Debate's Discourse

I have recently started collecting these strange books I found by accident called University Debaters Annual. One was published for each academic year from sometime around 1900 until well past 1950. The books feature briefs on a motion, followed by the transcript of a debate on that motion between two universities. Many are available for free on Google Books, and most of the ones I've been picking up for very little money are ex-library from all over the country. These books were being sold and stocked in libraries, both public and educationally-based, for decades. I have to wonder why. These books are more than just a curiosity.

More than just an interesting piece of US debate history, these books, as part of debate's material history, raise what I believe to be the most vital question about debating today – What is the discourse of debating? Another way: What type of conversation is the debating conversation? What are the aims of it, what is the purpose, why does it take place, and how are all of these questions both posited and answered via the existence of that discourse, as if in one movement?

Today American debate coaches will not hesitate to spit out several answers about the value of debate – it prepares students for critical thinking, citizenship, a career in law, a career as an active democratic participant, and other such defenses.

These defenses indicate that they believe the discourse of debate is one that is a teaching discourse, but one that teaches the individual debater a discourse that is for the self. The debating discourse is one of the self, of self-improvement, and a highly individualistic one.

At its worst, the debating discourse is one about power over others, domination, and success via causing others to fail. This is embodied in one of the most common tropes from American debating, often used as a compliment about a particular strategy: “They'll have nothing to say.” Rendering opponents into effective silence is, ironically, what good debating is all about.

But the presence of these books has to suggest an alternate, if not alien debating discourse, one that is not focused on the self, domination, or on self-improvement. It too is a teaching discourse, but I would argue that it suggests a pedagogical discourse, differentiated from teaching in that through learning one learns how to teach others. Traditional debating discourse can do this as well, but it is most often a teaching directed toward improving one's ability to win debates in tournament settings. Most debate scholarship starting after the creation of debating tournaments begins to quickly turn inward, and becomes only valuable for the immediate practitioner of competitive debating.

These books can be used for that purpose – but if that was their aim, why are they so abundant? Even at the height of the golden era of collegiate competitive debating there would not be enough debaters to create such a presence of these texts. If we read them as for those who are not competitive debaters, we get a very different debate discourse. This debate discourse is about the motion and about disseminating the best arguments about the motion to a wider public audience.

This would explain the value of having these books in a library. Students of one topic or another could, through print, see skilled advocates go through the various arguments for and against a particular motion in order to inform their own position, or the position they are working on for some assignment or project. This could be garnered from straight research, but that would leave out one of practiced debate's most valuable elements – contingency – as some arguments only work in some situations, and some are not apparent until those situations appear.

Contingency is seen here in these volumes very clearly – I speculate the editors were aware of this value-added element – since each motion (the books are arranged by debate topic, not school, not team, and certainly not by quality of where the debate took place) contains both the briefs constructed by the debaters on their side of the motion and the speeches as given during the debate. Such an arrangement allows the reader to compare the prepared strategy with the way the arguments were deployed. The remainder of such a comparison is what I would call the effect of contingency, something that rhetors attend to with such frequency that we would not be far off the mark calling rhetoric, in so far as it is the teaching of the production of persuasive messages, “Studies in Human Contingency.”

What changes here? Instead of debate being a practice that serves the participant by persuading and arguing for whatever he or she wants, debate is the practice that shows how the participant can serve others via argumentation. This service is primarily to cut a clean swath through the foreboding morass of public discourse on a controversial issue, and line up what, in his or her phronetic opinion, are the best arguments for that side of the issue. The speeches show how those arguments, identified in brief, are constructed and deployed for the general audience. This helps readers arrange their own thinking in a productive manner on the topic. Debate here allows an exponential effect in helping people move others toward what they think are good ideas. This might be democratic participation, at least in one simple form. It's certainly not the form that the mainstream debate discourse takes – that of the leader standing up before the group and concentrating their minds on one belief with powerful words.

These books, their large presence in used bookstores, as library discards, and on Google Books, are a testament to an older and potentially much more valuable answer as to what debate's discourse is all about. Pedagogy, related to topics, by skilled advocates, for a general audience to reach others within that audience, or perhaps other general audiences.  Debate as a pedagogical discourse allows it to serve more than just the limited audience of college students who choose to take it up as an activity during college. 
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