Where am I?

I fell into the world of forensics and debate through the narrowest of chances.  My hometown has never heard of forensics, nor have any adjoining towns, nor have any towns that adjoin them.  Debate and forensics is not a high priority for the curriculum in Massachusetts; and so, with some exceptions, only a few wealthy high schools have programs.  My hometown is one of the poorest in the state, and my family was typical of it; working class in a town where working class jobs don’t pay well, or often.

However, I slid through the cracks, upwards.  I was the token scholarship kid, first in middle school, and then thereon to prep school, and then to the Ivy League.   My prep school, lacking the traditional Saturday classes, is the only one in New England that competes in forensics and debate as we know it.  So I had an opening into our world.  Even still, I attended no invitational tournaments, and camp was entirely out of the question.  There’s only a rough sort of equality when you’re among the casual rich; scholarships to private school will cover the tuition, but the full incidental costs — which nobody there thinks much about — were too crushing for my family to bear; scholarship types thus get, at best, a partial experience.

In the end I had a good run.  I did debate in the non-rigorous prep school league for a couple years, and then extemp in my senior year.  I qualified for NCFL and NFL, though I didn’t break at either.  I did all right at NFL in supplementals.  That’s my claim to fame as a competitor.

So I took a look at lddebate.org last night, after Cruz’s characteristically unsubtle pleading that some discussion be conducted there.  What I found (which has nothing to do with Cruz’s un-subtlety, an endearing trait) is rather disturbing.  One debater suggested that LD move to two topics year; a bunch of people registered agreement for reasons that can be charitably described as serving narrow interests at the pinnacle of debate.   Ernie, bless him, called them on it, but got hurt feelings and confusion in reply.  One of the troubles of being an elite, and being surrounded with your peers, is that you don’t notice the effects of it; a fish cannot see the water.

Debate perfection, which many strive for, is exclusionary by nature.  Debate perfection, increasing the quality of the rounds, is behind the drive for case disclosure, different topics, longer terms for each topic, and so on.  If your aim in running debates is to produce masterful, elegant, well researched and well thought out debate rounds, then you’re going to be an exclusive activity.  You’ll exclude first students who aren’t hard enough workers, or whose talents are in different areas.  Debate is hard, and that’s fair enough; you do have to have some interest and talent in it.

But the harder you make it, the more likely you’ll also exclude kids who can’t be excellent debaters because of what they are, not who they are.  Students who can’t afford camp.  Students who have to work a job to support themselves or their families, and don’t have time to cut cards all day.  Students who won’t travel and see the circuit.

Debate, as a competitive activity, tends to consume all available space and time.  Students who engage in the preparation arms war do so because of their dedication to the activity, which is good; but they do so as the result of the luxury of time, a commodity they don’t appreciate.  Poorer students, even if they find themselves in a school with an active and well funded debate team, have more demands on their time.  Wealthy students tend to have busy lives that are aimed at enriching them and their college chances; poorer students have busy lives aimed at survival.  They have to work.  They have to watch younger siblings.  They clean their own houses and do their own laundry.  Cook their own meals.  Save for college.  And they do it without a car, without a computer (in my day) and without much help.

I had only a few of those demands, but even still, at prep school, I had to keep my grades up, to continue to justify the “diversity” I was supposed to bring to the school for their money.  I felt I had to work harder and achieve more to go to the same colleges as my peers.  I couldn’t sacrifice grades to debate, like a lot of debaters do.  I worked during school, at the snack bar — just for spending money, luckily for me.  But there sure weren’t any rich kids working the snack bar just for spending money alongside me.  Summertime was for mowing the lawn, wandering through woods, swimming and watching reruns on TV, not traveling through France and attending high powered academic camps.

OK, maybe I had better summers than most, come to think of it.  But the rest remains.

Making debate better means making debate harder.  If the amount of time and research required to simply be competitive is more than anyone with those kinds of life pressures can put in, then a lot of people who might benefit from debate are classed out from the start.  A poorer kid might be natively intelligent, might have a decent amount of general knowledge, and may be able to come up with great persuasive arguments in little time, perhaps better than anyone else.  An LD with case lists, fewer topics, exhaustive literature searches, and large prep-outs doesn’t have room for that kid to succeed.

It doesn’t have room, in other words, for Chris Palmer.  Not me, individually; I don’t  speak off the cuff all that well.  I mean the next Chris Palmer; the kid who’s now 14 in Fitchburg or a place like it, who might just get a shot to compete because he goes to school in a place not much like Fitchburg.  The one who stays in Fitchburg already has no entry.  If time and money required spiral upwards, the private school Chris Palmer isn’t going to be able to play, either.

Perhaps limits are in order.  My high school’s athletic conference restricted practice time; you can’t run practices for your team outside of that sport’s season; you can’t practice more than a certain number of hours in a day.  Students who want to go pro someday — there were a few — must do so outside of the leagues.   These rules undoubtedly reduce the quality of the game play.  However, they push students into other sports, and keep players from dedicating their whole lives to a sport.  They allow more casual players access to the educational opportunity provided by being on a sports team, by preventing them from being crushed.  The purpose of a school sports program isn’t — or shouldn’t be — to produce the next crop of players for MLB or the NFL, it’s to educate.  Limits on season time and practice time enforced that goal.

