By: Noah Star
I have trouble describing high school debate to those people
who are unfamiliar with our bubble of esoteric argumentation. How should I
describe an activity too focused on making arguments instead of resolving them?
Strategy dominates most debate rounds, and the conventional debate stratagem is
to run up the score with voting issues. I will not stand on my soapbox and
claim that when I was a debater I avoided this tendency; I am just as
vulnerable to my criticisms as every other debater. Yet, I do not see this as
an issue with my argument, rather evidence that bolsters my claims. While debate’s
impact on me, both in and out of the classroom, is immeasurable—I feel that I
could have learned so much more.
And so today, I am offering up a plea to those who are still
involved in the activity. Lincoln-Douglas debate’s esotericism is not
insurmountable. With the addition of a simple piece of advice to the debate
playbook, the activity can be a more positive educational resource and even a
better competitive outlet for its participants. And so, I will offer up my
ideas for reform (albeit potentially controversial) after a year removed from
the activity in hopes to throw caution to the wind for all my successors.
The biggest issue I have with status quo Lincoln-Douglas
debate is spreading. At some point in debate’s history, it was decided that
spreading was an important skill for successful debaters. Rooted in this
decision is the thought that argument quantity trumps argument quality. It
would be wrong of me to claim spreading has no strategic benefit. Rather, in my
appeal for debaters to slow down, I am appealing to a combination of their
curiosity and competitive drive. The more true debate stratagem is that
efficiency trumps speed, perhaps a reversal of the idea of quality over
quantity. More likely though, emphasizing efficiency will encourage debaters to
disavow poor arguments, and rather deploy as many thoughtful arguments as
What I mean by efficiency is more than just word economy.
When I push debaters to be more efficient, I mean a more colloquial definition
of the word. As defined by the Oxford Dictionary, for something or someone to
be efficient means to “preventing the wasteful use of a particular resource.”
In this instance, the particular resources are arguments. Employing bad
arguments to win rounds and leaving arguments unresolved/malformed both
constitute wastes of said resources’ potential. The hope behind reducing speed
in favor of efficiency is that debaters will be forced to be more conscious of
which arguments they use in any given debate round.
Debaters’ use spreading to reduce the strategic cost of time
limits. Yet my proposal also minimizes the strategic cost of time limits, just
with a different method. With higher argument quality, each argument has a
greater potential return (both competitively and educationally). Thus, I see
changing how debaters speak as a lynchpin issue for reforming the activity.
With fewer arguments presented at a slower pace, rounds should generate more
genuine and thoughtful discourse on both the topical issue and the moral
questions of a framework. Debaters will be forced to do so, as higher quality
of arguments on both sides will encourage better clash, resulting in debaters
actually resolving voting issues.
Another potential effect of debaters slowing down is greater
emphasis on oratory. Persuasion has become a lost art form in debate—instead
debaters speak as fast as possible with high-pitched voices and jarring gulps
for air. Some debaters are able to ride the fine line and make persuasion an
element of their spreading strategy. But this practice of persuasion, punching
words, hitting tables, random gesticulation, may work as a form of aggressive
posturing to win a competitive debate round, but outside debate’s gauntlet that
skill is useless. Sure, this is an appeal to the notion that debate ought to
teach us something more than just winning rounds. But I don’t see debate as a
dichotomy between competitive success and genuine education. I’ve already
addressed how I think slowing down will create a better competitive environment
for debate. But just to hammer in the point, persuasion is another way that
debate can remain competitive and be a better education resource. Persuasion is
an art form and the more persuasive a debater, the more likely they are to
succeed. Debaters can persuade through different tactics, and so with a greater
emphasis on this skill, debaters will have a new competitive element inherent
in each round. Again, it seems that the benefits of slowing down outweigh the
possible competitive tradeoffs.
While it can be argued that spreading is a form of oratory,
the applicability of this skill beyond the debate world remains to be seen.
Some argue it encourages quick thinking and better word efficiency. But that’s
To the first benefit, I argue that slowing down from the
incredibly quick pace that is customary in debate rounds does not require
speaking at the pace of a racing tortoise. One can speak quickly and still be
understandable by a layperson, and that is the metric that I ask debaters to
determine their rate of speech. Moreover, there are other aspects of debating
that encourage quick thinking, more so than spreading. Prep time serves as the
best example with many elements requiring quick thinking. Within a limited
amount of time debaters must complete multiple tasks in order to give an
effective rebuttal: picking what blocks to use, generating arguments to defend
your position, and critiquing your opponents. Here is where the majority of the
quick thinking that happens in a debate round occurs.
To the second benefit, being more efficient, I argue that
spreading only masks inefficiency. Speaking faster allows one to generate a lot
of arguments even with inefficiencies like “in so far as.” It’s easier to get
by if you are inefficient but can simultaneously speak fast. For me, this
argument has no traction.
Ultimately, debaters will do as debaters choose. While it
may seem silly that this whole article originated from my inability to explain
debate to outsiders, I think that this anecdote can serve as an important
litmus test for debate as it continues to develop. Debate’s participants ought
to consider the ramifications of the activity’s rules and practices outside of
the debate world, because these skills are all that remain.