in the country.

CONAN: there's an extraordinary tournament you cover called the Iowa Caucuses -all of these have funny names - but…

Mr. MILLER: That's right, and that was just this last weekend, again this year. That's one of the best tournaments in the country, yes.

CONAN: And the team from Central High goes there determined that if they can - first of all, they want get an invitation to something called the Tournament of Champions…

Mr. MILLER: That's correct.

CONAN: …and that's some sort of individual honor, but they also - no team from the UDL, the Urban Debate League, had ever won a tournament at this level, and they thought they might be the first.

Mr. MILLER: That's true. Yeah, that was one of the - honestly, Neal, that was one of the most exciting moments of my life, being there as they worked their way up through the trophy round to that tournament. I mean, I - at that point, I had become so attached to the team - I was still trying to be sort of an objective observer as a journalist, but I had gotten so attached to these kids and to the coach that I wanted so desperately for them to win. And I was just beside myself with anxiety and anticipation.

CONAN: And, again, there's not supposed to be cheering in the press box, but you were sitting there rooting for these kids.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLER: Absolutely, absolutely. Yes, I was.

CONAN: You got to know them and their families. Indeed, they came to see you as almost a validation of their life. You were writing a book about them.

Mr. MILLER: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. Absolutely. And it's funny because that Iowa Caucus tournament was one where I first stepped across the journalistic line. In the weeks leading up to that, I found out that the top debater on the team was planning on not going to this particular tournament. And his coaches and teammates were trying without success to talk him into going.

So I turned off my tape recorder and I said to him, Marcus, if you don't go to this, it's going to be written in a book someday, and people are going to think you're an idiot. And he sort of blinked a couple of times, thought about it, and said, okay, I'll go. And then he winds up going and winning the tournament. And that was the first time I crossed the line, really, as a journalist.

CONAN: I'm going to read - Marcus is, by the way, is going to join us a little bit later in the program. But I want to read something you wrote about that tournament.

(Reading) The central journey seemed sweeter because the kids were such underdogs, and I can't help but whence at the inherent racism of this sentiment. Marcus' and Brandon's brains work as well as any other teams. Of course they were capable of winning a national circuit tournament. Truly, when you get down to it, to assume otherwise amounts to the same lowering of expectations social scholars bemoan at inner city public schools.

One could go on and on about all the challenges these kids face - the poverty, the crime, the broken families - but when it's all boiled down to a rancid core, what's left is a pervasive belief in black inferiority. Say inner city, and black and broken comes to mind. When blacks rise out of the ghetto intact, when they attain successes that are taken for granted on the white side of town, it's celebrated. Newspapers run front page articles. Hollywood producers option film rights.

And as excited as I was to be in that hotel on a Sunday morning in late October, I was also disturbed that a win should feel so important to me. It should be a common thought, I thought. But then a team like Central had never won such a competition. History's history, even if it comes more than century late.

CONAN: That's a nice piece of writing.

Mr. MILLER: Yeah, that's - thank you. Thank you. And that kind of gets at the main point that I wanted to get at with the book. I saw this as a great story, certainly, and I like to read books that read like novels but are true. But ultimately I wanted this story to be a way for readers to get an idea of sort of how race and class and power work within the education system in our country. And I felt the debate would be the perfect vehicle through which to do that.

And I think moments like that - and that's one of the things I try to do with the book is that as I go along, sort of my ideas and my sense about race and class change. And that's one moment where I'm sort of following the script, I'm rooting for the underdog, but then I pull back and say, wait a minute. Why are they the underdog? You know, and that in itself, that we would call Marcus and Brandon the underdog, I think speaks volumes about where we are as a country.

CONAN: It's also interesting that in many of the debates that you're covering are about race and power in America.

Mr. MILLER: Yeah, I really - I mean, I really lucked out as a journalist because I - I mean, if I were a novelist, I don't think I could come up with such a strong metaphorical device. But it's true. That entire year that Marcus and Brandon were debating, they had a case - with a debate case, one of the things you try to do to convince the judge to vote for you is you put an advantage on it. And one of the advantages that they pushed was that their case would help to end racism, or at least abate it some.

