How Can We Fix Debate in America?

The New York Times recently ran an editorial arguing that scholastic debate is harming our society. Debate represents one of our most important pedagogical tools in education and its proper implementation could do more to restore our society than almost any other social reform we could make.  Much of the analysis provided by the New York Times is misguided, uninformed opinion from a college professor who prefers ethics bowl competitions.  There are, however, problems with how we teach and practice debate and some reforms that can help improve political dialogue in our nation.

Initially, the problems with academic debate are noteworthy.  The problems are hard to diagnose because there are at least six major different types of academic debate across high school and college activity.  Policy debate, Lincoln/Douglas, Parliamentary, and Public Forum are at least four major styles of debate that students engage in on the vast national circuit.  Most debate professionals reject the NYT editorial by pointing out how “switch-side” debate solves the problem of ideological entrenchment that the author incorrectly alleges is caused by school debate styles.  Students should have to take both the affirmative and negative sides of a debate.  That is not always the case because of the growing fascination with critical arguments.  Critical arguments within the debate community allow and even encourage students to challenge the assumptions of their peers.  As my students discovered in January of 2018 while debating a team from NYU, they did not really need to debate the possibility of a national health care policy but rather whether queer people should even go to the doctor given how discriminatory all people -- including doctors are -- toward queer people.  That team went on to win the tournament and my novice debaters found that their research about national health insurance was largely irrelevant to the dialogue about various iterations of discrimination offered by competing debaters.  So students do not need to take “both sides” in critical debate because they can allege that their opponents are participants in discrimination if they refuse to play the identity politics game chosen by their opponent, who is free to raise that same issue in every round of debate regardless of whether the topic is military policy, health care, or climate change.  This is a problem and it is reflected in the recent media distortion of debate called “townhall.”  CNN hosted an LGBTQIA townhall that was actually not a debate but rather an ideological echo chamber where again iterations of identity politics were invited to bully one another about how offended or hurt they were about a perceived preponderance of conviction regarding human sexuality.  Even Chris Cuomo found himself on the wrong side of a ‘pronoun debate’ at this non-debate debate.  Townhalls have from their inception in 1992 worked to discourage expressions of political difference.

Another problem that arises is that judging is tightly controlled in high school and college debate.  Mutually preferred judging (MPJ) is a system that guarantees that insiders will strictly regulate what can be accepted as an appropriate argument in college and high school debate. The norms of debate become highly idiosyncratic and often feature 300-400 word per minute deliveries not accessible to the general public.  There are critical thinking benefits to this speed but there are also harms to general public access to argumentation.  The process of judge selection helps create a highly ideological community of coaches where those who have a different view of activity can easily find themselves excluded from judging.  This is being accentuated by efforts to shame judges who write “bad ballots” and create a mood of intimidation about judging.  The average person is referred to as “the bus driver” judge who is not really suitable to a “good debate.”  This process further divorces debate from the public despite the fact that most of these various debate styles were started to “reform” these very same abuses of the argumentation practice.  These problems will be mirrored again in the mediated debate of Democratic Primary debates on Tuesday night at Otterbein University.  Instead of utilizing some of our nation’s best college debate and speech coaches -- Susan Milsap of Otterbein University, Derrick Green of Cedarville University, and Jennifer Talbert of Ohio University -- the debate will feature journalists as the adjudicators of the debate.  These journalists will conduct more of an iterative press conference than a debate.  Good academic speech and debate coaches who are local to the area like Milsap, Green, and Talbert will have no real say in how the debate is designed, performed, or evaluated.  The journalists will allow their favorite debaters to have more speaking time  -- a basic and obvious violation of the expectations of a good debate.

Our society needs good debate like that encouraged by professionals missing from the Tuesday debate.  College debate has made some tremendous social contributions training American heroes such as Barbara Jordan, James Meredith, Medgar Evers, and James Farmer Jr.  Farmer is known as the great debater and his training with coach Melvin Tolson led to a powerful methodology of nonviolent advocacy typically attached to Martin Luther King but actually originating in the rich environment of debate created at an HBCU in East Texas-Wiley College.  I am personally working to develop a more ideologically robust view of debate worldwide by encouraging debates among high school students that utilize non-professional public judges. The Coolidge debates that have run for the last six years challenge students to provide topical and public friendly arguments on contentious issues such as immigration, trade, and education.  Calvin Coolidge was himself transformed by collegiate instruction in debate at Amherst College before he became an American President.  I am traveling to Rwanda in December to help high school students there learn debate to further the incredible progress that nation has made since a genocide destroyed their community 25 years ago. The champions there will join me at the American championship at Coolidge on the 4th of July 2020.  We all need more debate, not less.  We need to learn to listen to one another and meaningfully understand what our “opponents” are saying.  Debate done correctly can open minds rather than close them.  Debate can solve the spiral of silence that can afflict a society too divided by partisanship. 

Dr. Ben Voth is the Calvin Coolidge Debate fellow and author of James Farmer Jr.:  The Great Debater (2017).  He is director of debate and speech at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.

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