Ahistorical Debate Corrosion

Jack McCordick’s recent essay on the corrosion of debate that surfaced at the end of October didn’t blink on my radar, probably because this fall had the most concentrated collection of anti-debate journalism that I think I’ve ever seen. Responding to all of it has been frustrating as most of them, including this one, have been pieces meant to get readers rather than advance conversation. Most of these stories also speak in a tone to end discussion rather than open it up, and do all of the negative things they claim debate is supposed to do. But since they are journalists they never dig deeper than a few apparent instances and their own reflections in order to create a story.

McCordick’s piece is no exception, claiming that suddenly debate has been corrupted, corroded, from within and that corresponds to our poor political communication environment. Never mind that fistfights and near-death physical attacks were commonplace in the U.S. Congress up until and after the Civil War, or that in the early days of the 20th century, many debate scholars believed debate had been corroded already. Teddy Roosevelt in his memoirs proudly announced that he had never been a part of Harvard’s famed debate team because they merely teach people to speak glibly on topics, not how to have a backbone. And in the 1950s, intercollegiate debate nearly shut down when the national topic seemed to require students to develop arguments supporting Communist China. But for McCordick, debate began “all the way back” in the 1970s. McCordick proves one problem with contemporary debate pedagogy: the lack of practice of deep research. This is the most shallow and undeveloped piece on debate in the U.S. that I have ever read.

The 1970s were one of the more recent iterations of the question of what debate is good for.  The 1970s saw the very first official developmental conference on debate, the “Sedalia” conference, a place for debate teachers to come together and discuss the increasing crisis of the practice of debate. These issues resolved about 10 years later, with the division of policy debate into the NDT and CEDA, very different organizations at the time.

This is significant because for McCordick, and all other high school students who practice policy debate, their experience is curated deterministically by current collegiate debaters and debate coaches. The experiences that debate students have are governed in nearly unchecked totality by professional debate sports-enthusiasts, not people with education on the mind nor with much training in educational theory and practice. Whatever is happening at the high school level in the U.S. can be directly traced to collegiate determinations of what’s best, which is often the answer to the question, “What’s best for a fair and fun competition?” High school educators often have little say in what arguments will be developed, but more importantly have little say in how arguments will be crafted and prepared. This should give anyone pause. Not everyone benefits from a program designed to produce competitive argumentation designed to be deployed in a very specific forum for a very specific purpose. The major critique of debate, as practiced today, would be tangential to what McCordick offers. The problem is that debate isn’t taught at all. It’s coached, like a sport, and if that accidentally generates healthy views on politics or economics, that’s a bonus. The goal is to get people quickly crafting winning arguments by surveying texts rapidly for useful munitions.

His articulation of the history of Lincoln Douglas and Turner Debate (now Public Forum) is also not totally correct. Both formats are far from their idealized goals to be sure, but the corrosion came from the orientation away from educators. Both forms of debate are in the province of the so-called “Debate expert” or the Debate Coach, someone who knows very little about argumentation theory and even less about educational practices and norms. Debate should be at the very least a co-curricular experience, or one rooted within the curriculum as method, not a subject on its own, something that you can study in absentia of any particular topic.

Of course, McCordick might not be to blame. He might have asked his national championship debate coach for some of the history here, and determined that debate started in 1970. This would be typical, as most debate coaches do not see a value to the historical development of contest debating. This is very telling, as it indicates that what arguments are considered “good” in debating is arbitrary. Whatever are the feelings and flavors of the moment help indicate what arguments win in debates. There’s no historical progression from poor argument to good argument. If there were, every championship debater would be able to recite that development, and we wouldn’t have such ahistorical treatments of debate floating around. History has little to do with what wins. What wins has the most to do with what wins, and that development, if any, is arbitrary.

The piece has a lot of strange issues besides its historical poverty. McCordick also presents a confusing contradiction in his piece. He argues that contemporary discourse is complex, long, and must be read and processed quickly, like the EULAs from Apple Computers. He then says policy debate is terrible because it encourages these abilities. If the world is getting more complex and more fast on the textual level, policy debate seems like a solution rather than a problem here. Quick information processing and evaluation is exactly what is needed when the devices that govern and control so much of our personal and business lives are in the hands of corporations. Why wouldn’t this potential weakness in public address be a great way to teach critical assessment and judgement?

Even TED Talks, something I assume McCordick would like because it looks like “good” political discourse are based on large amounts of information processing that happens off-stage, as well as important concepts such as issue selection, evidence evaluation, and speech organization. McCormick’s argument is governed by a fantasy of what public discourse should look like, and that vision is one of simple correspondence. Good thinking should look the way he thinks good thought should look. And that’s about it. Since he doesn’t see a connection between rapid delivery and weird argumentation, he doesn’t see a value in it.

He’s not the first to be critical of debate as a public-facing political laboratory, or a simulation of political discourse for students. This is debate at its weakest. Debate at its strongest has little to do with political discourse. It has a lot to do with identity, and how we know and manage who we are and who we want to be. Debate is a practice of how we would like to be in the world, and how we practice maintaining who we are and what we could stand for. It’s a practice in the relationship between motive and attitude.

Debate might be a terrible way to produce a 19th century-looking political discourse (What McCordick seems to want, without the regular violence) but it’s a fantastic way to teach quick evaluation and judgement, if done properly. It’s a great way to connect speaking one’s mind and thoughts with questions of quality of research and quality of supporting evidence. All these things should be present in a good debate curriculum, and often they are not. But this isn’t why public discourse is corroding. It’s always corroding and always failing us. This is the nature of language, when we hold it up to the ideas of rational thought. If we abandon the ideals of rationality and come to terms with the limits of language, we find ourselves not in control, but in the river, lashing together what floats with us in ways that keep us above water. And if we get good at lashing together the material around us, we can invite others on to our raft, or perhaps better termed, our platform.

Recognizing this relationship with ourselves and language and argument is jarring and produces a feeling of powerlessness. Good. McCormick incorrectly believes he can spot and know the arguments that are “outlandish.” I would say, “Outlandish to you? To the audience? To who?” The idea that debate experience makes you a universal arbiter of sensemaking speech is dangerous. It is better to teach that such a figure cannot exist. Such a position rises up through the hard work of the rhetor to examine audience norms and attitudes and craft the argument and the position of the audience. In order to do that, one must not only recognize the uncertain status of knowledge, but revel in it.

I agree with McCormick that political discourse could be better. I find it spurious at best that debate practice has something to do with this. I find it more reasonable to think that debate is suffering from the same corrosive influences on speech and thought that politics are. And I believe these aliments are much, much older than we think. They might not even be ailments. Or perhaps, they can be either, if it helps our audience understand what they are to do with our utterances. At the worst, debate should prepare people to craft appropriate judgement based on looking for and toward evidence and assessing it quickly. At best, debate should encourage those who practice it to step away from the seat of arbiter, taking comfort in the swirl of uncertainty and all the possibilities open for the good rhetor. It should do this by using the extant information and research about topics within fields that are out there, showing students the diversity of argument that exists within all disciplines.