Parents, Debate Is the Right Competitive Sport for Your Child!

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

And NC grandparents, debate is the right sport for your grandchild! Both Yves and I are former debaters, and I whenever I see a debate story in the news I get a thrill, because debate did so much for me. So when I read this excellent long-form post on Hillary’s email ulcerating tumor problem (“Do I Really Need to Worry About Hillary’s Emails? Yes. She Will Be Indicted. (Full Form”)[1] by 22-year-old Chetan Hebbale, and checked his bio, I was thrilled to find this:

My background in research, writing and arguing comes almost exclusively from the 7 years I spent as a policy debater, both at Johns Creek High School and at UGA. My notable accomplishments in debate are my leading the team to defeat the University of Oxford, England in a public debate in 2014. As well as placing within the top 32 teams nationwide at the 2015 National Debate Tournament.

And so I determined to write this post, since I think America’s greatest competitive sport is not football but debate, mostly for the virtues it inculcates (and the negative virtue of not putting your child’s brain at risk of concussion. Here I will issue the ritual qualification that despite the totally exaggerated claim in the headline, only you can decide what is best for your child, in which case this article will help you decide to avoid debate). First, I’ll give a list of those virtues, and then I’ll comment on the role of debate in (amazingly enough) prison reform through the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) and the effect of its revival in the black community. (“Policy debate,”[2] the sort of debate that Yves and I practiced, and Hebbale, is — I would assert — the most bad-ass form of debate there is, with meta-kinetic energy comparable to, oh, the Red Army at the height of its powers.)

Virtues of Debate

While doing the research for this piece, I was stunned to learn that James Farmer, founder of the Congress of Racial Equality, practitioner of nonviolent direct action, organizer of the Freedom Rides (and honorary vice chairman in the Democratic Socialists of America) was a debater at Wiley College[3] in Texas, in the ’30s. So I’m just going to grab back-up evidence for my claims on debate’s virtues from Gail Beil’s “Wiley College’s Great Debaters,” at Humanities Texas. Farmer’s debate coach at Wiley — debate teams have coaches, just like any sport — was Melvin Tolson, who figures largely in the excerpts below. I see debate’s virtues, as exemplified by the Wiley program, as follows:

Speaking Before Crowds. For some reason, Americans have a terrible fear of public speaking. I do not, even though I am an introvert’s introvert; I owe the ability to move a room entirely to my experience with debate. As at Tolson:

Using what became known as “the mighty Tolson method,” the Wileyites were victorious. Tolson spent a lot of time training his debaters in the tactics and strategy of arguments. “

And here’s Wiley debating the University of Southern California:

Dressed in tuxedos, both teams took the stage, with Wiley on the affirmative side. The Pi Kappa Delta-sponsored question for 1934–1935 concerned the prevention of international shipment of munitions, and that was probably the subject of the Southern California encounter. “From the time Floyd C. Covington, who presided, opened the program until its close the vast audience was held in rapt attention by the scholarly presentations of both teams,” described Tolson. [James] Farmer, a freshman at the time, was an alternate and observer. His memory of the team and that night was remarkable. Hobart Jarrett, the intellectual junior from Tulsa, Oklahoma, described by Farmer as “a polished, dignified, cultivated young man wearing rimless glasses.” [Said Farmer of Henry Heights:] “When Heights stood up to give his rebuttal he would say, ‘When I was a boy in Wichita Falls, Texas, I noticed something about those jackrabbits. The jackrabbit never runs in a straight line; he jumps from one side to another’—and then he gave a little hop. Then he turned round slowly and looked at his opponent, and the audience roared.”

Now, I was never good enough to get a room to “roar” (although I have gotten a room to sway unconsciously in unison). The key point is that success in public speaking is not wholly the result of personal, intrinsic characteristics, but of teaching, and your child can be taught how to do it.

