Debating Debate Club

Your Style of Arguing Is Ruining American Political Discourse
New books dissected over email.
Aug. 19 2010 7:03 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

Mark,

Your reply reveals you are indeed a talented debater, even if you are a Benedict Arnold of a baseball fan!

Your response makes it sound as if the barbarian hordes of policy debate have overtaken Rome. I don't think anyone has called my hometown of Lexington, Mass., "gritty" since the British in 1775. As I wrote in my first post, one of the best qualities of my favored style is that students compete against kids from both public and private schools from around the country.

I think we agree about the importance of debate in helping to prepare students to be good citizens, but that's also where your argument is weakest. The problem with public discourse is not that people speak too quickly; it is that people too often speak without knowing what they are talking about. Good citizens are informed citizens, with substantive knowledge and the ability to speak about those issues. For someone who wrote a whole book about debate, your embrace of raw sophistry is troubling. If one wants to find a culprit for the destruction of civic dialogue, one could find it in styles of "debate" that privilege pandering to a crowd and opining without research. For examples of what happens when our society embraces rhetorical point-scoring over reasoned argumentation, see here, here, and here. Or just watch nearly any political debate.

I find it amusing that, in keeping with the type of debate you enjoy, where a person with very little knowledge can, as you put it, "bullshit" his way to victory, your eloquent attacks on policy debate suggest you haven't actually been around it much. For example, in an interview with The New Yorker, you pointed to Julie Sheinman, the debate coach of Stuyvesant High School in New York, as a coach who teaches debate the right way. I agree. Did you know that coach Sheinman has trained dozens of nationally ranked policy debaters, including my college debate partner, Jon Paul Lupo?

It's true that policy debaters can talk faster than the Micromachine man from our childhood. But eloquence is critical to success in policy debate, and debaters lose style points when they don't speak clearly. Understandably for someone who hasn't been around much policy debate, you tend to conflate speaking quickly with an inability to speak eloquently. In fact, policy debaters tend to do well when they compete in extemporaneous speaking or parliamentary debate. Whereas it would take years for a great extemporaneous speaker to be a successful policy debater.

Policy debate provides students with the speaking skills they'd learn in other formats, but it also gives them critical-thinking and research skills that pay dividends later in life. Stated differently, we all agree that participation in athletics is a valuable experience in which to learn life skills—not because all youth basketball players will carry a great stutter-step dribble into a professional career, but because the endless drills executed to perfect that stutter step instill discipline and mental toughness. The drills necessary to compete in policy make its alumni attractive candidates to universities and employers.

I also want to touch on your point about "insider" judges. It's true that policy debates are judged by those familiar with the activity, but I'm not sure why that's a problem. Given the time they put into it, debaters deserve to be evaluated by experts most of the time. Should a layperson be allowed to score a skater's triple axel at the Olympics?

Your argument might be more persuasive if you had examples of former policy debaters who had actually developed a lifelong case of "speaking too fast" because they couldn't adapt once the competition was over. In fact, policy debate prepares students for a litany of real-world situations where reasoned, persuasive, argumentation is a necessity. If you've experienced having mere seconds to respond to an eloquent speech delivered at the speed of light and backed by a mountain of evidence, the prospect of answering questions from Justice Scalia or Justice Ginsburg seems much less daunting. If you don't believe me, ask Lisa Blatt, Thomas C. Goldstein, Lindsay Harrison, Neal Katyal, Jonathan Massey, Matthew Shors, or Robert Wick, all mealy-mouthed debaters who followed in Laurence Tribe's footsteps and litigated before the Supreme Court. On the other hand, I assume your after-dinner toast might put theirs to shame.

Finally, since you referred to what a school administrator might think, one of the most attractive things about policy debate is its scalability. While those who succeed at the highest level have to work hard, policy debate features lower levels of involvement at local and regional levels. Many of the benefits come from some of the most basic levels of participation. The opportunities for both beginners and the intensively devoted make policy debate a uniquely powerful activity. If a school administrator had to choose between funding a style where high school students could deliver eloquent speeches on intricate questions of national policy based on Ph.D.-level research they did themselves, versus a style where students learn to speak like most of our politicians (as you claimed), the choice would be obvious.

Best,
Michael

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