Friday, June 29, 2007

Scenes from a Debate Season

This past Sunday's Washington Post included an Outlook section article about the relatively new debate program in District of Columbia schools. Its author, Phil Kerpen, quoted President John F. Kennedy as saying:

"I think debating in high school and college is most valuable training, whether for politics, the law, business, or for service on community committees such as the PTA and the League of Women Voters. . . . The give and take of debating, the testing of ideas, is essential to democracy. I wish we had a good deal more debating in our institutions than we do now."
Kerpen also pointed out some of the benefits earned by student debaters, benefits that are often overlooked or undervalued:
Like athletics, debate teaches the value of teamwork and healthy competition. Unlike athletics, debate channels the competitive spirit of students into rigorous academic work.
Preparation for debate requires extensive research, including critical thinking to formulate arguments and anticipate responses, as well reading comprehension and writing skills. Debate also teaches presentation skills and builds confidence. It teaches listening and note-taking skills. Competition drives these benefits in a virtuous cycle. Students continually improve their skills not because they are told to but because they want to win.
National studies have found that participation in debate can substantially and quickly increase reading scores, reduce disciplinary referrals and increase critical-thinking ability.
Kerpen's piece reminded me of something I wrote years ago, based on my own experience as a high school debater and later as a debate judge and coach. But before I get to that, let me take you back to October 1988, when Mike McGough, then editorial page editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, contributed a piece to The New Republic called "Pull It Across Your Flow" (unfortunately available online only in the pay-per-view TNR archives).

McGough, who had debated at Pittsburgh Central Catholic High School in the 1960s (around the time that school was considered a debate powerhouse), was disappointed by some of the changes that had occurred in the debate world in the two decades since he had been active on the circuit, and his TNR article -- which was cited in Gary Alan Fine's 2001 book, Gifted Tongues: High School Debate and Adolescent Culture -- was consequently critical, as well as observant:
Michael McGough high school debate The New Republic
If the meaningless sound bites traded at today's presidential debates represent one regrettable oratorical extreme, then the current condition of high school debates represents the other. Let me take you to a typical high school debate tournament, at which two-member teams from around the country square off on the "public policy" proposition that they will wrestle with all year. High school debate topics are worthy and boring enough to come from the MacNeil-Lehrer playbook; this year's question is whether the federal government should maintain a program of retirement security for the elderly.

The debate is already in progress, so you let yourself in quietly, fearful of interrupting one of the speeches. But no one is speaking. Instead, the two pairs of debaters, hedged in by prodigious file drawers and briefcases, sit at desks scratching on legal pads as the "audience" — a single judge — inclines scribelike over her own notepad.

Time passes until one of the debaters at last rises from his desk, legal pad and sheaf of index cards balanced on his arm. You brace yourself for a burst of eloquence — certainly the boy has had plenty of time to prepare — but when he speaks it is sotto voce with eyes cast downward. "I'll start with the D.A.s," he says, "then go back to the P.M.N. and finish with solvency." A pause follows, during which the other debaters and the judge nod knowingly and consult their legal pads. Then, suddenly, our speaker shifts into drill-instructor mode and shouts: "REALIZE that the Affirmative has dropped all of our D.A.s, therefore they lose. Now go to the B(l) subpoint." That's the last sentence you can make out; as he presses on, the boy increases his speed until he sounds like the motormouth in the Federal Express commercials. Adding to the robotic effect is his habit of constantly raising and lowering his right arm in order to scoop up his index cards.

I EXAGGERATE—but only a little. Some debaters manage to make themselves understood despite the machine-gun delivery. And such is the effervescence of youth that even the most jargon-clogged debate can suddenly turn frisky and familiar, as when one of the debaters I recently heard warned that if a certain policy were implemented, "the Soviet Union will freak out of their minds!"

Overall, however, the effect of a high school debate on the unwary spectator is usually one of bewilderment. Today's budding Buckleys traffic more in bizarre jargon than the telling bon mot. A "D.A.," for example, refers to "disadvantage," a term of art for a negative consequence of the adoption of the Affirmative resolution. "P.M.N." stands for Plan Meets Need. "Solvency" is a reference not to financial security but to the ability of the Affirmative plan to "solve" a problem. But don't expect a contestant to translate these terms for you. In today's high school debates, the object of the exercise is to beat your opponent, not win over an audience.
Oddly enough, this article from TNR's October 10, 1988, edition features the only appearance in the entire archives of The New Republic -- going back to 1914 -- of the phrase "high school debate."

McGough's article prompted replies from readers, including me. My letter to the editor -- which defended "modern" debate styles against the article's critique -- was not published in the magazine, but it did lead to a telephone call from Mike McGough, who invited me to lunch. We have seen each other periodically since then, most recently when he was in Charlottesville for an April 2006 performance of a one-act play, Baggage, written by his nephew, Walt McGough, a UVa student.

But this is a digression.

