I Judged the Final of a Middle School Debate Competition

I was asked by the English Speaking Union to come out to NEST and judge the final debate of their middle school competition yesterday. Seems like a good way to end the semester. The middle school debates by the MSDP are always of a good quality (I've judged a couple before, one at the Hackley School up in Tarrytown, NY and the other was held at the Morgan Library). 


It was incredible to see how many family members and other supporters had gathered for the event. I wondered if they had been there all day. It was full of people. I only came in for one debate, but these people had to have been there for the previous 5 debates. Doing 5 debates in one day seems to be a lot in my view, but I think maybe with middle school students they have the energy and the desire to do that much in one day. I do wonder how much time they have for thinking about what they've said, what was said to them, and what they heard. I'm much more in the less as more camp on number of debates. 

The final round was about the US government providing a universal basic income to all citizens. I think this is a great topic since it's something that circulates a bit in the press and has a lot of research that's pretty accessible. It hits the marks for me on a good topic. But what was strange to me was how the debate played out. 

The proposition side indicted the welfare system saying that it was corrupt and holds people back. A universal basic income would solve this problem because it would allow people to choose what they would want to spend their money on - meet their own needs. The opposition argued that the universal basic income would be expensive to administer and could be exploited by people. They argued instead that we should take the money for universal basic income and use it to repair the broken welfare system because that system has restrictions on use. 

It was good for me to come see this debate since I've been rethinking my whole approach to public speaking, which is a much more important class than people think. I believe it to be the class that teaches invention for the whole university, helping students figure out what to say across the different classes they would take. This debate indicated to me just how much we as a society think that debate is about fidelity to the truth rather than fidelity to persuasion and audiences. The difference is in what we teach about the world: Are we to teach students how the world operates and how to conform to that world, or are we to teach them how to imagine something better than what we have now? Of course, the easy answer is somewhere in the middle. But conformity is pretty easy so I figure it doesn't need a ton of classroom time. 

Here's an example: The proposition team provided "evidence" that universal basic income works - all statistics from the Alaska permanent residency fund which indicated that people like the fund and that malnutrition and illiteracy rates go down with the application of these funds. It seemed to me they thought their work was done by providing this information. The opposition also provided the idea that people take advantage of welfare systems and could cheat, and that seemed like enough. Both teams got a lot of applause and cheers from the audience. This sort of speaking is fidelity to the fact, fidelity to the information, or state-of-the-world speaking that we all recognize as the function of debate - to convey what is right and true, etc. 

But neither of these teams provided any perspective on what it was they were asking us to judge. For the proposition side, it would have been great for them to give a bit of a story about what our values are and how we best enact those values in our policies. There's a great story about individual choice, or putting family first, or any number of narratives that could be provided here. Then they can contrast that value story with whatever the other team offers. If the opposition, like in this case, says we should repair the current welfare system, fine. The welfare system goes against the value of choice and allowing people do to what they think is best for their children.

It's an old idea from the teaching of oratory - which might be why it's left out in contemporary post-Cartesian models of debating - where Quintilian (who didn't come up with it but his writings are preserved) teaches that the narrative should be followed by the division - you tell the story of what you are all about until you reach a point where it makes sense to tell the audience how and why you disagree with your opponent. Narratio is followed by partitio. The what-we-stand-for and the who-we-are is followed by the what-we-must-stand-for. This goes beyond the team: Any good orator would try to constitute the audience as being a part of the team as well. Making your judges your co-conspirators against a great and powerful, but wrong, opposition is very persuasive.

The opposition could have benefitted from some oratorical pedagogy as well. Instead of saying that universal basic income is expensive, let's use the money to repair welfare they should have told a story about caring. About how society must be protected, and that American society is about equal opportunity. Let's use that money to repair and better our collective social good. They mentioned the schools as well - which should have been the whole case - and then they could talk about what free choice really is: Being educated and being able to make a critical choice when it counts the most. 

What was really missing from the debate was clash - serious disagreement on identity and values. Instead, the debate was about whether people will cheat in welfare or on universal basic income more. I think that fidelity to facts instead of fidelity to persuasion makes arguments like this more frequent. Fidelity in debate education should be toward creation - what can we make up? What can we create? What can we imagine? Opposed to the Cartesian tradition of folding argument into inductive or deductive "knowns:" We know people cheat on things like taxes, so they will cheat on universal basic income too. This is true, and probably will happen. But is this something that should be considered a good debate argument? Or something that should be offered in debate at all? 

The question of what debate teaches and what should be taught in debate is always that debate should teach creative invention of argument. That means that finding evidence that conforms to a known position in the world is less than half of what should be happening. Instead, students should be encouraged to tell a story about why their side of the debate matters, what it connects to and with, and what they imagine is the good that comes out of agreement with their side. From there, it is a simple matter to talk about things like workability or mechanism - because who cares? There are always bumps on the road to enacting and supporting our deepest values as a society and community. Teaching students how to string together a good narrative, then how to differentiate their position from the position of opponents are two of the most important parts of debate pedagogy - both absent - from the debate I judged. 

It was good to see. They all spoke very well. Now I am wondering how to teach and reinforce these practices among my own students. It's not really clear at the moment, but I'm sure I'll update here when I think of some assignments. 

Kate, who runs the MSDP, said before the final to the assembled crowd that we approach debate in a "spirit of abundance," so there's no reason to be angry, jealous, or mean to a team who is speaking if you feel that you should be up there instead. This is a good point to make, but I've been thinking about this abundant spirit since yesterday.

Perhaps argumentation studies and debate scholarship itself should approach things with a "spirit of abundance" due to the incredibly vast array of potential arguments out there, potential ways to say them, and potential ways to be wrong. Instead of focusing our research attentions on good and bad arguments, right and wrong arguments, how about more focus on the ways to make and take arguments, the ways to break and reset them?

Too much attention and energy is spent on being argument critics and not very much energy is spent on helping others produce and learn to produce them. Events like what I saw at NEST represent a type of politics, a politics of "let's see what they say." This is very different from "They'd better say what I like," which passes for political practice today. More fidelity to imagination and less conformity to what we think we know is the politicization of the classroom that debate pedagogy brings, and should bring, anywhere it's taught.