The Penn State Debate Society was founded in the 1890s, but debate did not really take off at Penn State until the late 1910s. A women’s debate team was founded at Penn State in 1916. However, due to the First World War, the team was quickly disbanded and not reinstated until 1926. During the 1920s the Debate Society became much more popular, so much so, in fact, that 70 students tried out for the team in the fall of 1927. Of those applicants only 30 elite debaters made the cut. Around that time, the Penn State student newspaper, The Collegian, went so far as to suggest that debate become an official activity of the fraternities on campus.
During the 1920s the Penn State Debate Society began holding Extemporaneous Speaking Contests. Students gave speeches on a wide range of topics, including titles like “God of Science,” “These Women,” “Getting Nowhere, Rapidly,” and “The Great Sports Myth.”
During this time period, the Penn State Debate Society engaged in competitions with many teams from Pennsylvania, from elite national universities, and with programs from abroad.
- Teams from Pennsylvania included: Dickinson, Gettysburg, Lafayette, Lincoln, The University of Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh, Saint Francis, Washington and Jefferson, and Ursinus
- Other American universities included: Boston College, Bowdoin, Florida, Holy Cross, Michigan State, Northwestern, Rutgers, and Syracuse
- International opponents included: the Canadian Universities Team, The National British Students’ Union, The National Union of Students of Germany, and Oxford University
The Penn State Debate Society has a long history of engaging with serious issues affecting both the campus and the nation, ranging from Prohibition and the League of nations to women’s suffrage and Executive powers. A sampling of topics from the 1920s and 1930s includes:
- From 1926: “Resolved that the Volstead Act should be modified so as to permit the sale of light wine and beers”
- From 1927: “Resolved that American private investments in foreign countries should not be protected by the United States Government”
- From 1928: “Resolved that women’s suffrage has been of practical benefit”
- From 1930: “Resolved that the evils of the machine age outweigh its benefits”
- From 1931: “Resolved that several states should enact legislation providing for compulsory unemployment insurance”
- From 1933: “Resolved that all intergovernmental world war debts including reparations should be cancelled”
- From 1934: “Resolved that the power of the President should be substantially increased as a matter of settled policy”