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.

  • Anonymous

    At least some of this can be fixed by judges paradigms. I don't pretend to be a "tab" judge. I know too much stuff to just forget it all when I go in a debate round. That doesn't mean I'm actively going to be arguing against either side, but it does mean that I'm not going to assume something that is flat out not true is true. I also don't want to hear theory debates and make that clear. Hence, I don't generally hear them except in out rounds. Of course, in the world of MPJ this isn't going to change much. I got to judge 1 round during my first trip to the TOC last year, and I only saw a few upper bracket debates at Berkeley, but the debates I watched were about the topic.

  • One trick I tried at Berkeley this past weekend was telling the debaters that if they felt compelled to spread, they should take the last 10-15 seconds of their time and explain the argument(s). I noticed that the really top debaters were doing this anyway and it made thing so much easier- esp after 18+ rounds lol.The issue of clarity really came into focus (no pun intended) when in an Octa round all three judges (well experienced all) said they didn't really understand the round and were left to read the cases at the end.I don't think judges yelling 'clear' will quite break the culture here. This is something that the NDCA coaches would all have to get together on, and make a sea change in the practice of debate for the sake of it's educational future.Will they???

    • Yah it seems like every time I hear a judge yell 'clear' the delivery doesn't change one bit. No reason that should be happening, and no reason judges should have to re-read cases after rounds like that.As far as organizational action from NDCA or something like that, I wouldn't be too optimistic. The NFL has tried to steer LD away from a number of trends to no avail. I've even heard debaters cite NFL guidelines only to essentially be laughed out of the round. If the NFL guidelines aren't taken seriously on the national circuit, I'm not sure NDCA efforts would find much better reception.At the end of the day, this stuff happens almost exclusively at TOC tournaments. The TOC would be in the best position to lay down some laws by requiring its bid tournaments to implement some guidelines. The difficulty there would be reaching any kind of consensus. Lots of people believe the status quo is fine. Those who don't rarely agree on the problem or how to solve it. The prevailing sentiment of late is "just let theory solve our problems"… and as a result, the event has become pretty incestuous and self-referential, with far more speech time allocated to theory than the topic.I'd be all for some incremental and experimental change at TOC tournaments, however. I've tried to encourage debaters themselves to initiate change, but as long as the incentive structure is what it is, I don't think anything short of 'change from the top down' will spur serious reform.

  • Outstanding indictment of the current state of LD! Speaking as a flow judge and parent, I can't tell you how many other parents I have heard from over the last couple of years who all have the same question: what's the education value of this activity when hardly anyone can understand what's going on, including the debaters themselves. Whereas spreading was a lightly used tactical technique when I was a (policy) debater 25+ years ago (bec, we knew that we often ran the risk of spreading the judge out of the room as well- cf: your comment above about judges calling for entire cases after the round!), today it is truly an infection on the education value of the activity. Esp at the JV level where learning is supposed to begin, and where tomorrow's top debaters are supposed to be being bread, I find many JVers capable of not much more than reading their own cases. I see them getting hung up on "burden imposition" and theory spikes, as well as talking past each other while trying to emulate the spreading style of their older peers."Rapid critical thinking" is a true and useful skill- one that I cherish from my own debate training, and one that I have used ever since. But there is no correlation between rapid critical thinking and rate of speech. If a debater sees his/her judge not flowing (or looking dazed) while they're jamming yet another piece of questionably relevant 'evidence ' into their speech or reading their 2nd or 3rd off- that should be the signal to stop what they are doing.I agree that a return to actually debating the topic with concentration on true arguments in support or against the topic without all of these outlying tactical "techniques" would go a long way to enhancing, if not restoring, the educational value of LD debate.And to start with, IMHO, spreading should be prohibited, esp, in the Constructives unless the side(s) using it pre-file their cases with their opponents and their judges! But that's just me…-Marc O'Krent

    • Marc, I've heard the same thing from a number of parents. In fact, I've heard non-debate parents say they'd never encourage their kids to debate because of how ridiculous it's become. So it seems like we aren't only destroying the value of debate rounds.. we're also not doing a great job of outreach and getting more kids involved.I thought it was telling this summer at VBI that a lot of our first-year instructors commented on a lack of clarity when judging practice debates. It seemed like they hadn't given it as much thought previously because, as debaters, they took for granted that they wouldn't be able to understand one another and just resorted to reading over each others' shoulders or flashing cases to each other via jump drive. Judges just don't have that opportunity though, and they shouldn't have the need to do so either. I've always been an advocate for allowing debaters to go fast, but that's partially because the norms in LD were once quite a bit slower. Even now, though, I think it's largely a matter of clarity and organization. When Jake Nebel read quickly a few years back, I found him incredibly easy to flow. But, I see a lot of people who speed through lists of blippy arguments, run through dense philosophy, etc… all the while not opening their mouths and enunciating.They have the same issues in policy today too, and there's also a persuasion deficit. I think you can be fast and persuasive, but apparently that's an oxymoron to most people. Until judges speak up, I think little will change. And even when judges do yell "clear," I've seen debaters refuse to change delivery time and again. Kind of baffling.

    • Anonymous

      I don't know if Babb is talking about "spreading"… I don't even know what that means. If anything "spreading" is the derogatory term people who aren't willing to have an intelligent discussion about fast-debate use to disregard its merits.