Although my letter was not printed in The New Republic, I expanded it to a full op-ed piece, which found a few placements in newspapers around the country. I confess to recycling the article in subsequent years, since the high-school debate topic changes annually and that gave me a chance to give the article a new "hook" related to current affairs. The most recent iteration of my debate piece appeared in the Forum section of the Sunday Washington Times on October 12, 2003, almost precisely 15 years since Mike McGough's original TNR article that inspired it. This is how it appeared:

High school debate: road to success

It's easy to make fun of ignorant, uninformed Americans, especially American teenagers, through comic lenses like the Tonight Show's "Jaywalking" segments. Cynicism aside, however, one group of teens eagerly buys newspapers and diligently watches Fox News and C-SPAN. Who? High school debaters. Their topic this year is: "Resolved: That the United States federal government should establish an ocean policy substantially increasing protection of marine natural resources."

cartoonish debaters
While this might seem a dreary topic, it offers much potential. If ocean policy is not the first question posed at a Democratic presidential candidates' debate, it has myriad components. According to America's Living Oceans, a report issued by the Pew Oceans Commission: "The oceans are our largest public domain. America's oceans span nearly 4.5 million square miles, an area 23 percent larger than the nation's land area. Their biological riches surpass those of our national forests and wilderness areas. The genetic species, habitat and ecosystem diversity of the oceans is believed to exceed that of any Earth system."

Yet how we husband those resources can engender serious disputes. The Heartland Institute's Dr. Jay Lehr, for instance, criticizes the Pew report as "anti-capitalist, anti-individual freedom, pro-government" in its approach.

Lots to chew on there, for any policymaker - or for any high school debater.

Most debaters are normal, active girls and boys, if somewhat more competitive and inclined toward books and ideas rather than beer bashes, PS2 games, cars, or sports.

Non-debaters ("laymen"), and even veterans of debate seasons long past, encountering today's debaters in action tend to be simultaneously fascinated and a bit repelled by the state of debate in our high schools today.

Often, they find an arcane world dominated by jargon and fast talking that bears little relation to reality. Some older observers lament the decline of debate from their day, when persuasive oratory was the norm, to the present, when oratory is shrugged off and the emphasis is on the number and complexity of arguments.

All this is true. Yet I am afraid observers who fail to dig a bit deeper might be left with the misconception that high school debate is unreal, unintelligible, or useless. Far from it.

Despite a style incomprehensible to the layman, high school debaters still acquire considerable rhetorical skills. Even in the 1970s, it was said the average debater on the national high school circuit did as much research in one year as a person does for a master's thesis in graduate school. In cross-examination debate, teenagers who might otherwise discuss the relative merits of Britney vs. Christina (or 50 Cent vs. Eminem) discover the most effective means to penetrate a complex public policy argument, cutting across empty quotations and slicing an opponent's logic. Good debate rounds are characterized by humor and intelligence.

Fundamentally, debate teaches its participants to think. Debaters must be able to respond to arguments they have never heard before - at a moment's notice. To prepare, they must spend hours in the library and more hours writing briefs that anticipate and pre-empt opponents' arguments.

Yes, debate is esoteric and unlike the real world. Like any art or profession, it relies on a specialized language to communicate, and it generates theories about reality that may not hold much water in corporate offices, courtrooms, Washington think tanks, or city council chambers. Its benefits nonetheless remain substantial. Debaters are generally better prepared for college than their non-debate peers because they know how to pursue research and how to construct an effective argument. They adapt more easily to stressful academic situations. (My own college admissions essay was about, remarkably, ocean policy, based on research I had done pursuing trophies during the 1975-76 debate season.)

After college, too, the debaters to succeed. Debaters from highly regarded programs like Georgetown, the University of Vermont, and Northwestern are rarely, if ever, denied admission to top law schools and graduate programs.

Competitive debate requires sacrifice. Long hours of research and practice overlap with even longer hours of bake sales and car washes to help finance debate programs. Parents who rise each Saturday at 5 a.m. to drive their kids to a tournament deserve our respect; they also have the satisfaction of knowing their children are engaged in an intellectually invigorating, disciplined activity.

Our schools merit praise and encouragement for including debate programs (which, compared to sports, are substantially less costly) among their extracurricular offerings.

Whatever its flaws, debate continues to stimulate. As this year's ocean policy topic shows, it keeps kids informed on the major issues of the day. With the start of 2003-04 debate season, we can be proud and hopeful that today's high school debaters are tomorrow's community leaders.

Mr. Sincere a former high school debater and debate coach, is author of "The Politics of Sentiment" and "Sowing the Seeds of Free Enterprise," among other works.

Seeing Phil Kerpen's piece, "Undebatably, A Useful Tool for D.C. Schools," in the Washington Post last weekend made me a bit nostalgic for my own years as a high school debater. I found some rare video footage of the 1975-76 debate season at Marquette University High School in Milwaukee, which I posted to YouTube on Wednesday. It features members of the Webster Club at various tournaments, on and off the MUHS campus, during the course of the year. (Law professors John Q. Barrett and James P. Fleissner may not be too keen to have their students see them in this context. Forgive them; it was the 1970s.)
Of course, videos like this will make for a great conversation-starter at the upcoming 150th anniversary celebration of Marquette High.

1 comment:

Duane said...

To this day, now fifteen years separated from high school, I think most fondly on my experience doing debate. It marked the most rapid growth of my intellectual development to date and the skills and confidence gained have paid dividends in nearly every aspect of my professional life. While I also lament the shift away from oratory toward technical jab I still consider the research aspect to be a boon for any student willing to make the effort.