The Corrosion of High School Debate—And How It Mirrors American Politics

Debaters rattle off arguments at a blistering pace, sometimes more than 300 words per minute. (image by istock.) Debaters rattle off arguments at a blistering pace, sometimes more than 300 words per minute. (image by istock.)

While high school football players burst out of locker rooms at halftime to vigorous cheers, their counterparts on the debate team exit their buses and cars to a more muted welcome: the quiet babble of a school cafeteria early on a Saturday morning, where teams of debaters rush to colonize their plots of tables and chairs nearest to the electrical outlets or concessions stand.

As extracurriculars go, debate may be the most grinding of them all. In my four years of high school debating, I spent many long nights holed up alone in my room poring over amicus briefs or economic analyses. I passed even longer weekends on buses and planes traveling to schools across the country and staying in hotels or with local families. From winter to spring, in settings as grand as a Harvard lecture hall and as cramped as a boiler room in a Salt Lake City public school, my debate partner and I held forth on everything from nuclear proliferation to sanctions against Russia to the private prison industry.

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As extracurriculars go, debate is maybe the most grinding of them all.

The world of high school debate is often portrayed as a refuge of the budding brainiac, an incubator of the 21st century’s next generation of leaders. To some extent it is that. But the more revealing truth is that the debating community for years has been afflicted with an ideological and practical struggle over the nature of debate. And that struggle does not exist in a vacuum of cafeterias and lecture halls. It has powerful implications for the current state of U.S. politics and for the pursuit of social justice.

Looking back, it seems as if the course of my high school debating career mirrored a deeper erosion in the quality of debate in our wider society. Thanks to a media landscape poisoned by partisan loyalties, the dissemination of “fake news” and the ideological echo chambers created by social media, the country is in the throes of a deep crisis. We don’t know who we are anymore. When I asked myself whether my extracurricular was a force against this decline, or an accessory to it, far too often I settled on the latter. The conventions of high school debate were enabling, at times even creating, our divisive culture.

To understand how high school debate went awry, you would have to go all the way back to its origins. The first debate format practiced widely in high schools, beginning in the 1970s, was called Policy Debate. The format, which is still around today, consists of two teams of two debaters each. The affirmative team proposes a policy “plan” based on a resolution—for example, “The United States federal government should significantly reform its criminal justice system.” The negative team responds to that plan. Unlike more recent formats, where the topics change month-to-month, policy topics run for an entire year and require extraordinary dedication to research and preparation.

The conventions of high school debate were enabling, at times even creating, our divisive culture.

As Policy Debate grew in popularity, the more Machiavellian debaters attempted to gain an edge by overwhelming their opponents with as many arguments and as much supporting evidence as possible. This was because if a team “dropped” an argument by its opponent—if it did not respond to the other side’s claim—that argument was conceded as “true,” no matter how inane it was. Chief among the strategies exploiting this rule was “spreading” (a combination of “speed” and “reading”), where debaters would rattle off arguments at a blistering pace. Their speeches often exceeded 300 words per minute. (A conversational pace is about 60 per minute.)

Debaters started formulating outlandish arguments. The more apocalyptic the outcome the better, with little care for the argument’s probability or real-world application. “A new retirement program will trigger a nuclear war.” “Prison overcrowding would cause the destruction of the ozone layer.” High school debate had come to this.

If you were to peek into a room in the middle of a policy round, you would likely be treated to a flurry of limbs and spittle, as a teenager expelled arguments from his mouth with such speed and force that he would sometimes appear to lose control of his fine motor functions. When an executive of Phillips Petroleum, then the primary sponsor of the National Forensics League, observed a debate at the 1979 national championship, he found it utterly incomprehensible. The executive aired his concerns to the league’s executive council, resulting in an entirely new debate category called the Lincoln-Douglas debate.

The more Machiavellian debaters attempted to gain an edge by overwhelming their opponents with as many arguments as possible.

This format, with its express reference to the famous debates over slavery between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, was designed to promote debates about values and prioritize rhetorical persuasion. In contrast to Policy Debate’s wonkish topics, L.D. featured more timeless resolutions. “It is morally permissible to kill one innocent person to save the lives of more innocent people.” Or “When in conflict, idealism ought to be valued above pragmatism.”