So all year long, they're debating about the real issues that their lives are intertwined in. So for, you know, for a nonfiction writer, I'm able to sort of have these characters that are involved in this really dramatic activity, that's, you know, has you kind of on the edge of your seat. But at the same time, they're talking about the very thematic things that I want to get at.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners involved in this conversation: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us: Let's begin with Steve, and Steve is calling us from St. Louis.

STEVE (Caller): Hi, I knew Marcus and Brandon when I was in high school. I competed in debate in high school and later in college, and now I'm a first-year law student. And one of the things that I found fascinating about the activity in the time that I participated in it was that there was - there's been a stylistic change in the way that a lot of people approach the activity.

When - I mean, Marcus and Brandon and some other debaters from different schools began competing, they participated in a kind of - I guess you could say the conventional style of debate, where people would speak at different paces of speed, depending on who was in the back of the room. They would present very conventional arguments.

And throughout the past I'd say four or five years there's been a move towards accepting more - I don't want to say pop culture - but more accessible styles of evidence and arguments. And it's been good and it's improved the accessibility of the activity to a lot of people. But I think it's also, to a certain degree, pigeonholed a lot of people. And while it's important that we discuss issues like privilege and race and power, it's also unfortunate when, you know, individuals who are very smart people and very capable are just pigeonholed and, you know, those are the guys or gals who just talk about those things and they don't care about anything else.

Mr. MILLER: Well, that's definitely true. And my book sort of brackets that period of time that he talks about. When I came in, Marcus and Brandon were very much into the - like he said - the conventional style of debate that would take place on what's known as the national circuit, where they're trying to get to that tournament that Neal mentioned, the Tournament of Champions.

And the norm in that kind of debate is to read as quickly as possible. The whole object of the game is sort of to throw as much evidence and as many arguments at the other team as you possibly can and force them to not answer one of the arguments. And that goes as a dropped argument, a conceded argument, and the one who can prevail in that way wins.

But over the last four years, there have been a number of schools - and it started at the college level - who have come in and said, look. The way you play this game with this sort of, you know, this odd, super-fast reading style that requires, you know, very highly technical training and you often have to go to, you know, institutes to learn it that costs thousands of dollars, that that actually is creating a community that's around an activity that's very segregated and very classic - class - divided along class lines. It's sort of a system that honors the more elite schools, the more wealthy and privileged kids. And the book, my book very much covers that, because by the end, Central High is very much taken on those same kind of arguments.

The second point you mentioned, you know, it is true. And we're kind of experiencing that this year with Central High. I've stayed on as assistant coach, and we started taking on these race arguments dead-on, and then we've sort of tried to branch out and address the resolution more directly, but in our students own voice. And our teams were kind of getting voted down a lot this year, and folks were saying, well, why don't you go back to those race arguments again…


Mr. MILLER: …which is, you know, you're right.

CONAN: It's probably the assistant coach's fault, I figure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLER: They would say so. I'm sure they would blame me first.

CONAN: On that first point, though, it's interesting. One of the debaters you describe practiced his articulation by gripping a ballpoint pen in his mouth, which I guess is the modern-day version of Demosthenes learning to articulate with pebbles in his mouth.

Mr. MILLER: Yeah, that's a Jane Rinehart trick. Jane Rinehart's the main coach of the team, and that's one way that she would get students to build their enunciation skills. It actually - the interesting thing about Marcus is that he had a bit of a speech impediment when he came in, and debate - he was able to overcome that and become, frankly, one of the best speakers in the country at the time he was a senior.

CONAN: Steve, thanks very much for the call.

STEVE: Thank you.

CONAN: Good luck with your studies in law school. And Marcus Leach is going to be joining us after we come back from a break. We're going to continue talking with Joe Miller about his new book Cross-X. And if you'd like to join the conversation, give us a phone call: 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

We're talking right now about the book, Cross-X. It tells the story of a champion debate team at Kansas City's Central High and delves into issues of race, power, and education in America. In just a couple of minutes, we'll talk with one of the members of the 2001 debate squad who is profiled in the book.

