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High School Debate Takes Center Stage

November 5, 2013 3 minute Read by Machir Stull

Though it has hosted former Cabinet members and Ambassadors, titans of industry, and one former President (whose name sits atop the building), the small stage had never hosted a debate until Sunday, October 20, when two of America’s brightest debated whether privatizing Mexico’s energy sector would help that country’s people.  

On one side, Milwaukee’s Hope Merens passionately quoted the renowned economist Hernando de Soto while suggesting that Mexico has other challenges to address before it should consider privatization.  On the other side, Minneapolis’s Lillie Ouellette-Howitz logically outlined reasons why immediately privatizing the energy sector would be a boon for Mexico and its people. Though still in high school, the debaters’ mastery of economics left no doubt why they emerged as the lone finalists from a field of nearly 70 students who traveled to Dallas for the Bush Center’s second annual high school economic debate tournament.

In 2012, 4% Growth Project Director Amity Shlaes had an idea to host a high school debate about economics in order to encourage the country’s youth to engage the often overlooked subject.  “Competition is a very efficient way to learn,” Shlaes says.  With that in mind, the Bush Center hosted a single high school debate tournament last year to rousing reviews. 

Because bigger usually means better in Texas, the 4% Growth Project grew the program in a big way for 2013.  By relying upon a multitude of great partnerships, the Bush Center hosted five regional debates and an online essay competition in 2013, with each event designed to qualify students for the “national championship” tournament in Dallas on Saturday, October 19 and Sunday, October 20. 

The 70 students who eventually qualified and traveled to Dallas came from places like Seattle, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Baltimore and Philadelphia.  Once here, each student debated issues about U.S. economic engagement in Latin America for 5 rounds on Saturday, before the field was narrowed down to just 8 debaters on Sunday, when a surprise topic about Mexico’s oil and gas industry was introduced. 

Although Lillie Ouellette-Howitz won the top prize, every student came away a winner by daring to compete, engaging in a difficult topic and pushing themselves to try something new. 

“It’s very interesting to me that you’re the kind of person who wants to get away from the Internet and the computer and interface with students from around the world in a forum that’s competitive,” President George W. Bush told the students after the competition concluded. 

Only time will tell, but perhaps we can add “future president” to the list of esteemed individuals who have walked upon the Bush Center’s stage.  We know better than to argue against any of them!

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