The new format earned the disdain of Policy Debate’s more snobbish competitors, who joked that its initials stood for “learning disabled.” But for students disillusioned with P.D.’s descent into nonsensical, mile-a-minute argumentation, it was a godsend. At least for a while.

Soon L.D. suffered the same fate as its precursor. The speed of argumentation increased, as did the amount of evidence required to be competitive at the national level. As with Policy Debate, the arguments became increasingly unmoored from reality. Some debaters even began refusing to debate the resolutions altogether, formulating elaborate theoretical and critical arguments that were, at best, tenuously linked to the topic they had been given.

As L.D. descended further and further into absurdity, Ted Turner, the billionaire founder of CNN, came along and attempted to turn the ship again. Like the Philips executive several decades earlier, he pushed the National Forensic League in 2002 to establish a new debate format that would be plainspoken and jargon-free. The resulting format, which immediately drew comparisons to CNN’s “Crossfire,” was called Public Forum. Its title was an expression of Mr. Turner’s hope that any reasonably informed member of the public could walk into a Public Forum round and be able to pick a winner.

A decade and a half after its inception, P.F. is still by far the most intelligible category in debate. However, in recent years its speed has increased markedly, as have the mountains of evidence. The emphasis on logic and critical thinking has waned.

Ted Turner hoped that any reasonably informed member of the public could walk into a Public Forum round and be able to pick a winner. 

High school debate today is basically an intellectual game, not an exercise in truth-seeking. It has been turned into something that can easily be scored. This eliminates the complexity and intricacy of real discourse about real issues. If debate is a game, then the execution of a “spread” is like a well-timed blitz in football. Convincing a judge that your opponents’ arguments would cause human extinction is equivalent to a successful Hail Mary pass.

Dozens of summer debate camps have cropped up across the country, offering students the opportunity to go “from novice to nationals,” as one brochure put it. Companies now offer bundles of prepackaged evidence, or “briefs,” to debaters willing to pay to get the upper hand. Instead of producing free, rigorous thinkers committed to the pursuit of truth, debate clubs now promote a very specific technical mastery of skills that do not easily translate to the demands of real life.

The problems plaguing high school debate are mirrored in our public sphere. Political discourse is often little more than a game. Its goal is to score political points with witty rejoinders and scathing takedowns. The purpose of “adult debate,” as with debate for 16-year-olds, is to bludgeon your opponent into submission instead of engaging in open-minded dialogue.

Over time I began to realize that high school debate was my firsthand education in the perversion and abuse of language. I learned how language could be used to conceal, to muddle. This was not limited to the debate community. The writer (and former debate wunderkind) Ben Lerner once wrote, “Americans are always getting ‘spread’ in their daily lives.”

High school debate was my firsthand education in the perversion and abuse of language. 

Think of the rapid-fire medical warnings at the end of prescription drug commercials. Consider the various types of fine print we are exposed to every day from financial institutions and healthcare companies, not to mention Apple’s “Terms and Conditions.” I remember that even when high school debates slowed down enough to seem comprehensible, the avalanche of evidence (much of it of dubious value) and specialized jargon often confused more than it revealed. It became like the kind of language currently poisoning our public sphere.

I learned immensely important skills from my four years of debate. I have met many brilliant, incredibly well-read students from across the country from schools dedicated to treating debate the right way. But these are exceptions, not the rule. The norms that currently guide debate elevate form over content, and victory over truth.

Debate programs are perfectly situated to produce students who want to seek the truth, who will resist the decay of quality public speech. As currently practiced, however, the clearest evidence of a high school debate career is often just a collection of plastic trophies, slowly gathering dust.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Christopher Lochner
2 months 2 weeks ago

Well written, and the problem of current levels of debate and/or discourse is not to seek a common truth but to win the arguement. It appears to exist only for "me" and not for "thee".

Nancy Walton-House
2 months 2 weeks ago

Agreed.

Rich Phillips
2 months 2 weeks ago

Unfortunately, the description of high school debate as characterized herein almost perfectly applies to many of the exchanges contained in the comments to most of the more controversial articles written for this site. Dumb.

Nancy Walton-House
2 months 2 weeks ago

Yes, I am dismayed by so many of the comments on this and other sites.

