Debating Debate Club

It's Football for Dorks. (And That's a Good Thing.)
New books dissected over email.
Aug. 18 2010 7:02 AM

Debating Debate Club

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Michael Horowitz. Click image to expand.
Michael Horowitz with the National Debate Tournament championship trophy at Emory University, May 2000

Dear Mark:

Your new book, Wisenheimer: A Childhood Subject To Debate, is a pleasure to read. In lively, engaging prose you trace your love for debate back to your childhood. I particularly enjoyed the anecdotes about how you learned about language from your grandmother (who once wrote to the state of Pennsylvania because a license plate was worded incorrectly), and how you faced down Hank, one of your parent's friends, in an argument over capitalism when you were just 10 years old.

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Your book is primarily about how your experiences in debate shaped your adolescence. For the uninitiated, debate is an activity in which students do exactly what one would expect them to do: argue. But in scholastic debate, there are rules of procedure and a judge who determines the winner at the end of the speeches. There are a variety of debate formats. As you know, I participated in the fast-talking style of debate known as "policy debate." It features two person teams squaring off on a specific topic related to domestic or international politics, such as health care reform or U.S. foreign policy toward China. I debated for eight years, first at Lexington High School, in Massachusetts, and then at Emory University. I also coached and judged after graduating from college.

As a fellow wisenheimer, your book brought back fond memories. I remember receiving the same advice your debate coach, Mr. Robison, bestowed upon you: Use humor, avoid pacing, and look at the judge. My high-school debate coach, coincidentally, also fit the profile of a "bearded, rabbinic-looking teacher," and I smiled at your description of debate coaches as "an extraordinary collection of pleasing oddities."

I think we both agree that debate is a tremendous, transformative activity. Yet there are ways in which our experiences differed significantly. I want to point out a few; I think they'll help lay the groundwork for our discussion. I think you hit the nail on the head when you describe debate as a sport. If Washington, D.C., is "Hollywood for ugly people," then debate is "football for dorks." (Note the great number of debaters who have become successful inside the Beltway.) Debate was your most important extracurricular activity and helped define your identity, the way sports do for jocks.

But parliamentary debate, the kind you participated in on the Northeast prep school circuit, is very different than policy debate, the kind I participated in at local, regional, and national competitions (against students from both public and private schools). The debate world you describe is filled with one-day tournaments (as opposed to three or four days) and disdain for those who work too hard. It sometimes comes off more like an activity designed to provide one more arrow in the quiver of a well-rounded, educated gentleman than the fiercely competitive, meritocratic activity I remember.

In policy debate, you need a silver tongue to compete at the highest levels, but no amount of wit and eloquence can help you if you haven't done your homework. My friends and I spent entire summer vacations researching topics such as immigration reform and environmental policy in university libraries across the country to prepare for the coming season. Competing nationally in policy debate requires a time commitment akin to a full-time job or a Division 1 sport. These differences in the way we experienced debate—from whom we competed against to the necessary commitment to succeed—lead me to a key question for our discussion: What is the purpose of high-school (and college) debate? What should students be getting out of it? In some ways, this is what your book is about, yet it is never precisely clear what you think the average young person can or should be getting out of debate.

Second, you describe yourself as "a boy who loved language" and write about your "gift for talking." I loved words as well, but first and foremost as tools for winning arguments. One example from your book perhaps illustrates the difference in our approaches. When your fifth-grade teacher spelled a word wrong, you brought it to her attention after class. I'd have done the same, but my first thought was, Why didn't you bring a dictionary with you to force­ her to acknowledge you were right?

I wondered in reading your book if you at times conflated a love of speaking with a love of debating. You acknowledge having done some preparatory research, but debate for you was seemingly more about witty repartee and verbal jousting than reasoned argumentation backed by evidence. The debate I knew had two essential components: style and substance. This is why policy debates are judged on the basis of individual speaking (style) and an overall assessment of who won the arguments presented (substance). They are related but far from the same thing.

One thing that struck me was how you were discouraged early in your debate career, by an "earthy, hippiesh senior girl," from "trying too hard" and doing too much research. You were encouraged instead to exercise your brilliance and charm to win debates, and the most entertaining debate stories in your book are the ones in which you emerge triumphant thanks to a clever turn of phrase, an eloquent monologue, or your sharp wit. To me, eloquence, research, and reasoning form the trinity of good debate. Too often, all of them are lacking from our political discourse. To the extent any of them are present, however, it is often style (or attempts at style) privileged over substance. This is unfortunate, because debate without substance runs the risk of being mere sophistry or just a dilettantish rhetorical dance. Where do you come down on the extent to which the activity of debate should be about style versus substance?

Finally, and most important, despite the fact that you grew up in Springfield, Mass.—a mere hour and a half from Fenway Park—you are a Yankees fan. As a Red Sox fan, I believe I might better understand your perspective if you can provide an explanation for that unfortunate decision!

Best,
Michael

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Michael C. Horowitz won the 2000 collegiate National Debate Tournament and finished third at the 1996 high-school policy debate Tournament of Champions. He is assistant professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of the newly published book The Diffusion of Military Power: Causes and Consequences for International Politics.