  • Who gets to decide what is and is not 'ridiculous' arguments? Isn't the point of debate to determine what arguments are and are not ridiculous rather than determine how well our dogma parallels the cases being run? Discouraging Nihilism in what sense? What about forms of active nihilism, ala Nietzsche? If you think arguments are bad, wouldn't the most effective way to defeat them to defeat them soundly in argument (This idea comes from thinkers like… John Stuart Mill, the one that SUPPORTS utilitarianism). I think a lot of philosophy *leads* to nihilism, or if advocated consistently does, am I justified in intervening against that?It seems to me the most educational aspect of debate is to break down dogmas and allow debaters to research to increase their knowledge of the world. The first is important because all philosophy stems from the breaking down of current ideologies and making them anew. To remain stagnant philosophically is effectively the same as living in the dark ages (not to dimish the importance of philosophers like Anselm and Aquinas). I think that we can simply agree on the importance of research. Your position would first no longer require debaters to question their assumptions about metaphysics and ethics (you do realize that even Kantian ethics came out of Hume, who some call the greatest philosophical skeptic of all time?) since positions can easily be interpreted as 'nihilistic' in that they deny forms of values we accept now. Is Rawls 'nihilistic' for appealing to abductive reasoning rather than searching for forms of objective truth? I certainly hope not. I think that utilitarianism and deontology are sufficiently advocated in debate; we should be promoting more and not less perspectives. As far as research, the argument is effectively the same. If we are no longer as heavily invested in our ideologies the questioning of our ideologies leads to more philosophical research; something I've come to think of as more important than updating uniqueness. Even if we disagree here as to the importance of what kind of research ought to be done, a non-interventionist (not to say that judges have to vote on arguments without warrants, or impact in the round [though, we ought to be very careful to ensure that the argument is not just unwarranted TO US]) perspective encourages both kinds of research in that utilitarianism is one of the theories that can be heavily advocated by someone in a non-interventionist paradigm. I do agree that debaters tend to throw around words like education, depth, and breadth that are vacuous. I tend to think they're vacuous for different reasons than you, I think so because they are in no way tied to the debate round they are currently in. Most theories shells seem prewritten with no context in mind, and obviously fail to analyze how the round is going. I think that allowing judges to determine educationally bankrupt positions leads to the same problem as them intervening in a substantive way, but perhaps it is less dangerous. tl;dr: I am a perspectivist who has a suspicion towards intervening.

    • I think there's a very simple solution. If there's credible literature defending a position, a debater is always entitled to a faithful appropriation of that literature. Cobbling together disparate strands of marginally-related lit into an incoherent frankenstein monster is another thing altogether. There's nothing intellectually valuable about butchering the work people do in the midst of years worth of research.The suggestion that my world precludes skepticism and criticism is mistaken. I advocated kritik debate in LD 10 years ago. The problem with contemporary application is that it reflects zero respect for the scholarship. Progressive and traditional theorists alike are hijacked, pure and simple. I'm not equating bad arguments with any specific content (and nor do I think judges should do this). This is a question of implementation. If an author doesn't apply his/her theory in the same way a debater does, we should be skeptical of the position and expect a very tightly argued story. Most of the time, you know an argument is good when you aren't the first one to come up with it. If there's a good lit base for the argument, it's at least plausible.Btw, you made have read my use of "nihilism" as an indictment of particular authorsnot at all my point. My claim is that the appropriation of literature and strategy in debate reflects an abdication of educational values/virtues. The debate itself has succumbed to a kind of nihilism.

      • Oh, I will totally agree that the way debaters (usually) use philosophy is in a way that butchers the literature. I also agree that debaters ought to articulate their cases in a way consistent with the authors' (I might be MORE liberal on this than most) arguments. I'm just innately skeptical when people mention judges discouraging sects of philosophy and/or deterring what seems 'ridiculous', but in the end we're effectively in the same camp.

        • Yah, I feel you on that. I think that a lot of judges (including me) probably over-adjust to prevent that kind of intervention. I suppose a world erring more tab is better than a world erring more interventionist… but I'm also hoping there's a way to transcend that opposition and put judges in a position to demand better habits from debaters.

  • Stephen, thanks for having the courage to write this article at the expense of sounding like someone who the game has passed them by. This is the very reason I did not write something like this after a recent trip to Dallas with my Mexican debate team. I didn't have the courage and I am not sure if the game has passed me by. I was shocked at the low quality argumentation, cx shells that were hardly understood by the debaters that read them, with little to no intelligible analysis. We won some of the rounds and lost some so I am not bitching about losses but I found it strange that some of the judges had the same superficial feedback to give to the debaters after the round. We even went and watched an elimination round between two reputable Dallas schools and saw the same thing except with slightly better presentation skills. The saddest thing that I saw was a kid from one of the Plano schools that i thought was the best speaker I saw at the tournament getting on the bus to go home after prelims with a 2-2 record. I talked to him on his way out and he didn't seem surprised. He was very happy to have participated. So maybe the game has passed me by but I agree with you that these debaters are getting cheated out of a great educational opportunity. Thanks again for your insight.

    • Mark, thanks for the kind words. Glad to hear you guys made it up to Dallas, but I can imagine how jarring the experience was at times.I think the rate of superficial hyper-specialization has increased in the activity, but I doubt anything too profound has passed you by. I've noticed a handful of people get back into the activity after a few years out and adjust with relative ease.My sense is that there's just been a rampant normalization of debate methodology. Kids are scared to sound different, debater different, think different. The great irony is that what ostensibly passes as technical advancement has lead to truly unimaginative homogenization of style and substance alike. It's like the hypothesis that Google is making people dumberI think the standardization and thoughtless proliferation of trends in debate has had a similar effect. The normalization has been valuable in some ways (people are less likely to make arguments with no evidence whatsoever nowadays)… but insofar as things have normalized along an axis of competitive success alone, we're left with some really, really bad debates. The race to the bottom of gamesmanship is just gutting these speeches of any prospect for learning.