Christopher McNally
2 months 2 weeks ago

When my sons were in high school, I judged speech and debate over a period of 8 years. Everything this writer says is true. I will add two points. Debate judges are the source of the problem and perpetuate and magnify the problem. Under the rules, the winner should be the debater who is more persuasive. There is no rule that requires a judge to assign equal value to each argument no matter how ridiculous it is. So I spent 8 years judging debate differently than the other judges and emphasizing rhetoric, logic and evidence. The sad thing is that the speed talking that debate teaches has no value in the adult world - unless you are going to make a career out of voiceovers for drug and car commercials. The second point is that the girls were, in general, better debaters precisely because more often they attempted to think, persuade and reason rather than bludgeon their opponent with a cascade of words. Unfortunately sexism prevails even in high school debate and the predominantly male practice of idiotic speed talking gets more points than the predominantly female practice of reasoning. And like society at large this means that we have more females who surrender their feminine values in favor of foolish male habits instead of more males acquiring valuable female traits.

Nancy Walton-House
2 months 2 weeks ago

Interesting perspective. I am saddened to hear this.

Nancy Walton-House
2 months 2 weeks ago

Jack, as a former high school and college debater and debate judge, I am very interested in your excellent review of what happened since I left the practice. I am so sorry things have devolved to this level. My own experience as a debater and daughter of a national debate winner, left me with great respect for the practice. I know I am a much better critical thinker and communicator because of my training and experience. From your description of what is happening now, I don't think I would enjoy debate as I did in my youth in the late 50s and early 60s. Too bad. Our nation and the world needs principled critical thinkers and excellent communicators. Thank you for taking the time to inform us on this issue.

Samuel Duby
2 months 2 weeks ago

Jack,

[Editor's note: uncharitable attack on the article and author removed as contrary to America's comment's policy. Since the comment had already drawn a response, it is not being deleted.]

I’d be thrilled to debate you on the merits of high school debate at any time in any setting.

Regards
Sam Duby
Co-owner Global Debate Symposium
Email [email protected]
Phone 972-802-2581

Emily Baroz
2 months 2 weeks ago

Hi Samuel. "garbage and disgrace" quality as ad hominem attacks. I'm concerned that the owner of the global debate symposium would debate in such a manner. The writer specifically embarrassed neither Regis High School nor Yale University. It appears that you mean to imply that he didn't take advantage of his education at said institutions, but his thoughtful critique implies otherwise. More alarmingly, your comment seems to imply that attendance at said elite institutions demands a certain philosophical loyalty to their programs. Simply because he learned valuable lessons from debate doesn't mean he is forever banned from critiquing the structure of the program. Speaking quickly and spouting unsubstantiated statistics does not constitute impressive rhetoric.
I realize you have a vested interest in the health of debate as an organized activity. I have no dog in that fight. I attended an all women's high school and college where organized debate was never an option (interesting connection to the comment above) but I have a degree in philosophy which required me to study rhetoric extensively, and I was appalled when I first learned of the high school practice of speaking quickly to squeeze in data. The aim of debate is not to win. The aim of debate is to learn. When did we lose sight of this?