Our guest is Joe Miller, the author of Cross-X, and you're invited to join the discussion. If you're involved in debating, give us a call. What is it about? Why does it matter? 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is

And just before the break, Joe Miller, you were talking about Jane Rinehart, who's the coach of this team - an extraordinary individual who recruiter her debaters by looking for the biggest smart-alecks in the school.

Mr. MILLER: Yeah. She often says that the best place to find debaters is the in-school suspension room. Yeah, debating requires a bit of backbone, a bit of attitude. You don't want the students that sort of sit in the front row and politely raise their hands and answer all the questions correctly. You want the contrarians.

CONAN: The argumentative types. I guess that's…

Mr. MILLER: Exactly. Well, it's about arguing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: It's all about arguing.

Mr. MILLER: Debate is arguing, yes, yes.

CONAN: Well, let's introduce Marcus Leach now. He was a member of the Central High debate team in 2001, and features prominently in Joe Miller's book. Today he's a senior in college, majoring in political science at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, and he joins us today from the studios of member station KCUR in Kansas City. Very nice of you to be with us today, Marcus.

Mr. MARCUS LEACH (Former Member, Central High School Debate Team): Hi, thank you, Neal.

CONAN: There's a moment in the book where Joe Miller quotes you as saying - you're in room 109, the room in the school where the debate team practiced - and you looked around and said, you know, in five years, I'm going to be in prison. And it looks to me like in five years, you're going to be in graduate school.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEACH: Actually, I anticipate entering law school this next fall. That situation was, at Central - something that's really lacking is hope, and Jane provided the opportunity for us to know that college is possible. It's feasible. And opportunity was seriously lacking at the time, and she kind of changed that for us all.

CONAN: And debate did that for you. It helped you not only think, but it gave you an outlet for that obvious intelligence.

Mr. LEACH: Absolutely. Like, I'd find myself questioning my presence at school. Early on my freshman year, I was bored. I'd have nothing to do after school, so I'd just drift the streets. And then Jane provided me the chance to release a lot of frustration and anger, and at the same time advance my skills in reading and writing and research.

CONAN: But at least the way Joe Miller describes it, there was a lot of social pressure that you were - and the other debaters - were under to say, you know, what are you getting involved in debate for?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEACH: Yes.

CONAN: And what about your family as well? Were they supportive of you?

Mr. LEACH: Oh, yes. My mother absolutely loved the opportunity for me to participate in debate, because it was an opportunity for me to see the world outside of Kansas City - and not even Kansas City, outside of my neighborhood, outside of the 12 blocks around my school and house.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And I'm not going to ask you to describe that neighborhood. I'm going to ask Joe Miller to describe that neighborhood. You do such a good job in the book.

Mr. MILLER: Okay, well, I mean Marcus at the time - and his mom still lives there, lives on a street with no sidewalks near the VA Hospital on the far eastside of Kansas City - and it's a pretty rough neighborhood. I mean, you know - boy, I don't know if I should say this. I mean, should I say about Jason, Marcus, or?

Mr. LEACH: Feel free to. It's…

Mr. MILLER: Well, you know, his younger brother was shot a couple of years ago, just a few blocks away from his house. He was driving home from a party, and a car slammed into him and shot him, and he's now crippled from the waist down.

Marcus' mom told me that all the time her sons were growing up, that she would do whatever she could to afford the best computer games and the best, you know, video games and such just to keep them off the streets because she didn't want them running around the neighborhood.

CONAN: Hmm. Let's get another caller on the line. This is Carol, and Carol's with us from Oakland, California.

CAROL (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Carol, go ahead, please.

CAROL: Yeah, hi. I'm an attorney in Oakland. And about 10 years ago, I was chair of a law foundation in Oakland that sponsored a moot court competition in the public high schools in Oakland. And this was obviously designed to help kids, inner city kids, get some access to something exciting and stimulating and something to direct their sort of argumentative skills into sort of a positive direction. So we gave them - we designed a legal problem based on an actual case, and in this particular instance it was about obscenity in the lyrics of a rap song.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

CAROL: And so, obviously, trying to reach the interests of those - at that level of kids. So I went out to all the public high schools, including the sort of alternative schools for the really bad kids. I got the kids involved. I got teachers involved for the most part, except for in one school where the teacher's response when I asked her if I could speak to the class was my kids are not smart enough to be interested in this participation.

