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The Greyhound

The Greyhound

Debate and rhetorical education have become warped and useless

No skill rivals the ability to debate and communicate effectively. Whatever you decide to do in life, you will never exhaust the usefulness of the ability to persuade and influence other people. Tragically, the powers of rhetoric and reasoning are as difficult to teach in a classroom as they are essential to life.

High schools across the country are aware of this fact and form debate teams that compete with one another in the interest of promoting rhetorical education. In theory, competitive debate teaches kids how to speak extemporaneously, how to construct an argument, and how to use rhetoric in the heat of discussion. In practice, high school debate has become an unmitigated perversion of everything debate should be, and leaves most debaters entering college with a twisted view of how discourse works, and a nearly useless set of skills.

I’m definitely no outsider on this issue: I debated in high school for three years in the state of Indiana and competed in the Lincoln-Douglas event: a one-on-one format focused on philosophical topics. In that time, I placed first in my state, fifth among the nation’s catholic schools, and 14th among all schools nationwide. I learned more about how to write, how to speak, and how to construct sound arguments from debate than from any class I’ve ever taken. I still, on occasion, offer advice to younger debaters I keep in touch with (including my younger brother).

In general, high school debate is great, but in a lot of districts it’s gone horribly wrong, and the problem is growing. Students across the country are being pushed toward a toxic style of debate that’s all but disconnected from how people really speak and argue. Students are encouraged to speak as quickly as humanly possible during debate rounds in order to squeeze a maximum number of words into their time limit. I’m not exaggerating when I say that many students on the national circuit speak as quickly as auctioneers.

But auctioneers speak as fast as they do because they’re listing simple prices and keeping the bidding alive with energy. In a complex debate on philosophy and politics there are nuances that need to be explored with comprehensible English: auctioneering is entirely inappropriate. Yet, kids stutter, splutter, and gasp their way through thousands of unnecessary words at speeds neither their lungs nor their brains can keep up with. This occurs at the prodding of debate coaches who’ve decided that “more words” translates to “more meaning.”

I can’t emphasize this point enough: watching these kids argue feels utterly alien. Like you’re seeing two beings from another planet babble in a way that doesn’t resemble human speech at all. Worse still, the generative process of writing cases is being phased out too. Students who write their own cases (long opening speeches that present the whole argument) are a dying breed. Coaches write a case, give it to their students, and have them regurgitate it aloud at a mile a minute.

I wrote dozens of lengthy, extensively researched cases for debate, and each one was a product of my reasoning and my writing. They were terrible at first—disasters even. But I learned from my losses and started to understand how to construct sound arguments and support them with rhetorical power. My debate coach understood how valuable it was for us to write our cases on our own.

Worst of all are the argumentational tactics students are being taught. Some are told to run cases referred to as “theory” or “critique,” which essentially means going off topic in an attempt to win a debate underhandedly. What does such a case look like? I saw one debater at the national level argue that she should win the debate (which was about the environment) solely because her personal advancement in the tournament would lend her message of dismantling the patriarchy and promoting feminism more visibility. To her opponent’s chagrin and my irritation, she actually won using that argument. I wish I could say this was an uncommon thing.

What happened? The education of good rhetoric and reasoning is being forced aside by fast-talking, deflection and parroting the ideas of others. If you plan to, or currently do teach kids how to debate, teach them useful skills of discourse that see use in the real world. I stay involved to teach students they don’t need to buy into that kind of rotten, useless debate.

Students debate because they want to learn through competition, and they deserve an atmosphere that facilitates that kind of learning. I know with certainty that if I’d been taught debate the way more and more kids are being taught it now, I’d be a less articulate, less capable and less complete person for it.

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Debate and rhetorical education have become warped and useless