Critical Thinking Skills. Debaters learn to argue both sides:

The phenomenal success of Tolson’s teams, who rarely lost a debate whether their opponents were black or white, was attributed to that mighty Tolson system, Farmer said. Tolson himself described it in a column he wrote for The Washington Tribune. “That wise old bird Emerson said there’s a crack in everything God made, and I was going to find the crack in the systems of other coaches.” Twice a week Tolson would gather his debaters in his living room, arguing points and practicing until late in the night. Young Melvin Jr., still in grade school, would hide behind a screen in the corner of the room and listen until he fell asleep and had to be carried to bed. “Those sessions were exciting and they were as emotional as you can get. The word tactics was always coming up. ‘What are you going to do? What strategy are you going to take?'” Farmer remembered. Tolson, finding the cracks in other debater’s cases, was the one plotting the debating strategy, according to Farmer. The Wiley teams simply memorized his arguments and wrote them on file cards they could pull out to meet a point made by an opponent. Tolson was so good at finding holes in the logic of others his debaters rarely had to do it on their own. “And then we had to debate Tolson in practice. He socked it to us! We socked it to him right back,” Farmer said. “He’d say ‘Which side do you believe in? All right, take the other side.’ He did much more than polish my delivery.”

Research Skills. When you, reader, hear Yves or me ask for evidence on one of your points, that’s something we were trained to do (looking “for cracks,” as Tolson said).

“Our debate squad reads hundreds of magazine articles and scores of books on government, economics, sociology, history and literature,” champion debater Hobart Jarrett wrote for an article in W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Crisis.

Rhetorical Skills. Not merely the ability to speak, but conscious control of the millenia-old art of rhetoric, the strategy and tactics of persuasion (see a detailed analysis of one speech here, which I just listened to again, it’s so awesome). Hobart Jarrett once more:

[W]e must learn to handle our knowledge with readiness and poise growing out of mastery of the platform. . . . groping for words or an error in grammar is an unpardonable sin. Sometimes our coach will put a debater on the platform during practice and cross-examine him for an hour. The debater must escape from the most perplexing dilemmas and antinomies.

Competitive Skills. I don’t know if readers have noticed this, but I like to win arguments. (I hope, now that I’m a good deal older, and possibly kinder, that I know when to throw in my hand. After all, the greatest swordsman never needs to take their sword out of its scabbard.) Well, learning to win, and accepting that one can win, is a skill like any other (and not much practiced in America these days, unless simply leveraging one’s privilege counts as winning). And Tolson definitely inculcated those skills:

In a 1939 departmental report, Tolson described the program’s achievements in its first decade:

“Wiley College initiated intercollegiate debating among Negro institutions in the Southwest. For ten years the forensic representatives of the college went undefeated, meeting debaters from Fisk, Morehouse, Virginia Union, Lincoln, Wilberforce, and Howard universities. . . . (T)he debaters also participated in the first inter-racial debate ever held in the history of the South. It was held in Oklahoma City against the University of Oklahoma City in 1930. Since that time Wiley debaters have engaged in many such contests against Michigan University, Texas Christian University, and the University of California, Southern California and New Mexico.”

(Amazing record, and hard to imagine ” the first inter-racial debate ever held in the history of the South,” a unqualifiedly good thing, could ever have been achieved without it.)

One might even urge that debate builds a foundation for good citizenship; surely those terrified of public speaking will find it difficult to participate in a public meeting! The World Debate Institute at the University of Vermont (!) describes their “Flashpoint Television” program as follows:

The program consists of a fast-paced discussion of the topic and its related issues. Experts are not sought for the program, because it attempts to show that intelligent citizens can learn about an issue for themselves and then have informed and logical opinions — which is what citizens should do. If you have comments about our program, please contact us at .

Debate in Society

This is not an exhaustive survey of the current debate scene, which is far more vibrant than I ever imagined. Rather, I hope to persuade you that debate is, as it were, a “career open to all talents,” and that your child need not already possess the skills and virtues that debate is designed to inculcate. (There is, for example, no expensive equipment to buy.)

Debate in Prison. From the Washington Post:

Why you shouldn’t be surprised that prisoners crushed Harvard’s debate team

What makes the victory over Harvard impressive is less about who pulled it off than how they did it.

To prepare for the competition, the inmates, members of Bard’s Prison Initiative, were forced to acquire knowledge the old-fashioned way: Without access to the Internet, according to the Wall Street Journal. In 2015, can you seriously imagine preparing for anything — purchasing a movie ticket, looking up directions or researching basically anything — without going online?

Consider that for a moment: Weeks, not minutes or even days — and all while attempting to map out a research strategy that hinged upon institutional approval. If debate is equal parts rhetorical flourish and strategy, it’s worth asking whether circumstance forced the prisoners to devise an approach — in which limited resources demanded sharper focus and more rigorous planning — that resulted in superior lines of argumentation.