But she allowed me to speak to them, and I did. And when I asked how many kids would be interested in participating, almost all of them raised their hands. Not only that, I got the teacher onboard to be a coach. And with some other attorney coaches, we coached that class, and two of the members of that class won the competition.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLER: You know, that's great. That...

CAROL: You know, and it's…

Mr. MILLER: Oh, sorry. Let's…

CAROL: …it's just like if you expect - if you have a negative expectation of kids, that's what you're going to get.

Mr. MILLER: Exactly.

CAROL: You know, if you give them a chance and you give them an opportunity and you support them with coaching, they're going to do something that's - they're going to do just as well if not better than kids in, you know, better area schools.

CONAN: Yeah, and Marcus Leach - I'm sorry to cut you off, Joe - but I wanted to ask Marcus - boredom seems to be a big problem in schools for bright kids.

Mr. LEACH: Absolutely. The way the schools run now, school lets out at about 2:15, and that leaves plenty of hours before the parents get home for kids just to roam the streets. And that's where their problems really tend to happen, immediately after school. And there's just nothing to do. People starting losing faith and reasons to come to school because they don't see what's at the end of the road, and that's what debate provides. It's a chance to get out of there.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And as a prospective law school student, I suspect you know what moot court is all about.

Mr. LEACH: Yes, I absolutely love it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I bet you're pretty good at it, too.

Mr. LEACH: I gave it a few tries in college, the mock trial, local invitations, etc.

CONAN: Carol, good luck.

CAROL: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's talk now with - this is John. John's with us from Kansas City.

JOHN (Caller): Yes, good afternoon, gentlemen.

CONAN: Afternoon.

JOHN: I have been debating for many, many years. I debated when I was in high school, in college nationally, and one thing I don't know if your book addresses - even though Marcus doesn't know me from Adam - the Urban Debate League and Central High School brought a level of intellectualism to debate that we normally didn't have.

I live in the lily-white suburbs of Johnson County, and that's the suburban area of Kansas City that's more privileged, and the debate style here is really puritanical and somewhat boring. And that's what the Urban Debate League really changed. And I feel that they are threatening the existing structure here, which is a very good thing, by the way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JOHN: Do you understand what I'm talking about, fellas?

Mr. MILLER: Who's threatening which existing structure?

JOHN: Well, you know, I (unintelligible).

Mr. MILLER: The UDLs are threatening the Johnson County?

JOHN: Well, not just Johnson County, but you know the style in the Midwest…

Mr. MILLER: Mm-hmm.

JOHN: …is pretty boring, and I think one reason you guys were able to take advantage of that is you were able to expose yourselves to outside styles…

Mr. MILLER: Mm-hmm.

JOHN: …including college styles, which I think allows you to crush a lot of your competition.


JOHN: And the reason I know this is I've helped high schools do the same thing.

Mr. MILLER: Mm-hmm.

JOHN: One of the problems I'm having is replicating things at high schools like Van Horn and other places, because they just don't have the dedicated staff to do that.


Mr. MILLER: Well, and that's the key, really, is - and this goes back to what the earlier caller said from Oakland that - I mean, it really takes dedicated adults that believe in the kids and are willing to challenge the kids. And that's really one of the things that I was hoping - I'm hoping that my book will do, that people will read it and sort of get hooked on the thrill ride of debate that I got hooked on, and now I'm - you know, now I'm assistant coaching.

I hope that young teachers might read it and say, you know, this is something that I can do to sort of, you know, feel like I can do something more than just teach to the test. Or, you know, even, you know, young professionals like myself who are writers or lawyers or such who want to get involved in the community, debate is a great way that you could come in after school a couple of days a week and sort of help give these skills to, you know, to challenge the kids, but also, you know, learn yourself. Honestly, it's about the best adult education thing I could think of. I've been…

CONAN: I wondered when…

Mr. MILLER: …I've never read so much.

