By Pat Sherman
La Jolla High School senior Ram Prasad has spent two years traveling the nation arguing for and against sides in some of today’s most pressing issues, such as rehabilitation versus retribution in the criminal justice system and the appropriate response to domestic violence.
His dogged research skills and knack for persuasion have earned him the distinction of being the No. 1 ranked Lincoln-Douglas style debater in the United States.
“To keep it up, I just need to keep doing well, winning tournaments and round robins,” said Prasad, 17, who also has the highest number of bids on the national circuit toward inclusion in the Tournament of Champions — the most prestigious high school debate tournament in the country, held the first week in May at the University of Kentucky.
The Lincoln-Douglas form is based on a series of debates between Republican Abraham Lincoln and Democrat Sen. Stephen Douglas in 1858, which highlighted the issue of slavery in the United States.
“Those debates emphasized questions of morality and our normative obligations,” said Prasad, explaining that today’s Lincoln-Douglas debates focus on a rapid rate of delivery and political and moral theory.
La Jolla High’s lunchtime speech and debate club coach Robert Boyd said each year the school sends students to participate in the state debate championships, though Prasad is the only one with national credentials.
“I’ve seen other debaters who can be very hostile and aggressive,” Boyd said. “Ram has a very sophisticated approach where he doesn’t need to yell at his opponents or try to blow them away with histrionics. He gets them with the facts and a cool head.”
With financial assistance from his parents, nearly every weekend Ram travels to various tournaments around the country to compete against some of the nation’s top debaters.
From Nov. 23-25, Prasad competed in the Glenbrook Speech and Debate Tournament in Chicago and will participate in seven or eight other debates before the end of the year. “He’s been chipping away at them, and finally this year he’s on top,” Boyd said.
Ram said he got interested in debating after losing a debate in eighth-grade history class. He said he enjoys the academic challenge of preparing for debates, which includes up to two hours a day researching, writing arguments and competing in practice rounds.
“There is a large degree of freedom in researching and learning things on my own time, as opposed to say the constraints of school,” he said.
Debaters must prepare to argue equally well for each side of an argument.
“You are forced to debate for both sides of the topic. It’s not a question of choice, really,” Prasad explained. “I try to put in the same amount of work regardless of whether I like the topic or not. I think having to debate both sides gives me a degree of skepticism toward absolute credence in any one belief.”
Tournament winners receive no money, just “shiny trophies and recognition,” Prasad said. “My parents are very generous and supportive,” he added.
Prasad’s mother, Durga Rani characterized her son as a “voracious reader” with a “natural curiosity for learning about world affairs.”
Though the national debate circuit can be “work-intensive, time-consuming and stressful,” Rani said she is excited that her son has reached the “pinnacle of competition.”
“Debate is about more than just winning — although that’s always nice!” she enthused. “It’s about diving into thought-provoking topics that enable Ram to pursue his interests in ethics and public policy with unparalleled intellectual freedom.”