The latest debate, about whether public schools should have the ability to deny enrollment to undocumented students, was described by the Journal as “fast-moving.”

And, naturally, the prisoners argued both sides!

In the end, the inmates presented an elaborate argument with which they personally disagreed, essentially telling judges that if the children were denied admission, then nonprofits and wealthier schools would pick up the slack, according to the Journal.

So this is a little bit of a “If they can, your child can” argument.

Debate as Arena and Theatre. Again from the Washington Post:

[O]rganized collegiate debate is not strictly about arguing for policies. It is about exploring ideas and articulating meaningful, if at times obscure, arguments. One team took that tactic to a new level.

George Lee and Rashid Campbell, both award-winning debaters and University of Oklahoma students, argued this: “War powers should not be waged against niggas.”…

The young black men used the n-word repeatedly as they made their arguments. It was part of their rhetorical strategy. They knew that many of their competitors would be uncomfortable hearing it and would never repeat it themselves. For Lee, who grew up in a predominantly black area of Bryan, Tex., using the word turned what he said was the traditional power dynamic on its head. …

When they developed their argument around the word at the beginning of the debate season, they knew it would be controversial. Their style intentionally goes against norms within debate. They have worn dashikis or kente cloth rather than suits and ties as they compete. They incorporate music into their presentations and use spoken word and poetry rather than the breathless speed-talking that is common among top collegiate debaters. They sometimes use profanity to make a point.

“Initially, it is somewhat jarring,” said Andrew Markoff, who recently graduated from Georgetown University and faced Lee and Campbell in a tournament earlier this year.

But Markoff, who is white, said he and his debating partner came to accept Lee and Campbell’s use of the word without challenging it, and they found ways to counter their opponents.

“One thing, I think, that my partner and I came to realize is that their argument is about performing their position as black men in a way that is liberatory and that involves the use of the word,” Markoff said. “We said, ‘It’s not a good place to mount a challenge. It’s certainly not our place to reappropriate the word. It’s certainly not our place to speak to its efficacy.’ ”

Georgetown was one of the few teams to beat Lee and Campbell in the National Debate Tournament.

Still, the University of Oklahoma duo — among a handful of top black college debaters in the country — succeeded in bringing the racially charged word into mainstream debating competition.

Three months after the debate season ended, Lee and Campbell were in Baltimore working with high school students at the Eddie Conway Liberation Institute’s summer debate camp at Morgan State University. During a lunch break, the two explained their debate style and spoke about their experience in the tournaments while using their expansive vocabularies and deep reading of African American studies scholarship to further expound on their ideas. They are youthful and passionate, nerdy and Afro-centrist. Both have plans to coach debate and attain graduate degrees.

Ha, Georgetown. Still winning, just as it did in my own day. And through rhetorical strategy, too. And I’d argue again that “If they can, your child can” argument, though your child may need to break different taboos, if that’s what it takes.


I hope this brief discussion of debate — and the implicit view of the virtues it takes to become a good citizen — has persuaded you to at least consider debate as an essential part of your child’s curriculum (not an “extra”).


[1] For those who read the article and thought the formatting a little old-fashioned, Hebbale writes:

(I’ll be underlining the laws like a piece of evidence in a policy debate round for those who don’t want to read all the way, sorry need to relive my glory days)

[2] Policy debate:

Policy debate is a form of debate competition in which teams of two advocate for and against a resolution that typically calls for policy change by the United States federal government. It is also referred to as cross-examination debate (sometimes shortened to Cross-X, CX, Cross-ex, or C-X) because of the 3-minute questioning period following each constructive speech. Affirmative teams generally present a plan as a proposal for implementation of the resolution.

[3] Wiley College was a black college, and so its debaters faced challenges on the road, traveling to “away games”:

African American teams faced one obstacle never encountered by their white counterparts. Almost every debater during this period either observed or was threatened with lynching. Jarrett’s experience occurred on the way to Memphis. “The Wiley debaters are on the road and the road leads through the tremendous circle of mobsters. But there is a mulatto in the car. Coach Tolson tells him to take the steering wheel. The darker debaters [and Tolson, who had a dark complexion] get down in the car. The night is friendly, protecting. The mulatto salutes nonchalantly the grimfaced members of the mob, allaying their suspicions. And the debaters reach Memphis and read about the mob in the morning newspapers.”