CONAN: I was wondering if you had read Michel Foucault before you went to Central High.

Mr. MILLER: I had never - no. I hadn't.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLER: No, and I, you know, I guess I'm embarrassed to say this, but I'm going to say it - but I hadn't heard of him before it. I was just a hack from a newspaper. I didn't know Michel Foucault from Michel Malkin(ph).

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And Marcus Leach, there's a moment Jane Rinehart, the instructor, there's - the assistant principal, I think, comes into the room, room 109, and complains about the mess. And she looks around and says we have kids studying Foucault, and you're talking about the mess here?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEACH: Yeah, we had always - I mean, it would be loaded with newspapers, books, periodicals. You know, we'd never really get time to put things away when we were done with them, so it upset a lot of people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Mm-hmm. John, thanks very much.

JOHN: Thank you.

CONAN: And good luck with your debate.

JOHN: Oh, appreciate it. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's - I think we have another caller from Kansas City, if I can find the right button. There it is, number one. Of course I could find it. David, David's with us on the line from Kansas City.

DAVID (Caller): Yes, hi, thank you.

CONAN: Sure.

DAVID: I'm on the faculty at Kansas University at the Edwards campus, and I was a previous faculty at Northeast High School, which is a rival high school, and was a judge with several of the UMKC tournaments that - so I may have actually been a judge for you, Marcus.

Mr. LEACH: Okay.

DAVID: I would say that the Central High School team was probably one of the most prepared teams that I saw out there at that tournament when I was judging.

CONAN: That's interesting, because reading Joe Miller's book, Marcus Leach, preparation sometimes didn't figure prominently in Central High's, well, preparations, if you will. Sometimes, you guys made it up as you went along.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEACH: Well, sometimes, in a debate, it's impossible to be completely prepared. But Brandon and I, we had a work ethic, but at the same time, we were kind of the relaxed before the round begins type people. And sometimes we take a week off after a tournament, and that'd really bite us the next tournament.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: David, thanks very much for the call.

DAVID: Yes. (Unintelligible)

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's talk now with Stacey(ph), Stacey calling us from Toledo, Ohio.

STACEY (Caller): Hi, yeah. I'm a former high school debater myself. I debated in the ‘90s, ended my debate career in '98. And when I was debating, it was all guys on the team and as a female, you really had to have guts to go in there. You know, I mean, you went up against all-male teams, and you're this girl. You can't spread, which is talking really fast as you guys might know. And, you know, it taught me guts. I'm a reporter now in a male-dominated field, and you know, it taught me guts and gave me the guts to do what I do now.

CONAN: That's an interesting observation. And Joe Miller, you described sort of a really male-dominated hierarchy at Central on the debate team.

Mr. MILLER: Yeah, the team is sort of male-dominated. I think that has as much to do with sort of the culture at the school and maybe, Marcus, you could talk about this on why that's the case. It's something we're working on, and we have some young girls coming up, you know, sophomores and juniors. But it has seemed to be the sort of history of the team that it's boys who were the top varsity. Why do you think that is, Marcus? I'm curious of your position.

Mr. LEACH: Well, I think a lot of it deals with the fact that debate - it just requires the type of argumentative personality, and sadly, society and the debate community sometimes, when they see a woman in that position, they tend to push that away and give all kinds of negative connotations to that person. It's a sad thing. And more specifically at Central, I know Jane tries her hardest, and this year, she's doing really well with females on the squad. But it's just - it's a tough thing to deal with.

CONAN: Marcus, you feel still follow the team? You know who's on it?

Mr. LEACH: I actually - this past weekend, I had the chance to ride with him on a debate tournament in Iowa, and it was the first time in many years. I really enjoyed. They're still arguing really well, and positive things ahead.

CONAN: Stacey, good luck with your career. Appreciate it.

STACEY: Thank you.

