Ranking Educational Objectives by Stephen Babb

Even some of the best theory debates are plagued by shallow and unimaginative discussions of education. Buzzwords like “depth” and “scope” are tossed about in mindless recitation while the judge wonders why they should even be flowing the same debate they’ve watched dozens of time before. Our debates about debate can be painfully superficial, and no more so than when invoking the weighty value of “education.”

The irony is deafening.

If there’s anything sincere about these debates, we should at least be committed to having a robust discussion when time limits aren’t constraining us. To that end, I’d like to advance a discussion of the “internal link” to education.

Traditionally, Lincoln-Douglas “value” debate was intended as a laboratory for persuasion and communication. As these discursive virtues have given way to rapid delivery and sharing cases via jump drive, it’s sometimes hard to understand why we even have these debates in person anymore (perhaps our typing skills would benefit from an online competition?). And, imagine the cost-savings to debating from home.

Today, pedagogical goals on the national circuit are said to include quick analytical thinking, research skills, and deepened familiarity with topics.

I will certainly vouch for the importance of research skills. If today’s debate rounds actually reflected an investment in research, I’d happily encourage debaters to read as much evidence as possible.

Unfortunately, that’s not what happens. Fragments of evidence are read in rapid sequence with little to no analysis. Evidence itself is rarely engaged with any scrutiny or counter-evidence. The spectacle is pure mockery of evidence-based debate.

To be sure, debaters are becoming well-trained in rapid critical thinking, but whatever’s gained by the increasingly intricate tactics is unquestionably trading off with sophisticated strategic planning. These kinds of skills might be valuable if debaters plan to be working under incredibly short time constraints their whole lives, but I suspect most could benefit from exercising more strategic judgment. I’ve watched countless debaters inject theory into a debate for short-term tactical games only to find themselves in a risky quagmire two speeches later.

Most of the average debater’s thinking goes into what kind of irrelevant off-case position they can use to derail the debate. The few debaters who’ve committed themselves to reading thorough and responsive evidence against a 1AC have found consistent and superlative success. The schizophrenic side-shows typifying most 1NCs are as good for my brain as Happy Hour.

I’m also saddened by the loss of the topic. After the 1AC, I’d be shocked if half the rounds I’ve watched this year had anything to do with the topic. That’s ridiculous.

In the few debates that don’t spiral into theoretical self-gratification, 90% of the dialogue has either to do with tangential philosophical non-sense or absurd and un-researched armchair speculation.

A genuine re-commitment to sound pedagogical principles should begin with a few premises:

First, if clarity is so profoundly ignored that a judge must re-read a debater’s entire position, then we are wasting money to attend tournaments. Have the events online and make them more accessible to disadvantaged communities. If we’re going to pay ridiculous sums of money to fly half-way across he country and let opponents read our cases from their own computers, we might as well be burning piles of money every weekend too. Here’s something most debaters already know but should probably also care about: People have to communicate in life. You can’t “flash” them everything you’re too lazy to say clearly.

Second, we need to start debating the topic. It’s actually depressing to listen to people make spurious claims about topicality while they actively destroy any ability whatsoever to debate the topic. Unless the violation is very serious, just don’t.

Third, when theoretical discussions of education do emerge, our arguments need to be genuine. You know that “depth” isn’t so valuable that you should be able to run a plan about cavity-searches on the 2011 Jan-Feb topic. You know “breadth” isn’t a reason you can ignore the text of the topic. And, you know that debating the meaning of the term “deliberate” is a lot less educational that debating whether or not victims of domestic violence should be able to kill their abusers.

If you know that what you’re doing is quite possibly wrong, definitely annoying, and true in only the most imaginative sense, then don’t do it. Debaters act surprised when judges vote against them for making ridiculous arguments. Judges should be discouraging nihilism at every turn. They’re the last line of defense for incentivizing sound debate.

This isn’t Boggle!

Debate is not just a game. It may be a game, but it’s also a unique opportunity to do something very few people ever get a chance to do. We should be better stewards of that opportunity and make our arguments count for something. That begins with an honest discussion about what that “something” is… what we should be trying to learn from our debates, and what we should be trying to teach.

At the very least: The next time you find yourself telling your judge why you ‘control the internal link to education,’ first decide if you actually mean it.