Daniel Krudy
2 months ago

Sam,
Unfortunately I didn't have the chance to read your comment, but I'm judging by the backlash and removal that it wasn't a eloquent or respectful point. Feel free to attach it in a response so I can judge for myself, and apologize to you if necessary. I'm taking this opportunity to rebut you, because Jack summed up fairly and well the death spiral of academic debate that has happened over the last 40-50 years.
My background is of a much different pedigree. I grew up around (I debated for 2 years in Policy, and my siblings and I have been involved in debate for the last 12 years) the Michigan homeschool debate leagues, linked to educational/ religious organizations where parents and mentors can force their ideological wills on children and urge and condition them to stand up for something. I've seen the leagues produce the best equipped individuals, in terms of determining what they believe in and standing up for that strongly. Truthfully, I have seen many students deviate IMMENSELY from the ideologies held by their parents. These are not brain washing operations (or else they just don't work as such). But in these leagues, the goal is to make your point convincingly and fairly, without resorting to personal attacks or exploitation. The idea of spoken argument is that it allows the human conscious to express and evolve collectively, which is a worthy and necessary goal. Please refute this if you have any ability, but bluntly, using a very visible political example to make my point, I believe that President Trump would be quite at home in a typical "spreading" style debate round, and absolutely and utterly LOST in a debate that valued and upheld rhetoric, logic, and respect.
That should be a red flag.
So I press you to tell me what IS the value of educating kids through this medium? I have no problem with kids engaging in this type of behavior for fun or sport, but maybe its time we stop considering it part of an education. Instead, I see it to be very similar to battle rapping. Yes, the content is different, and there are fewer personal attacks, but the intention is the same: say more that your opponent in the time allotted and simply overwhelm them with your delivery. There is no value in this cannibalized version of debate, and it is clogging society like plastic is clogging the oceans. Are you, as apparently someone who is willing to stand for the state of academic debate going to do anything about that, or will you continue to spool up the machine faster and faster? From an evolutionary standpoint, do you wish to see humans move forward in their ability to speak faster, or do you wish us to evolve in what I would argue is a more worthy way, like perhaps understanding the merit of this or that perspective and knowing how to express their own?
I'd appreciate a reply, because I value argument and the ability of humans to reach conclusion based on their innate understanding of truth and justice.

-Daniel

John Bredehoft
2 months 2 weeks ago

I debated for eight years, 1972-1980, and saw first-hand the era of "spread" fast-talking. In my view, this was a fun tactical innovation, and debaters were immediately disabused of its utility upon entering the real world. I do, however, agree with the damage done to the activity by "meta-debate" -- debating about debating, or even debating about whether we can debate, or should be listening to the other team at all. I spoke out against this as early as the late 1970s (although, of course, I did some of it myself). I continue to believe that true policy debate is of the greatest value for students, because the intensive research efforts required have an enormous educational value independent of competitive success. (The New Republic published a letter I wrote to their editor decades ago: "High school debaters may quote the World Marxist Review as readily as The Economist, but how many non-debating ninth graders have ever read either?") It would be nice to return to intelligibility (I went to observe the HS Tournament of Champions a few years ago and was largely lost at sea), but true policy debate has always been directed to a highly-specialized audience. And in my experience, policy debaters can easily do other forms of debate -- even audience-based debate, as I did scores of times in school -- while non-policy debaters can seldom make the transition the other way. I appreciate your article, agree with much of your analysis -- but let us not allow our loving criticism of the activity be used to undermine it in all its varied forms. Nothing is so valuable to an education (or, at least, to my education) as debate. Regards, John M. Bredehoft

Rick Brundage
2 months 1 week ago

Jack-

First, I think your connection between the problem in our politics and some of the issues the debate community faces is problematic. Debate, even at its most fast-talking requires students to evaluate evidence and the quality of arguments that are being made. This is a fundamental difference between the soundbite driven non-clash that our political debates lack. Media literacy is one of the most important skills that debate teaches, and many non-debaters don’t get the same level of training in the core curriculum of American high schools. While certainly debate isn’t perfect at teaching this, perfection is probably a lofty goal. I would bet that if you did some serious reflection, surely you, at some point, made some dubious arguments in your career that weren’t exactly “truth seeking”, but still found some other value in debate.

Framing debate as a truth-seeking activity is problematic in itself. In debate, we are forced to switch sides and to convince a judge, whatever their paradigm may be, to vote for one team over another. Debate is about teaching advocacy and trying to make the most convincing case one can for a particular audience. I think that life skill is invaluable. It may not always get at the truth, but it does teach us to put ourselves in the shoes of another person to try convince them. Politics more and more seems to not be centered around convincing some one to change even modest beliefs centered around policy disagreements. Rarely do we hear the how the nuts and bolts of how a policy will or could work in the mainstream media. Most debaters advocating a plan do a reasonably good job (for high schoolers) of trying to defend how a plan will work and the advantages to the plan. Maybe teaching kids how to articulate, defend, and question a course of action is sufficient. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on that. I believe this also means the divisiveness in debate is fundamentally different than the divisiveness we face in society. When students show up at tournaments, there is at least an effort to show up, force a conversation, and to justify your beliefs. Recognizing, listening to, and responding to those differences are important, even though both sides will not come to a conclusion of world views that are radically similar. At least we come to listen, talk, and entertain the possibility that we might be persuaded that another way might be better.

