Debate plays a critical role in American politics. The theory is a very democratic one: given all the options, evidence, and arguments, people will be equipped to make sound judgements. In a society where all adults have the franchise, such judgements have immense implications. For this reason, the American presidential election typically includes some form of public debate.
While such debate is far from the academic rigors of collegiate debate, it follows the assumption that the people should have a chance to hear the major positions candidates embrace and the reasons they hold them. Such debate was at the heart of the constitutional ratification process: The Federalist Papers affirmed the Constitution, while the Anti-Federalist Papers argued against ratification. Debate recognizes the inherent rationality of educated human beings and remains an essential part of our polity.
It should, therefore, be quite disturbing for the wider world to learn of how badly competitive collegiate debate has strayed from rational, common sense understandings of truth. As many have argued, America’s colleges serve as the training ground for the next generation of elites. When the academic quest for truth is replaced by a sophistic training in critical theory, a concerned citizenry is right to voice fear of the republic running astray.
My goal is not to sound alarmist, but to tell a story of one school’s attempt to turn back the tide of critical theory in debate. This story stretches from 2011 to 2018 and is by no means finished. Something small but exciting is growing in a set of schools in North Carolina.
My Own Debate Story
My participation in collegiate debate is limited to one amazing semester when the Hillsdale College Forensics and Debate team coaches set an ambitious goal for the 2010-2011 school year. I had competed for three years in various speech events and won plenty of trophies, but I had stayed away from competing in debate.
The plan, as our coaches revealed, was an ambitious one: if certain debaters competed in and won individual speech events, and certain speech folks competed in (and won) novice debate, there was a slim chance Hillsdale College could win the national Pi Kappa Delta school sweepstakes category. Tiny, conservative, liberal arts Hillsdale College could beat the behemoths of the Ohio State University, Bradley University, the University of Kentucky, and so on. Captured by the possibility of forensics glory, we competed all year with this vision in mind. We won.
I learned many things from a semester of debate. Logic, liberal learning, and articulation all helped my partner and I surpass our competition. I discovered the intellectual high that only four rounds of debate in a row can produce; I discovered the plasticity of my convictions when victory seemed at stake.
This last discovery frightened me. I distinctly remember perceiving two logical proofs: the first involving God affirming prostitution, the second involving God condemning prostitution. Alongside these personal discoveries, I also learned of two contradictory impulses in collegiate debate.
Collegiate debate is about research and bringing the weight of academic intellectuals to bear on resolutions. It is about clear articulation and logical reasoning. These elements have a place in debate, but they do not propel a team to victory. To win, students must embrace a strong awareness of various critical theories, or what are essentially a set of intersectional lenses for arguments, and the top teams in the nation adopt a “social justice” attitude towards debate.
The Sad Role Of Critical Theory In Debate
Critical theory is a set of philosophical paradigms that view the world as oppressed in various ways––usually in terms of race, gender, and class––then seeks liberation through unveiling the oppression. An issue like immigration, when treated in light of critical theory, can suddenly evolve into commentary about majority oppression of a minority as opposed to a consideration of the best policy goals.
Whatever the topic specified for the debate, it is now considered more important to discuss the latest social justice cause. While an objective outsider might see this as a clever tactic a poorly researched team might employ, such a strategy is often victorious at the highest levels.
Applying a “kritik” to the resolution (the statement debaters are supposed to be arguing about) which rejects the resolution as inherently inhumane is a common strategy. Paired with this critical theory approach is a speed of speech approaching 600-plus words per minute, which only a professionally trained judge or coach can process and evaluate.
This makes debate at the highest levels a conglomeration of liberal progressivist rejectionism expressed in an internal jargon only semi-professional debaters can comprehend.
Racing Toward Progressive Revisionism
In novice debate, I witnessed the edge of the “inner circle” of debate and felt a bit of it. I once took second place in a debate not for a flawed argument but, as one judge wrote on my ballot, because “God does not exist, therefore you lose.” Such an approach to judging pervades collegiate debate, and it removes the heart of the game. Rather than being a contest of arguments and reason, the side that best appeals to progressive principles wins because the judge agrees with them. Debate moves from an unbiased contest of arguments to a race towards the ever-moving progressive revisionism of society.
