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