I don’t really want to get in to a conversation about spreading - certainly there are disadvantages of listening to monotone voices reading very quickly, but the best debaters try to infuse their personal style as well. Undoubtedly, some debaters fall short of this, but blaming talking quickly is too easy of a way out. More information seems to be a good thing if it is building on a point, otherwise, the implication would seem to be that less nuance is a good thing. I don’t think you’d disagree with that if it furthered truth seeking. In my experience, I’ve seen interested, intelligent parent judges be able to follow debates around 200 words a minute without problem (sixty seems to be pushing it far too much to not try to score some cheap contrast points), but even the fastest successful debaters know that they may have to adapt to an audience that is not able to process information that quickly.

Regarding high risk, low likelihood scenarios, it seems to me that treating these flippantly is also problematic. Climate change. nuclear proliferation, and war are existential issues we face. I remember during the Republican primary debaters when there was a question regarding the nuclear triad, and President Trump was unable to give a coherent answer a relatively simple question regarding our country’s nuclear arsenal and strategy. Given our deteriorating relations with North Korea, which I think many would agree is because of a less than rigorous approach to foreign policy, these high risk scenarios matter. We could similarly talk about health care, climate change, and American race relations, but I think that one example is sufficient to prove my point for now. Also, I find it to be the case that many debaters are quick to point when unreasonable doomsday scenarios are just that. Debaters tend to deploy those arguments for judges that are willing to listen to it, which, again, is debaters working being open minded and engaging in perspective taking.

At the end of the day, debaters will push the envelope for a strategic edge, as is the case of any competitive activity. The win and the loss make the truth seeking part more difficult, but even then, criticizing the voices of those who chose to debate in a way that you don’t agree with is problematic. If they believe so strongly in their point or perspective that is “tenuously” linked to a topic, did you stop to think to ask why?

This is why I think your piece is itself more of a link to the criticism of how our politics operates than debate itself is. There are lots of difficult subjects that we don’t tend to talk about that are central to our lives - our families, our health, the way that an aspect of our identity is treated by society. Lots of times people are uninterested, or because a conversation is difficult, it is avoided. Some times students are told to just sit and suffer quietly. If they can justify it, and there is a critic that is willing to listen to it, why should the automatic response be to shut them down and tell that student to go do something else?

The start of your article suggested that debate could be a place for future leaders to have a place to learn valuable skills in a world that did not necessarily always value them. The value in those skills is different for every person. There are lots of young people in debate that see or personally experience things that are wrong in the world around them, and they desperately want to do something about it. Just as miners used to bring canaries in to coal mines to alert them to the presence of dangerous gasses that the miners themselves could not see, debaters that chose to argue differently than might appeal to your sensibilities might have a point, and it might be wise for us to listen to those points instead of dismissing them offhand as absurd, irrelevant, or not in search of the Truth.

If you asked most of the LD community, this is probably an odd post for me to write. I know my preferences as a judge, but maligning students who are finding their “perfect blitz” or their search for meaning in their identity through debate seems to shut down those avenues of truth just because you don’t like it is disheartening. Open-mindedness means we need to be really open to those other forms from the start. Without the Terms of Service, we probably don’t get to use iTunes. Without disclaimers, we get more lawsuits. That’s not “slamming” or “excessive rejoinder”. For example, I’d love to see a GOP Apple TOS level of detail on a healthcare plan that is more than a couple of pages long that is actually debated in the public sphere.

Most of my trophies went to recycling long ago, but I am proud of the time I spent as a debate competitor and coach. We should celebrate that students that are trying to find success, attempting to grapple with complex issues, all while trying to navigate who they are and how they fit into our murky politics. I would speculate that most of your coaches and the adults that worked with you as a student would think so, too. I think putting debate down in such a relatively simplistic manner, especially when many schools and a huge number of students struggle to get financial and administrative support is also a little questionable, especially after you’ve already reaped the rewards of being able to attend any national tournament and learned some skills that probably helped you get in to Yale. Thanks for raising some of these issues, and I hope others reading this article and the comments take some time to reflect on being open minded in debate and in politics means, especially when we might have strong reasons and evidence for why we disagree.

