It Is Interesting to Note that High School Debate is as Broken as When I Did it 35 Years Ago

From the WSJ:

For weeks, high school debater Benjamin Waldman rehearsed his argument affirming the resolution that the criminal-justice system should abolish plea bargaining. Now that it was time to speak, he took a deep breath and let it rip.


After six minutes of speaking at this blinding pace, topping out at 300 words a minute, the 15-year-old sat down, ready for his foe’s cross-examination.

To impress judges, they had to pack into that brief time arguments of intellectual depth and complexity, complete with citations of legal scholars or philosophers. Any point left unrebutted could be deemed conceded. Every word had to be read aloud for the judges to score it. The result was speech at roughly the pace of a cattle auctioneer.

Rather than focus on logical arguments made cogently and elegantly, the approach in my day (and it appears today) was to carpet bomb the other side with as many arguments as possible and claim victory on any points that were not rebutted.  The standard for both argumentation and rebuttals was lame, with a quote from some source, likely both weak and quoted out of context during summer camps where evidence is compiled, usually good enough to check the box.  The skills taught are apropos of pretty much nothing.

The other problem that existed in my day, and which I am told still obtains in various forms, was that every argument had to save us from a nuclear war.  You couldn't win with intelligent but modest policy tweaks.  We actually had a big poster with an atomic mushroom cloud on which we would keep score of the number of nuclear wars saved or caused by our teammates.  I swear I heard debates about things like ocean fishing and mineral rights where most of the discussion was around avoiding a nuclear war.  It was simply nuts.


  1. Dan Wendlick:

    Still better than the state of college debate, where I understand the current fashion is to call into question the whole notion of debate and posit that it is a relic of an X-ist superiority culture

  2. Sackerson:

    Seen the film "The Strawberry Statement"? Incoherent speechifying followed by (physically) trashing the professors' accumulated research notes.

  3. davesmith001:

    It seems to me that debate mainly teaches motivated reasoning.

  4. GregRehmke:

    "Resolved: The Movie" gives a glimpse of "competitive debate" from not too many years ago.

  5. expat:

    Man, no wonder American political debate culture is pretty much nonexistent.
    Just for reference, the classic German debate features guests who patiently listen to the other sides argument, engage by demonstrating they have understood and then developing arguments for where and how they disagree.

  6. Zach:

    I did high school debate in the late 90's and moonlighted as an assistant coach (basically just chaperoned kids to tournaments) from about 2006 to 2012. In my part of the country participation is high enough that parents and grandparents are frequently recruited to be judges, which helps to limit the speed nonsense. Nevertheless, college debaters do end up judging many rounds and they usually end up in the more competitive divisions. It sucks, because the high school kids want to emulate the "cool kids", not please mom/dad/grandma. Losses are frequently blamed on "idiot lay judges", not on their failures to communicate. I can't fault them too much because I was kind of the same way.

    Anyway, from what I remember, nuclear war was beginning to fall out of favor as the preferred impact, and dehumanization was the new hotness. Some of it was true dehumanization (think human trafficking or ethnic cleansing) and some of it was bullshit entitled high school dehumanization (people having to work jobs they don't like, possibly/usually minimum wage, to make ends meet).

  7. DB:

    Former high school British Parliamentary debate coach here. The super fast talking is something you see in mostly in Policy Debate (as is the phenomenon Dan mentioned). Actual poise and oration is typically considered fairly by adjudicators in other formats; you can't just memorize something and say it as fast as possible to jam as many points into the argument as you can. No idea why, but the media really seems to love zooming in on Policy, probably because it comes off as so strange. There are definitely opportunities for high schoolers to do worthwhile debate instead.

    Not sure about other formats, but in BP, you'd definitely also score low if you overstate the impact of your claims. A team can dismiss the hysterical argument on topicality ("this is an argument about mineral rights, not nuclear policy") and spend the extra time they have not having to refute a real argument to go into greater depth about their own positions; the team that overdid it then has to make a necessarily complex and unconvincing case to bring it back into play.

  8. Mercury:

    College debate before and after we decided that Western Civilization was worse than cancer:
    AFTER (with aforementioned speed-talking):

  9. kidmugsy:

    That's pretty much how we did it at school in Scotland. The audience was asked to vote on who had won. The idea of "judges" would have been laughable. If the whole thing was to have been solemn and earnest, with judges for heaven's sake, who on earth would spend time debating when he could have been playing football, or assembling a radio, or whatever?

  10. The_Big_W:

    Quite the meta argument there. It would be really fun to see a panel of judges get that argument, stand up, and yell "everybody out, I've been thoroughly convinced this is all useless and racist, the debate is over, no prizes will be awarded, goodbye."

  11. cc:

    I did debate in the dark ages (1966). We could never shout, rap, talk fast, none of that. It was considered ok to cite Newsweek or USNews, but otherwise was quite civilized. The current fashion in college debate of simply screaming at your opponents and calling them racist has not yet come into play.

  12. Dan Wendlick:

    Back in high school, I was involved with an event called Student Congress, which simulated the workings of a deliberative body. You could score points based on speaking for or against resolutions, but also for offering amendments and properly negotiating the intricacies of parliamentary procedure. The text of something on the order of 20 resolutions, of which 3-5 would be considered, was released to the participants 2 hours before the body was convened, (in the pre mobile device and google era, this didn't leave much time for actual research) and the cattle-call style of speaking was distinctly, whether by custom or rule, highly discouraged. Participants could yield for questioning, either friendly or hostile, and could object to other speakers on the grounds of wandering from germaneness.

  13. Dan Wendlick:

    Mr. Madison, what you've just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

  14. Enrique M:

    Agreed, Policy debate is terrible in this fashion but Lincoln-Douglas and Public Forum debate haven't been taken over by the speed reading plague and actually attempt to have philosophical or practical debates on the subject at hand.

  15. SamWah:

    Well, we have so far...

  16. Joseph Hertzlinger:

    One problem with the "mention as many points as possible" tactic. A third-party can cite the weakest of your points for the purpose of saying "That side believes stupid stuff."