I’m not going to lie, I know next to nothing about debate on the “national circuit”. If you were to spread in front of me, I would likely just stare blankly ahead, hopelessly attempting to comprehend the words that are flying from your mouth. Any kind of Kritikal argument would render me incapable of response, and I haven’t the slightest idea how to combat a theory shell. Suffice to say, I’m not the typical author for Briefly, mostly for what I’m about to say next: I love tournaments where the judges are not seasoned veterans of high school forensics, but rather, parents and friends of friends of friends who were called in last minute to fill a shortage. I love tournaments whose competitors include schools in a 50-mile radius, and I love tournaments whose entry fees are rarely more than $7. To put it bluntly, I love locals. And I think we all should love them, or, at the very least, appreciate the lessons they teach.
To understand my point, we need to ask ourselves a rather conscientious question: what is competitive debate supposed to teach? Any coach, participant, or alumni will give a different answer. The National Speech and Debate Association’s mission statement states “communication skills are essential for empowering youth to become engaged citizens, skilled professionals, and honorable leaders in our global society”, but what precisely do these communication skills entail? Should the focus be on oration, or analysis? Evidence, or rhetoric? In my opinion, the answer is yes… all of the above .
There is no question in my mind that there are educational advantages to debating progressively. The ability to analyze and respond to complex arguments and philosophical theories in such a high-paced environment is indicative of an incredible level of understanding and practice. What I fear is lost in this case is the ability to communicate with the average layperson. Speaking at 300 words per minute is great for aspiring rappers and TOC hopefuls, but in terms of convincing a future room of execs to invest in your business, or persuading a grand jury to charge a guilty defendant, it’s a fairly trivial skill. I firmly believe that there is a reason that Midwestern states like Missouri have dominated the public speaking events at NSDA Nationals for the last five years. (In 2014, Missouri had finalists in every non-extemp IE. They proceeded to win Humorous Interpretation and Original Oratory, and place in the Top 3 in Dramatic and Duo Interpretation.) That reason is that the focus in this part of the country is firmly planted in the ability to sway the average individual of one thing or another. That is not to say that evidence and understanding are replaced by rhetoric and oratory, but rather, they are incorporated at a conversational and accessible level.
For some reason, our community is divided. Circuit debaters and coaches find lay debate to be slow and restrictive, believing that they themselves represent the evolution of Lincoln-Douglas. Likewise, lay debaters and coaches believe that the national circuit is an elitist bastardization of their long-held values and standards. Please understand, this is not an indictment of any specific person on either side of the line. But we would be naïve to assume that this isn’t the general consensus (For a more in-depth analysis of this specific topic, check out my article in the Soapbox titled Cards and Clarity). How, then, can we combat this internal prejudice?
I don’t have some elaborate plan, but I don’t really think that we need a step-by-step guide. A fundamental paradigm shift in how we treat each other, from debaters to judges to coaches, would be so much more effective; I realize that this article isn’t going to change opinions overnight, but maybe it’ll make some individuals reconsider what they think of as “legitimate” debate. Maybe, eventually, a Lincoln-Douglas debater who didn’t spend thousands of dollars on camp will be able to win the TOC not because they can cover the intricacies of Foucault in less than 20 seconds , but because they are able to inspire the hearts and minds of the ordinary person. A symphony of pathos, ethos, and logos… that’s what debate should be about.
Jake Mazeitis is a Senior at Park Hill South in Kansas City, MO. His hobbies include debating, forensicating, writing college essays, and wondering why we’re all here.