In the last 6 months or so there have been quite a few articles in the Rostrum attacking fast, national circuit policy debate. I was going to write a response for the NDCA coaches corner but in the interim several other response pieces were posted, so having my thunder stolen I decided to write something else. Below is some of what I wrote in a rough draft for the article.
Not so fast Mr. Clark. Yours is the latest in a series of articles I have noticed in the Rostrum decrying the state of policy debate as it is now practiced on the national circuit. I won’t rehash the old arguments about critical thinking, psychological studies on rate of delivery etc. that demonstrate fast debate is more educational. Instead I want to start off talking about basketball.
As a first time basketball fan with no previous experience playing the sport, I was somewhat amazed at the success of the San Antonio Spurs in the 2003 NBA playoffs. As far as I could tell they didn’t have any elite superstar players, and played a style of basketball that was quite boring to me. “I don’t understand this!” I proclaimed, “Why don’t they play basketball the way I want them to play basketball!”. A friend then explained to me the many reasons for the spurs success using lots of jargon like “pick and roll” that I didn’t understand. I had always assumed basketball was a random chaotic game where 10 people ran around as fast as they could trying to get an open dunk, but now I was being told there were actual plays and strategies going on that I just wasn’t seeing. This seemed like nonsense to me, however, since I was totally inexperienced and was being schooled by someone with much more knowledge then me, I decided to investigate further before reaching my conclusion. This process of researching an issue before I formed an opinion was something I learned doing fast national circuit policy debate. It is always interesting to me when critics of this style of debate spout off the same old arguments about why its bad and in so doing indicate that they clearly have not carried out this process of research and exploration. The scene is usually something like this: I am in the judges lounge of a major national tournament that brings in students of many debate styles. In the room there will be a few people spread around with computers out preparing “canned” material for their students. There will be another group who sit their drinking their coffee, and discussing the educationally bankrupt style of fast policy debate. The truth is- fast policy debate is really really hard. Coaching it well is also really really hard. Sitting around complaining is very very easy.
Learning jargon is difficult, but as Condilac observed, “Every science requires a special language because every science has its own ideas”. That’s what debate is- a science. You wouldn’t walk into an organic chemistry class at Harvard and say “Slow down here, what is all this jargon”- or maybe you would. Jargon is useful- its an intellectual heuristic that makes communication among people educated in a particular field much easier. I don’t see why a person on the street should be able to understand every single debate anymore than they should understand every article in the Review of International Studies. Debate is about judge adaptation. When you have a judge who is knowledgeable about the topic, and about debate in general, speaking quickly and using jargon allows you to introduce and examine an exponentially larger number of ideas. Obviously if your judge is not up for it, you should slow down and avoid using jargon- but what is to be gained by making all debate homogeneously this way? That is the crucial issue- critics of speed and jargon don’t just want the debates they judge to be that way, they wan’t all debates to be their way because their way is the best. When was the last time you saw an article from a fast national circuit style judge decrying the lack of speed or lack of critical arguments from a non national circuit team? Critics of fast circuit debate hate what they don’t understand, what they can’t comprehend. Rather than put in the hours to learn, they wish that everyone else would simply forget. No one grows taller by cutting down giants.
Mr. Clark worries about the reputation of debate, and while I appreciate his concern, this is a bit like a freshman at Yale who doesn’t think his class about The Wire is academic enough worrying about the institutions reputation. Having such little experience Mr. Clark I do not believe you are in a position to worry. The issue of speed in debate is not one you discovered recently any more than Columbus discovered America. In a 1992 edition of Unger and Company a group of the top college coaches in the country got together to hash out this very issue (it was not new then either, but it is the oldest recording of such a discussion I can find). In it they discuss the doom and gloom prophecies of fast debate destroying the activity. Almost 20 years later, the sky has not yet fallen. Also in the video the coach of the Harvard debate team Dallas Perkins says that in an academic competition relying on critical thinking he will take his debaters vs any other students at Harvard and I have to say- I wouldn’t bet against that Texan coming down the stretch.
An implicit assumption of all these critics seems to be that all forms of debate need to be the same- homogenized mush pandering to the least informed and least adept. Last I checked, there were like 40 different speech activities and two other kinds of debate you could do at NFL nationals. If you don’t like fast, evidence intensive, complex debate about policy making you don’t have to. I don’t know of anyone from a fast circuit policy school deriding Public Forum in a Rostrum article for being too slow or or too accessible. As a wise philosopher once said, it takes different strokes. But more importantly than that, not only do the styles of debate not have to be the same, the goal of the activities do not have to be the same either. If you talk to policy alums from the 60’s,70’s, and 80’s who have moved on into business or law and ask them what it is about their time in policy debate that helps them in their careers now they won’t tell you its their “persuasion” skills. In their professions its rational, well evidenced argument that wins the day. Goldman Sachs doesn’t make investment decisions based on which analyst talked the prettiest, and the Supreme Court doesn’t rule in favor of smooth talking attorneys. So when asked what skill set does fast talking jargon filled policy debate prepare students with to enter the world compared to other kinds of debate I would have to say: the right one.
I’ll leave you with two closing thoughts. First, speed is not exclusive with other styles- people who go fast can go slow while the opposite is not true. As proof: in the last 20 years a fast, circuit style policy team has won every NFL nationals, no team eschewing speed and jargon has won the Tournament of Champions in that time period. Second, the reputation of fast jive talking policy debaters seems to be doing just fine: Robert Allen recent editor of the Harvard Law Review and future Supreme Court clerk, Michael Gottlieb former supreme court clerk and now associate counsel to the president, Colin Kahl- deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, Neal Katyal- principle deputy solicitor general, Larry Summers – chair of the council of economic advisors…
A closing quote from Michael Gotlieb- two time NDT winner, two time NDT top speaker, and one fast mofo:
For those of you judges who are moving towards hating fast debate, etc. PLEASE REMEMBER: many of you [not all] engaged in fast intense debates where you read tons of cards. You did this for a reason. Please ask yourself why you did it. I do it because IT IS FUN. I love doing it. I don’t think that we should be denied the opportunity to continue this practice. However, I’m pragmatic enough to recognize that if all judges want to discontinue the practice, than it will be so. I have no problem with judge adaptation, I grew up debating in Kansas. I just think, after sampling both forms of advocacy, that the fast intense one is a) more educationally rewarding, b) more intellectually challenging and c) more fun.