For those readers who want other perspectives from educators that have dedicated their lives to teaching young people media literacy, argumentation, research, public speaking, advocacy, and leadership, I’d recommend checking out some of the leading advocacy organizations for competitive forensics, the National Speech and Debate Association (www.speechanddebate.org) and the National Debate Coaches Association (www.debatecoaches.org). Those organizations help give students and schools the resources they need to be able to make sure that everyone has a chance to participate in such an incredible activity. Individual states often have debate or forensics associations, too.

Ben Dewhurst
2 months 1 week ago

Debate is a competition; people participate in order to win. How do you suppose people will ever prioritize "truth" and "open-minded dialogue" when they and their opponents are pre-assigned their positions for the purpose of competition?

Steve Hartell
2 months ago

The idea that structured, rational debate is the way to get at the truth is as obsolete and naive as Freud's wildest theories. I'd put it closer to alchemy. The cost in time and research far, far outweighs the effectiveness. It's like buying a new car every time you need to go to the store. We can't even have something that resembles it at the very highest levels of importance. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump debated three times to prove their fitness for the most important job in the world. It was mostly lies, talk-over, "wrong," and heavy sniffling. And the loser won.

Reason is a fallacy. Speak to bias if you want to convince people.

2 months ago

Did you ever get a chance to try parliamentary debate? It's a college format, but many of the high school debate tournaments I went to offered it (2007 or so). I did it exclusively when it was available. The pacing was about like public forum most of the time. The topics were diverse, including the kinds of topics you'd see in policy or LD debates. And the 15-minute prep and changing topics took the huge-boxes-of-evidence out of it. The funny thing was, policy debaters would do parliamentary and try to spread their way through the argument. It didn't get them a lot of sympathy with the judges, although it did occasionally lead to some fun debates. I never really understood all the stuff about evidence rules and critiques and all of that, although I heard about it from policy debaters. Our judges didn't really keep score --- "totally lay judge", a policy debater would complain. Anyway, this was on the west coast. I heard about policy debate from students who had moved from the midwest or east coast. Most of them hated parliamentary, and longed to drag in their tupperwares full of apocalypse scenarios.

Richard Bernard
2 months ago

My colleague Brad Rice and I won the 1966 NFL National Championship, and we would strongly endorse this author's claims. But the problem may have started even earlier, for we have considered ourselves to be the last "come let us reason together (in a phrase from LBJ)" style debaters. There were some spread teams at our tournament, but immediately thereafter, they all seemed to spread. I judged two such teams once and had to resist the urge to give them both losses, for neither took the time to convince me of anything.
Richard Bernard

Blair Lybbert
2 months ago

I think this is an excellent article. I debated in college in the late 60's and early 70's and coached a nationally recognized high school debate program from 1971 through 1986. I've been to some tournaments since. The comments in the article are on the mark for the most part. I have also written several published articles on the rise and fall of academic debate.
Two problems really impacted high school debate negatively. First, the activity had no "off season." The next year's topic would arrive around April and debaters would actually be working on two topics. This also created the growth of college based debate workshops since they could get you "prepared" for the coming year over the summer on the actual topic for the next year. This gave college debaters undo influence over very impressionable high school debaters and they started coming back with squirrel cases, strange analysis, and other things more appropriate at the college level. Unfortunately, most high school debate coaches are not well versed in the activity, the majority of them being assigned to be the debate sponsor to fill out their teaching schedule. We never had enough high quality coaches in Texas, just the good, the bad, and the ugly. This coupled with the college influence sent debate down an unfortunate path and most "coaches" lacked the knowledge, and credibility, to counter bad practices. It topic were held until September the debaters would have had a break and college workshops could have taught debate theory and practice instead of being evidence mills.
Another problem is that the speaking times should be reversed, or revised. What we used to call the spread was popular because it overwhelmed the other team in rebuttals. A LOT of arguments were put out in the constructive speeches and they just kept multiplying by the time the rebuttals came. Debate started becoming who dropped how many points, and which points. Reverse the pyramid and see what happens.
I still think high school debate is the best thing going, unfortunately it has not always evolved in a positive way and been directed by the best minds. Another coach once told me that high school debate had too many technicians and not enough philosophers.

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