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. scoff

    Listening to orators like FDR, JFK and Obama gives an idea of the potential of the spoken word. In its demand for evidentiary support debate also opens the mind to new ideas and new ways of looking at things. I credit my son’s development as a person at least partly on his participation in debate and Model U.N. in high school. I think it made him a more rounded, more complete person.

    BTW, Lambert, there’s a message for you on Corrente.

  2. redleg

    Nowhere near as satisfying as putting the ball in the net.
    Cue head rubs from teammates!

  3. David s

    There’s a magnet middle school here in town with an emphasis on forensics. I have often thought that being able to be persuasive under pressure is every bit as valuable as anything else one could learn.

    I envy those kids.

    1. jrs

      Haha, I thought this was forensics like on the crime shows, which is very much the scientific method, but there is a high school teaching forensic science and investigating causes of death? Cool but a little gruesome …. Oh wait that’s not what you meant – too bad really. Forensic science probably does teach critical thinking.

  4. Harold

    Um, speaking before crowds, research, persuasion, forensics — didn’t that used to be called ‘rhetoric’ – something the Greeks and Romans practiced and which for 2,000 years was the foundation of a liberal arts education? (In the late 19th c. it was superseded by the academic discipline now known as “English”.)

    On the other hand, debate, as now practiced is something of a speed sport, I understand.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Yes, see at “Rhetorical Skills. Not merely the ability to speak, but conscious control of the millenia-old art of rhetoric.” But conquering the fear of speaking is so strong in the US I felt it deserved a separate bullet point.

      Yes, on the speed sport; Lee and Campbell’s approach was an assault on that style. In editing that quote I see I dropped a crucial sentence, which I’ll put back in:

      When they developed their argument around the word at the beginning of the debate season, they knew it would be controversial. Their style intentionally goes against norms within debate. They have worn dashikis or kente cloth rather than suits and ties as they compete. They incorporate music into their presentations and use spoken word and poetry rather than the breathless speed-talking that is common among top collegiate debaters. They sometimes use profanity to make a point.

      And good for Georgetown, coming up with a response instead of pearl-clutching

  5. Nickname

    Very interesting and informative post – I bookmarked several of the links.

    I wish I had taken part in formal debating in high school/college because it certainly is like a cross-training session for your brain. Unfortunately, I find that the effectiveness of debating also has a lot to do with your audience, and if you’re addressing an irrational crowd (like, say, oh I don’t know, the establishment at large), no amount of skill or knowledge will help. It’s hard to counter arguments like “well that’s how I feel in my heart” or “well that’s all fine and good, but that’s not how things work in the real world.”

    1. Optimader

      Paraphrasing what i read/ heard somewhere:
      “It is difficult to win a debate when arguing with an intelligent person, it’s impossible to win when debating an ignorant one..”

      Maturity can bring the wisdom to understand when to stop.
      It could simply be the moment when you recognise the facts have been laid out. As well, when you realize you are ultimately confronted with a mutually intractable POV.

      A third situation is when the opposing debater misunderstands their POV to be objective fact. Always a good place to stop and move on.

      1. Nickname

        Well put. There’s another one of those sayings that is attributed to various people (all the way from George Carlin to Mark Twain) that goes something like: “Never argue with an idiot. They will only bring you down to their level and beat you with experience”

        I always just try to end the “debates” when I get to that point, but I have come to realize that the people that I often end up in such discussions with rarely actually hold the view that they are advocating/defending, they just want to joust a bit, which I find not only infuriating, but also a complete waste of time.

        IMHO, the world would be a far better place if there was significantly less emphasis on competition and winning and significantly more emphasis on holding AND practicing admirable values/principles – and make no mistake about it, those are most often mutually exclusive. You simply cannot focus on competing and winning all the time (which is virtually exactly what the market is all about) while simultaneously staying true to values of solidarity and consideration.

  6. Harold

    For all its commendable virtues, didn’t someone by the name of Socrates observe that Debate unmoored by ethics (the virtues) can promote glibness — or something to that effect. Case in point: Hillary Clinton excelled in debate.

      1. shinola

        Psychopaths can be good debaters – no principles, just an overwhelming desire to win at any cost.

        1. Optimader

          No sure about that. They can certainly effectively bamboozle people who are not particularly critical thinkers, or those that think they have mutual interests, but i think psycopaths tend to lack logical disipline and patience, at least the ones ive see in operation.

