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”) 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,” 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 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”).
 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)
 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.
 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.”