CONAN: You were talking about the book Cross-X: The Amazing True Story of How The Most Unlikely Team From The Most Unlikely Of Places Overcame Staggering Obstacles At Home and At School To Challenge The Debate Community on Race, Power and Education.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get another caller on the line, and go to Kylie(ph). I hope I'm getting that right. Kylie in San Rafael, California.

KYLIE (Caller): Yes, that's right.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

KYLIE: I was a high school and college debater in the ‘90s as well, and I found it just really fantastic the way to really - to gain critical thinking skills and public speaking ability. And primarily, to also be able to argue both sides of the issue, especially when there was one side that I just didn't believe in, that I really couldn't agree with except when I had you in the tournament.

CONAN: And Marcus Leach, that sounds like good preparation for a lawyer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEACH: Absolutely.

KYLIE: Actually, I went to law school after I got out of college.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: All right. Kylie, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

KYLIE: Thank you.

CONAN: That idea of critical thinking, though, Joe Miller, that seems to be at the heart of all of this.

Mr. MILLER: Absolutely. Critical thinking, but I think even more importantly than that, I mean definitely critical thinking. But I think the most important thing that debate brings across is it teaches us skills of political power. And by that, I mean, not everybody's going to go into law or go into Congress, who've been in debate.

But you know, there's political - there's politics in the office place. There's politics in corporations. There's politics within family dynamics. And in debate, you learn sort of how to assess arguments, assess opposition, come up with your perspective to put forward your position and sort of frame things in such a way that you can prevail in what you need to do. I think that's - especially in today's economy, those are just invaluable skills.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get one more caller in. Martha is with us. Martha calling from Harrisonburg in Virginia.

MARTHA (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

MARTHA: I wanted to make the comment of how expensive the activity is. In order to compete nationally, you pretty much have to travel nationally. And I went to a public high school that was good enough to fund us. Otherwise, we middle-class kids never could have afforded it. And I suspect it still tends to be the province of some fairly elite private schools. And I'm just interested enough to know whether or not that's still case.

CONAN: Joe Miller?

Mr. MILLER: Yeah, that's absolutely still the case, and that's - it's a problem. I mean, quite frankly, it's a problem. Neal mentioned at the beginning of the broadcast this Tournament of Champions. That's probably the most probably the most elite tournament to get to, and you - it's right. Like you said, you have to spend a lot of money to go to the national tournaments to get your bids to go through to tournament champions.

You also have to spend quite a put a bit of money to go to these institutes that colleges put on that often cost 3 to $4,000 to pick up the skills to succeed. And also, to be successful at that level, you need a pretty good-sized coaching staff, because it takes a tremendous amount of evidence to succeed at that level.

So, in some ways, this game - and this a point that I get out at the book, you know, is that I come in thinking that that national style of debate is actually a very good thing, that it's, you know, critical thinking skills and just rapid learning and reading and all that sort of stuff. But over time, I come to see that it's actually created, you know, a very segregated, classist community. And what's sad about it - that's not necessarily a problem - but the saddest thing is that debate is at the core of American democracy.

I mean, it's at the core of Western ideologies about, you know, how we should order ourselves. And if that game is now being sort of hijacked for, in some ways, by these elite schools, that they can only afford to succeed at it, I think that's a problem. And that's one thing that we're addressing at Central High, is that we're sort of taking on those norms and saying, look, you know, this is - it's important that we find a way to debate so that more voices can come into the game.

CONAN: Martha, thanks very much for the call.

MARTHA: Thank you.

CONAN: And I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Marcus Leach, thanks very much for joining us today and good luck when you go to law school.

Mr. LEACH: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Marcus Leach was a member of the Central High Debate Team in 2001, today a senior in college majoring in Political Science at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, with us today from our member station KCUR in Kansas City. And Joe Miller, appreciate you being with us today, too.

Mr. MILLER: Thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: Joe Miller is a journalist who lives in Kansas City, and he's the author of Cross-X. He was with us today from member station KCFR in Denver, Colorado. When we come back from a short break, continue our series Rethinking Iraq. Our guest is retired General Jay Garner.

I'm Neal Conan. It's THE TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.