  7. Clive

    I’ve never been especially keen on the obsession in our culture with sporting achievements of any sort. The ones that threaten your health are definitely bottom of the list of my Good Things to Have Children Do.

    The thing I most objected to was the role of genetics. I excelled at hurdles. No-one in high school could beat me at the 110 metre hurdles. I was fairly unbeatable at high and long jump too. But I was bored senseless by the whole sports competition experience for the simple reason I never had to even try much. I merely benefited from having an inordinately long leg length, slim build and naturally good balance. I did nothing whatsoever to conciously improve my personal performance but still I was able to be at the top of the competition.

    Give me a shot though put and I could scarcely pick the bloody thing up. Gorilla-like arms gave me little muscle strength for any “throwing things” track and field events. Poor eyesight meant that soccer, tennis or similar were never anything I could be any good at.

    And them, even as a teenager, the whole jock culture struck me as being especially dumb. Yes, diligent training made you a better athlete, but if you didn’t strike it lucky in the genetics lottery, no amount of training could, if you’ll forgive the pun, level the playing field. So it wasn’t skill, it was just luck that made a lot of the good sports players good. Well, don’t go bragging to me about a lucky hand you’ve been dealt.

    But anything that was an intellectual challenge, I couldn’t get enough of it.

  8. craazyman

    aren’t debaters prone to haughty and supercillious contumely? ;-)

    If you’re a beer drinking sports fan then good cheer and fellowship is the order of the day. You don’t seek to dominate as much as share. You prize fellowship, not victory. Unless it’s your team. Then when they win, sportsmanship is the rule and fellowship is the result. The victor picks up the tab and toasts the loser for being a ‘good guy”.

    If you really like bating then fishing is the ticket. But try fly fishing not bait fishing. Then you can figure shlt out on your own while you stand there in the river.

  9. NeqNeq

    The part about inculcating Critical Thinking made me lol (literally)

    “The Wiley teams simply memorized [Tolson’s] arguments and wrote them on file cards they could pull out to meet a point made by an opponent. Tolson was so good at finding holes in the logic of others his debaters rarely had to do it on their own”

    Maybe the sub heading for that section should read:

    Critical Thinking Skills: debaters learn to regurgitate arguments from both sides

      1. NeqNeq

        Wouldn’t that mean the Wiley teams would need to find holes in logic more often than the word “rarely” would imply?

        I assumed the quoted section was merely a homage to Tolson by Farmer. Its fine as that. Trying to shoehorn it into something bigger is an interesting tactic, but was not well executed. But hey….overstating a case that you can walk back when confronted is good practice. Just ask the Obamacare cheer squad!

      2. Optimader

        Well paraphrasing an attribution to eisenhower.. Plans (cards) are useless, planning (improvisation) is indispensable. Not sure who told him that tho. I imagine that sentiment goes pretty far back in some similar form.

        I chaff at political debates when an inability or disinclination to change an opinion or policy over the course of time and events is considered a character virtue.

        1. Harold

          You’re supposed to consider, digest, and absorb what you read (the flash cards, say), so that it becomes part of you. — Quintilian (echoing ancient precepts), Institutio Oratoria {X,:1: 19) c. 95 AD (as paraphrased by E.R. Curtius).

          The ancients would have approved of flashcards, though, and the middle ages even more so, I have a feeling. Nothing like reinventing the wheel. Not but that I don’t have the greatest respect for Wiley College, and for Tolson, who was sprung from jail by a distant ancestor by marriage of my father’s.

      3. steelhead23

        I enjoyed debate in H.S. I found myself listening very carefully to rebuttals for two reasons. I would be on that side in our next debate – and learning new facts. Back in the day, we used newspaper articles and very limited periodicals to construct arguments. I shudder to think what facts and quotes debaters are now able to generate using our modern digital libraries. I wonder why even PBS seldom televises debates. I’d bet there’s some hum-dingers out there.

  10. Cry Shop

    Recently read a book, titled “Chariton Drive”, self-published in 1945 by authored by Etta Lowry. The drive in this case wasn’t an address but a referred to driving hogs to a railhead in Chariton, IA. A turn of the century bildungsroman, the boy visits several communities along the way, where debate seems to have been one of the main entertainments. It seems that small town democracy was quite a raucous and lively affair, and nearly everyone saw themselves as part of the body politic.

