Good Debate, Debate as a Good, and Stoneman Douglas High School

Much has been said and written about the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and their sudden and violent non-consensual entry into the national gun control debate. Many were impressed, surprised, confused, and pleased with these students’ incredibly composed, organized, directed and well-articulated claims that the government had failed in its basic duty to keep them safe at school. Right wingers were perhaps the only ones to vocalize this surprise as doubt, calling the students “crisis actors,” either voluntary or paid professionals who showed up at the crisis to pretend to be high school students and control the national narrative, much like the members of Tim Robbin’s cult in the film Arlington Road.

But upon some media digging, it turns out that not only these students but all students in the Broward County school system are taught debating. It is a part of the curriculum, along with the standard courses that one would expect in high school. But the presence of a course on advocacy taught in the debate way – that is making appeals based on reason and information not to change the mind of an opponent, but to change the mind of a decision-making body – has crafted surprising subjects out of these students. Perhaps we should be ashamed that we are so shocked that teenagers can be so articulate and thoughtful during horrific violent trauma. Why isn’t this the expected result from our schooling efforts?

It’s an even more powerful moment of realization when you look back to the number of school shootings that have happened in the United States on campuses that have debate teams. With the amount of people participating in competitive debate activities around the country, it seems odd this would be the first time articulate and passionate student advocates would catch national attention. It seems odd that, giving how the NSDA and other debate organizations have praised the Stoneman Douglas students, simultaneously push the number of students involved in debate activities nationwide. Why is this not more frequent, and on many different issues?

What is unique in this case is a radical departure at Marjory Stoneman Douglas from how debate is usually taught. It is the school district’s choice to tie debate to the curriculum instead of to competition. Making the focus of debate an epistemic tool for understanding and appreciating the world, as well as a path for engaging in idea construction and destruction within a larger curriculum has had the impact we all imagined debate could have. There are competitions, of which about 80% of students in the Broward county schools have participated. But the competitions are not the reason for the existence of debate pedagogy. Broward county has reversed the traditional formula.

Tying debate to winning weekend tournaments, pursuing a national championship, or coming up with the thing to say that will render opponents into confused and frustrated silence doesn’t seem to have activated students in the same way. This connection codes debate as a tool for success at competitions rather than a tool for success in the everyday. It is true that tournament champions go on to great success in life, but there’s little data that participation in these events is the most significant reason, or even a relevant reason this happens. I think to all the criticisms I’ve had against my ideas for making debate centered more on the world and less on itself. Many responses dismiss me for making too much out of a “hobby for smart people” – which is what debate is seen as at most campuses, I’m afraid. What about considering debate, as a county in Florida did, as essential to the entire educational enterprise? Why is that so difficult?

Broward county schools had the right idea in envisioning debating as something like composition – hard to do but essential to teach as a way in for everyone to appreciate material in the classroom better. Classrooms are not allowed to select who gets taught or not. Teachers are required teach those who enter and are responsible for making sure they understand what’s going on. It’s not the teacher’s fault if the student fails, but it is the teacher’s fault if they ignore the student because they think they aren’t talented enough. Debate teams reject and accept participants based on this all the time. If a teacher does so, they lose their job. The ethics are totally different and should be. Sports teams do not necessarily exist to teach people how to play the sport. Debate teams, thought of as sport, have the same obligations. But debate should not be thought of as a sport.

Debate is taught primarily by “coaches” who exist, as they do in sport, to help talented people with mastery of a difficult game that one wants to win. The rise of neo-convictionist discourses in the coaching of debate under a guise of liberalism and openness is concerning to an ethics of teaching. Such discourses take the form of, “You already know, so let me make you better at the form.” These discourses are not necessarily exclusive of interrogation of ideas, where they come from, and whether one should hold them, but the presence of the competition next weekend is the master motivator and pushes these other concerns to the side. The neoliberal revision of the goals of the university are complicit in this, with faculty and administrators abandoning interrogating students about what they would like their lives to be instead of helping them quickly and efficiently take the courses needed for certification in a degree. Debate, seen from this unhealthy perspective, is a way of sharpening people to cut through society on the way to the top. Debate taught oriented toward curriculum must consider assent by the communities that expect to be persuaded, not judges who are looking for effectiveness and mastery of the form. The gap is so wide, no wonder we are surprised at the power of debate pedagogy when separated from the sports metaphor.

