The Northwestern Debate Society

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

Campus of Northwestern University, with the library building

The Northwestern Debate Society

The Northwestern Debate Society is the oldest debate group in the United States. The society uses debate to help students improve their thinking and speaking abilities. Northwestern is known for its impressive achievements in debating over many years.

During the school year, society members are very busy. They usually go to seven to ten college tournaments, with their travel costs covered by Northwestern. They also get chances to debate at their own university. The tournaments are a great opportunity for students to compete against other talented debaters and to learn from their experiences. The society also offers a variety of other activities, such as workshops and lectures, that help students improve their debating skills.

The Northwestern Debate Society is a great way for students to develop their critical thinking and communication skills. It is also a lot of fun!


In the Northwestern Debate Society, you’ll find about 20 to 30 members with different skills and experience. If you’re new or have only a little experience from high school, you can join the junior varsity or rookie group. You should also take the course Argumentation and Debate in the fall quarter. This class gets you ready to compete against other colleges in the spring. If you already have a lot of debate experience, you can join a group that starts practicing even before the fall school term begins.

Northwestern University sign with campus map below

A Glimpse into History

Founded in 1855, the Northwestern Debate Society is one of the oldest and most prestigious debate societies in the United States. It traces its roots to Northwestern University, located in Evanston, Illinois, where it was established with the aim of promoting intellectual discourse and critical thinking among its students.

Over the years, the society has evolved, adapting to changing debate formats and expanding its reach beyond the confines of Northwestern University.

The Northwestern Debate Society has consistently emphasized the development of persuasive and analytical skills through organized debates, public speaking, and research. The early years of the society saw it primarily engaging in parliamentary-style debates, which aimed to enhance participants’ oratory and argumentation abilities.

As debate formats evolved, the Northwestern Debate Society adapted accordingly, participating in policy debates and other contemporary styles of competitive debate.

Throughout its history, the society has maintained a commitment to a core set of values, which include intellectual rigor, collaboration, and the pursuit of truth. These values have helped shape the society’s reputation for excellence and fostered a community of individuals passionate about the art of argumentation and rhetoric.

Preliminary Competitions

Each year, on August 15, the Northwestern Debate Society announces the debate topic for colleges. Before the school year starts, debaters should research a lot about this topic. Some students arrive early, around Labor Day, to join a special workshop before the season starts.

This workshop is open to students who have debated for at least two years in high school.
In this early workshop, debaters study the topic deeply. They work closely with debate coaches, join group sessions, and have practice debates. Each coach looks after four debaters. They lead talks about the topic, teach about modern debate ideas and theories, and help students improve their debate skills.

Intercollegiate Competitions

The Northwestern Debate Society offers a wide travel program for its students. They pick students for different debates based on how well they are prepared and their skills, as well as the coaches’ belief that the tournament will be a good learning opportunity. The aim is to help each student reach their highest potential.

During the school year, most debaters go to around seven to ten tournaments. Younger students, like freshmen, usually travel less than older ones, like juniors and seniors, who are more used to the school’s workload. Every member of the society needs to have excellent grades to be allowed to travel. Northwestern covers all travel costs, including food, hotels, transport, and competition fees.

On-Campus Activities

Besides the college-level program, students can also engage in debates right on the campus. Every year, the Northwestern Debate Society organizes the Owen L. Coon Memorial Debate Tournament. This event is the biggest college debate tournament in the country. They also hold the National Novice Debate Tournament, which determines the top national debater among college freshmen. Moreover, the society arranges public debates about different topics that catch the attention of those on campus.

When spring comes, the Northwestern Debate Society hosts the Clarion Dewitt Hardy National Invitational Tournament, specifically for high school students.

Hardy Scholarships

Every year, Northwestern University offers the Hardy Scholarships to two members of the Northwestern Debate Society who are in financial need. These scholarships provide financial assistance, helping to cover the students’ individual expenses throughout the academic year.

To be eligible, students must apply for financial aid and show that they require financial support. Those who meet these criteria are then evaluated for potential University grants. These grants are overseen and distributed by the Office of Financial Aid, ensuring that students who need financial assistance receive the necessary support.

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The Educational Significance

Being part of the Northwestern Debate Society is more than just being good at arguing; it also helps you in life. This society significantly changes how its members think. Here’s how:

In debate, you don’t just use words. You come up with ideas and stand up for them. At the Northwestern Debate Society, members learn to think about tough topics, make strong points, and do deep research. This makes them incredibly good at understanding hard problems.

In a world where everyone has a say, being able to convince others makes you stand out. This society teaches its members to speak clearly and confidently. This skill is incredibly useful in everyday life and at work. The Northwestern Debate Society values discussing things in a smart and kind way. They want their members to get involved in their communities and politics. They host debates and events to get more people talking and caring about important issues.

The Northwestern Debate Society loves to tackle hard topics. For this reason, they encourage their members to think about big, complicated issues. This prepares them to deal with constant changes in the world. They support and challenge each other, making it a great place to grow in school and as a person.

This society doesn’t just teach how to win debates; it helps shape future leaders. Members often become lawyers, politicians, teachers, and activists. It’s also a training ground for individuals who can make a significant difference in the world. They learn the skills and passion needed to create change. The friendships and connections formed here endure for a long time. Members join a supportive community that aids one another in both personal and professional capacities.

This network extends beyond Northwestern University, fostering a lifelong sense of belonging and collaboration.

A hand holding a medal.

Triumphs and Accolades

What sets the Northwestern Debate Society apart are its achievements, making it a true powerhouse in the realm of competitive debate. Let’s unveil some of its major milestones:

  • National Championships: Picture an arena buzzing with passionate debaters, each wielding words as their weapons. The Northwestern Debate Society has conquered these battlegrounds repeatedly, establishing itself as a force to be reckoned with.
  • International Recognition: Just as a great painting transcends borders, the society’s brilliance knows no bounds. Their outstanding performances on the global debate stage have earned them international acclaim, representing the United States with distinction.
  • Debater of the Year Awards: In a world where words hold immense power, certain members of the society have shone brightly. “Debater of the Year” accolades have been bestowed upon their stars, underscoring their remarkable talents and contributions.
  • Coaching Wizards: Behind the scenes, the Northwestern Debate Society boasts a cadre of exceptional coaches. These mentors have a unique knack for polishing raw talent into gleaming gems, playing a pivotal role in the society’s success.
  • Nurturing the Community: Success isn’t merely about collecting trophies; it’s about giving back. The society actively engages with the broader community by hosting public debates and outreach programs. They are champions of debate as a tool for civic engagement and informed decision-making.

Continuing the Legacy

The Northwestern Debate Society’s legacy isn’t just in its past achievements; it’s in the promise of its future. The society continues to evolve, adapt, and thrive, welcoming new generations of debaters. It remains at the forefront of the debate world, setting the bar for excellence and innovation.

The future is bright, and the society’s commitment to intellectual rigor, effective communication, and civic engagement continues to be a beacon for all who seek to join its ranks.

Final Thoughts

The Northwestern Debate Society isn’t just about winning arguments; it’s about shaping minds. It’s about nurturing the next generation of leaders who can think critically, communicate effectively, and engage meaningfully in the world. It’s about the power of discourse, the art of persuasion, and the quest for truth.

In a world where words are weapons, the Northwestern Debate Society is forging champions who wield them with grace and power. Joining this society isn’t just about debating; it’s about discovering the power of your own voice.

Group of students walking in the stairs.

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