    One wonders if the first step in killing off democracy in the USA didn’t begin long ago with keeping Ma & Pa at home glued to the boob tube and away from the commons.

    1. Roger Smith

      Pretty soon you will be able to order all your crud through your appliances and have drones deliver it to your house, technology amiright?!

      Anytime this “cover-up”, dumbing down stuff comes up it reminds me of the church orating to the plebes in Latin to maintain their power dynamic.

  11. neo-realist

    As a recluse/introvert, I’m not all that rankled by public speaking provided that I’ve prepared and rehearsed my speech/presentation/comments and, in most cases, believe very strongly in what I’m speaking about; I’m also not that fazed by public speaking because, in some cases, it gives you an opportunity to prove those people who don’t think very highly of your abilities, based on the introversion or simply not knowing much about you, wrong.

    1. clinical wasteman

      Same can be true of public writing given the happy accident of a place or places to publish. All the more gratitude to certain micropublications (print and especially “web 1.0”) for providing those; NC, though, is the probably only place know of where this happens in a reader comments section, and absolutely the only one where thoughtful conversation stretches way beyond political/subcultural niches.

  12. Roger Smith

    Great read Lambert! Now I will eagerly await your “time travel and you” article.

    I still hold that our (North American) ideas of education are extremely flawed and limiting (ageist). Understanding better now how I think, Debate sounds like it would have been a great fit. But if you aren’t under 18 or rich, good luck finding a decent way to learn and effectively practice new skills. Pray you figure it out in time or else 8-5 non-stop for you.

  13. lylo

    No formal debate team at most schools I attended.
    Seriously, they just aren’t around here. Not in public schools, at least.

    Thought I’d throw that out there:
    Remember, we’ve completely neglected the public school systems, on all governmental levels, especially in rural/poor small town America that was hit particularly hard by many pieces of legislation that have basically hammered their funding.
    Just a reminder that sometimes options that are taken for granted in some locales aren’t available at all to others.

    I would love it if there was a debate team at my niece’s school, by the way. She would probably be the first in the school to sign up. I have no idea where she gets her love of argument from. :)

    1. J Baker

      I second that, lylo. My kids go to public high school in Massachusetts. Last year they even lost their Model UN team because that was the responsibility of the librarian – and the librarian was cut out of the budget. We gave up fighting for extra curricular budgets for things like debate to fight for really basic services. Like a school library.

  14. Dr Duh

    Hmm, I look at debate differently.
    While I admit that the skills in logic, research and rhetoric are handy, I think that the emphasis on winning poisons the well.

    I went to a fancy pants liberal arts college and the ‘master debaters’ that I knew were facile sophists. They had the gift of gab, could bullshit semi-convincingly on almost any topic, but they weren’t committed to deep understanding, much less to expanding the boundaries of knowledge and understanding; they just wanted to prove their point. While they could argue either side, they could only do it as talking points, they couldn’t inhabit the subjectivity of both sides, i.e., experience both sides as valid, much less hold two contradictory ideas in their heads at the same time. As a result they were more tiresome than enlightening.

    When they did ‘believe’ in something (or more precisely, publicly identify with a political position) they would stick to their guns in the face of contradictory evidence, shifting the ground of argument to avoid conceding. They were not the types consider the possibility that they were wrong or that another view point might be valid, let alone change their minds once they had taken a public position.

    Moreover, they were often narcissists. They played to and off the crowd. Part of the reason they were stubbornly close minded was because they didn’t want to be proven wrong in public. In fact, if the “audience roared” that was proof that they were right.

    I might add that most of them went on to become lawyers and some even devolved into politicians. There’s no doubt we as a society reward certain functional types of sociopathy. You might even say that we ‘need’ a certain number of those people for tough thankless jobs, like downsizing workers or working the spin room after debates, but those people make me sick, even when they’re on ‘my side’.

    In the end I suppose debate is OK if you are always right and are confident you always will be. But I’m a mere mortal. I’ll stick to the scientific method when training my child to think.

    1. jrs

      Competition does tend to poison most wells. I really want a cooperative society. Not some dystopian meritocracy, a cooperative society. I may debate online and sharpen some skills but learning in a way that really questions is another matter, it’s often solitary and only later shared. Yes, MB is INTP – so it probably is in the wiring.

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