Debating Debate Club

The Professionalization of the American Schoolboy Saddens Me
New books dissected over email.
Aug. 21 2010 6:53 AM

Debating Debate Club

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Mark Oppenheimer, age 14, competes at the World Debate and Public Speaking Championships, Reading Blue Coat School, England, May 1989. He made the semifinals in the interpretive reading category; his selection was John F. Kennedy's inaugural address.
Mark Oppenheimer, age 14, competes at the World Debate and Public Speaking Championships

Dear Michael,

Now we are getting somewhere. You have persuaded me that parliamentary debate and policy debate are even further apart than either of us had suspected. You suggest that policy debate is for the policy wonks and the future Supreme Court litigators, while parliamentary debate, with its extemporaneous topics and its emphasis on wit and bombast, is really for natural performers, even full-on theater geeks—and that sounds right.

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In fact, now that I think about old debate pals of mine who went on to be noteworthy (or notorious), they include a celebrated real-estate blogger, a fashion journalist-turned-psychiatrist (who wrote this very fine Lindsay Lohan profile), a sports reporter for the Boston Globe (you should be pleased, Massachusetts boy), an actor, and a very cool Postmodern literary theorist. But I can't think of any policy wonks or litigators.

At the same time, while research was not my bag, I have tried in this dialogue to allow for the benefits of research, just not the super-caffeinated research that policy debate requires. In fact, my book lovingly describes, or so I thought, the pleasures of debate research, in this scene set at my junior high school:

In a time before the ubiquitous click-click of keyboards, with the library nearly empty, most of the student body on the playing fields, just our small corps pulling books and magazines from the stacks, poring over them at an oak table in the center of the room, whispering to each other and occasionally being hushed by the librarian, always in tones that modeled the proper degree of quiet, we slowly enlarged our knowledge, so that what had been a mystery on Monday was, by Friday, an area of mild competency. … Those off weeks were my first experience of the pleasures of slow, accumulated knowledge. …

So I am not indifferent to the skills required for research-oriented debate, nor the joy they offer. Why, then, do I bridle so at the event that gave you so much pleasure and at which you so gloriously excelled?

As you may infer from the sentimental quotation above, I link debate with a certain ideal of America. (I've never put it like that before. I am grateful that you have forced me to clarify my thinking.) My ideal is old-fashioned, dating to 50 years ago and more, when debate at many schools was part of a complex of activities that included, say, poetry declamation and national oratory contests.

The National Forensic League still sponsors a range of events, including some wonderful debate events, but, as we have discussed, the kind you both loved and brutally dominated—and until recently the kind that had the most participants—became something different. Beginning around 1970 it became specialized and opaque to outsiders, and around it a whole money-making complex of summer camps and research services arose.

This troubles me, I now realize, because I think that the professionalization of American schoolboy and -girl activities is a bad thing. I think it's too bad that even moderately ambitious soccer players attend soccer camps all summer long, specializing at a young age; I regret there are fewer multi-sport athletes than before, even if I never could have been one of them. I had mixed feelings about my daughter's gymnastics class, which she loves, because the sport crowds out so much of life for girls and boys who decide they want to excel. I like the idea of debate as a leisurely, occasional endeavor, one that you could even stumble into: not because therein lies snob appeal—indeed, it's the hard-core policy debaters who claim the snob appeal now—but because it corresponds to a certain vision I have of American childhood.

So while I should not begrudge policy debate wonks their thousands of hours of preparation, I cannot help but resent how they make public speaking into something competitive, brutal, and, most would agree, ugly. I realize it teaches research skills and critical thinking skills. I realize the more precious, philosophical souls can still do Lincoln-Douglas debate or Public Forum, while the theatrical children can do original oratory or humorous interpretation. But I still think that in going the way it has gone, policy debate has coarsened itself. I am reminded of tennis fans who think that power has destroyed the game; I imagine there are fans of cheerleading who lament what has happened to their sport; there are World of Warcraft gamers who feel the same way. Like capitalism, extreme competition has its own logic, and while we can't always resist it we don't have to like it.

Wow, can you believe I said that all in one breath? My training at summer institute has paid off.

Thanks very much for a terrific dialogue, Michael. I envy your students at Penn.

Regards,
Mark

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Mark Oppenheimer writes the Beliefs column for the New York Times. He can be found at markoppenheimer.com and followed on Twitter @markopp1.

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