If debate is such a valuable educational experience that transforms lives of desperation into lives worth living, why is the primary mode of debate education through “team” models that one must either audition to be a part of, or have the confidence to attend? A person must automatically accept the idea that debate must be taught under a team rubric, with all the terrible associations of sports that come along with it just to walk in the door and see if debate club is right for them. Instead of the dominating team model, why not the Broward County model for all of us? Why not make the instruction of debating compulsory, tied to what’s going on in the state and the world, and have competitions from that? The current model (one I have been touting for years) is that the side-effect of a debate team is that we get students who are well-prepared to enter classrooms and engage directly, without fear of being wrong (or right sometimes). Does this really make the classroom better? This “trickle-down” model of debate pedagogy often alienates the debate team from the rest of the student body, something the team model encourages as students begin to think of themselves like talented athletes, people who are “simply better” than the others around them at arguing, evaluating evidence, persuading and being persuaded, and determining the best course of action. Hardly an orientation that encourages these students to go out and engage the public on issues. Why bother? The public doesn’t even know how to debate properly!

It is a real shame these students at Stoneman were thrust into the national gun violence debate by being victims of violence themselves. The one great thing to come out of this awful affair is the huge question for debate teachers as to the value of the coaching and team model. These two terms force us to consider debate as something to the side of the normal school day, something extra for the special students. This horrific violent act and the brave voices of the survivors using their debate education to advocate to save the lives of others is the best result of a horrible experience, provided by sound debate pedagogy. Tied to the normal school day rather than the after-school team is the central element to consider here. The existence of a debate team is not the existence of well-trained public advocates.

Recently I was pushing this model of debate and got a response that made me think quite a bit about our assumptions of debate as “extra.” I said, “Debate can really extend the classroom,” meaning that debate allows students to see what’s there as important in other places. I remember many times talking to teachers and librarians about something I was researching for debate and finding a much larger discourse out there circling around the same interesting questions I was making arguments about. The response, from someone who is invested in the weekend-competitive model, was quick: “My students have already had the classroom experience. They want something else.” This stunned me. I realized quickly that I was basing my ideas on my debate experience at my tiny Texas high school which was tied to the curriculum. This isn’t the normal experience in debate. This response cuts to the heart of what’s wrong with debate education, that it is an alternative to the classroom, a place where the best students receive the best engagement. Instead of thinking of the classroom as a place where debate could expand thought and education, classrooms are thought of as failed spaces where the power of debate can be held up as an alternative. Why do we not consider debate in some other relationship with the classroom, such as prior, during, or in cooperation with it? Why do so many debaters resent their teachers, professors, and the schooling experience in general, dropping out or failing numerous classes? Elton Abernathy wrote about the danger of “debate bums” from a steady tournament-diet, indicating that the tournament centric model creates a lot of people who hang around the periphery of the university but do not want to engage in the most serious conversations within it. The reason is that the tournament model has taught them that they already know better than most of the people within those buildings; there’s no point. Of course, this is as big an ad ignorantum as my earlier claim that schools that have experienced gun violence and have debate teams did not become politically active. They may have, as the debate bums may have found great lives. The point I’m trying to make is not causal, but an argument of scale. Why keep something so powerful, so influential, behind the label of a “team” or focused solely on competition? Why have a “coach” responsible for deciding who gets taught the arts of debate and who doesn’t?

At the university level, all students should be given as broad an access to debate education as we can figure out how to provide. Writing instructors realized this with writing a long time ago. No longer consigned to an after-hours club where those who love to write exchange pieces with one another in a social-authorship style relation and produce a magazine occasionally, the writing center purports to consider all students as people who love writing – they just don’t know it yet. Writing is an art, a craft, and essential for recognizing one’s place in the world. Broward schools recognized this and broadened this attitude to all formats of meaning creation, including debate and drama. All students should be considered excellent and in love with the art of advocacy, from establishing a position to researching it to presenting it before a crowd of interested observers for their assent. We must broaden our conception of debating to do so. And this horrible act of gun violence perpetuated by irresponsibility in our laws and how they are made shows us exactly what’s at stake, what can happen, and where the value of a broader debate pedagogy lies.