In 2011, I graduated from college and, in 2013, took a position teaching humanities courses at Thales Academy, one of a network of private classical schools. During my second year at Thales, I started a speech and debate club, and in 2015, I discovered a regional organization thatoffered good tournaments.
As my students grew, I found this tournament was a good place for both middle and high school students to learn debate and compete against other students. North Carolina largely embraces Public Forum (PF) debate for high school competition. PF was begun in an effort to combat the jargon-heavy parliamentary debate at the college level, but as the years have progressed, my students moved from novice to varsity PF and I discovered that the progressive slant in debate is alive and well even in high school.
I had two students who won second place at the largest regional tournament one year, who worked hard, and brought hours of research to their cases. These students won an essay contest to attend a national-level debate camp the previous summer. They were excellent debaters, and I expected them to face a learning curve going into varsity competition. Instead, I found that they lost for the wrong reasons.
The November 2017 PF resolution reads: “Resolved: The United States should require universal background checks for all gun sales and transfers of ownership.” As worded, the resolution had ample ground for both sides to approach it with solid evidence. I sat in on my students’ final round, and watched them consistently rebut the opposing case, bring solid evidence to bear, and comport themselves politely and firmly.
They did everything they should; so did the other team. I looked through their ballot at the end of the tournament and found the judge’s logic infuriating. He weighed the round not on evidence, logic, refutation, or comportment, but on which side claimed to save more lives.
My debaters argued against the resolution, and read evidence showing that strenuous background checks have zero correlation to preventing gun violence. Because the other side said increasing background checks would save more lives, the judge gave them the win. As I read through the ballots from that tournament, I saw the same result repeated consistently.
This made the debates not about honest confrontation of divergent views. Instead, the team that made the politically left argument won the round. I left that day frustrated. My students had done everything I had taught them to do, and well. Through no fault of their own, they had lost five of five rounds.
A Free Market Solution: Build Your Own Debate League
While my rage against judge bias was mounting, other pieces were moving behind the scenes. I work at a pretty amazing school. Robert Luddy, founder of Captiveaire and Thales Academy, has been a long-time supporter of the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation. The Coolidge Foundation was looking for a set of schools to develop a new kind of debate league, one seeking to return debate to the realm of objective argumentation and evidence.
On February 17 of this year, the Luddy Debate League launched its first tournament at Thales Academy Rolesville. We hosted approximately 50 middle and high school students debating the resolution: “Resolved: The United States should abolish the capital gains tax.” In April, Thales Academy Apex hosted the second tournament, debating the resolution, “A significant tariff on imported goods from Mexico is a good policy for the U.S. economy.”
At both of these events, honest debate occurred. Students researched their positions, weighed evidence, and attempted to persuade typical adults (not professional coaches) of their position.
This league is a collaborative effort between Thales Academy, Franklin Academy, and the Coolidge Foundation. Each tournament involves bringing in a content expert to educate students about the topic, instructing new students in the art of debate, three or four rounds of competition, and an award ceremony recognizing the top debaters in both middle school and high school. We uphold the values of truth, critical thinking, and integrity as guides for debate, and thus far this league has been a roaring success.
This is the Thales way in action. When faced with a society that increasingly embraces non-real approaches to significant concerns, we do not respond with public condemnation or rejection. Instead, we solve this the free market way: we make our own league, and we produce such a high-quality event that, hopefully, the objective value is apparent to all.
In 2018-2019, we plan to hold four tournaments; in 2019-2020, we hope to open competition to other regional schools interested in teaching students the time-honored methods of research, case writing, argumentation, articulation, and persuasion while collaborating in a competitive atmosphere. Debate is a critical part of teaching the next generation to weigh options and make wise choices. In our own small way, Thales Academy is working to restore this part of traditional American values.