If  school sports programs can put limits on their programs to achieve educational goals, why not debate?  In debate the case for accessibility over perfection is even more clear cut; no one is going to get a $20 million contract to go debate professionally, even if they develop the perfect 1AR.  Debate develops a lot of generally helpful skills, but is not an end in itself; it’s not clear to me that you learn much more by winning the TOC than by simply being decent.  So why narrow the appeal of debate in pursuit of perfection, by ratcheting up the evidence arms war?  Shouldn’t we be attempting to limit the scale, controlling even the best participants with healthy limits?

But again, we’re an aristocracy.  In sports, adults are in charge, and — most of the time — govern their activity to preserve students’ health, and the educational value of their programs.  In debate, we don’t have grown-ups in charge.   The distinction between a coach and a competitor is more fuzzy in debate than in sports: coaches don’t run for soccer players, but they do think and write for debaters.  That skews incentives.  A lot of the adults think like competitors.

Beyond that, we don’t, arguably, have anyone in charge. It’s also hard to legislate limits on the sort of academic activity that happens alone, at home, which is debate’s hallmark.  The community’s power to limit behavior that even a large majority finds abhorrent, such as evidence falsification, has proven woefully inadequate.  As long as judges will vote for something — judges who are not much past competing themselves, mostly — it’s all fair game.  Our aristocracy is loose and lawless; no formal governance exists, just the power of pull and influence.  Thus Poland once was doomed.  We’re not well set up to act collectively for the students’ good, especially over the better students’ short term desires and selfish objections.

But at the very least, we can try to avoid making it worse.  Right now, we have various proposals, put forward by those at the pinnacle of the activity, which would make that pinnacle just a little steeper and harder to climb.  If they succeed, LD will lose programs, and students who could learn a lot from the activity will be shut out.  Eventually, this event will be narrowed down to a solid core of those willing to learn all kinds of skills that are not useful outside of the narrow confines of rarefied debate — when do you think you’re going to have to spread after graduation? — simply to pay the price of admission to the confines of circuit debate.

And they’ll leave behind the Chris Palmers.

PF is not the answer.  PF’s other flaws make it a dubious event at best.  The rules and format of PF were consciously dumbed down.  Accessibility didn’t have to mean shortening an event to pointlessness, and including shouting matches, but we’re stuck with it now.   But even if PF were perfect for what it is, educational equality is not served by telling people on the outs “Here you go, we made a special playground for People Like You to play in; just please don’t bother us in the big kids’ area too much.”  PF gets treated by LD tournaments the way LDers complain they get treated by Policy tournaments: poorly, without respect or dignity.  It’s classic segregation.  Plus, PF will likely go in the same direction.  As long as our governance structure is the way it is, the foxes rule the henhouse and any debate event will become a speed and evidence arms war, no matter its starting point.

We also have the kritik, and oh how I love the K sometimes.  It does introduce the kind of batshit insane creativity I enjoy, and does give the little guy a way around a massive evidence dump.  Hell, I’m the guy who put together a K in PF last year — PF rules ban Ks, but also unwisely define the K as something that is not quite the K, a crack through which our cases slipped.  But running the K over and over doesn’t sustain one much.  You learn a body of critical literature that is of limited life utility compared to the direct literature on an LD topic.  Furthermore, there’s only so far a K focused program could go in LD, given that the K is viewed, correctly, as not really being what debate is about.  Once you start talking about natural limits to how far a program could go, defined by resources and time and not by talent and intelligence; well, you’ve hit the elitism barrier again.

Everyone believes in equality, until achieving equality starts negatively affecting one’s own life.   When you talk about racial equality, who doesn’t go along with it and nod?  But when you talk about taxing white communities heavily enough to bring educational services in black communities up to parity — well, hold on there Marx, let’s not be extreme here.  How else could racism and vast gaps in equality of opportunity exist in a country so apparently dedicated to ending both?

Ultimately I find innovations that aim to improve the quality of debate to be uncompelling.  Today’s debates are not more deep, rich and interesting than those of ten years ago, despite a decade of such innovation.  They’re simply faster; they have more evidence, but they’re not smarter.  The limiting factor behind debate quality is not structure, it’s the competence of  bright 18 year olds.  Structure can limit accessibility, but in a debate, quality boils down to the debater.

Furthermore, high school isn’t about elegance, and perfection; not in football, not in debate.  I’d argue that once you’ve gotten really good at something in high school, it’s time to quit.  The purpose of school is to improve students, not given them a forum for showing off; educational programs are perfectly planned when you master the skills taught just as you graduate.  If you get there early, that’s great; but realize you’re wasting your time if you keep at it — unless you’re doing so to help others learn faster than they would without you around.   Schools aiming for demonstrated perfection aren’t doing their jobs very well.

Little wonder then that circuit debate gets little traction with school systems.  Its value is not accessible, not just to administrators, but a lot of other forensics kids and coaches too.   Educators aren’t interested in seeing one kid who can whip up a sublime counterplan; they judge an activity by what it offers the bulk of their students.  Modern circuit LD, sadly, offers very little.  And I feel like most of the changes under discussion would make it even less relevant to the many students who live within boundaries of time and money.

An LD topic lasting six months gives an advantage to those who have access to deep research: journals and resources not readily available to the general public, such as Lexis and JStor, and specialized avenues for knowledge, like the dad who knows an economics professor at MIT.   It helps to have a coach or two who can use an adult mind to come up with twists and angles on the topic most high schoolers wouldn’t see right away.  A diversity of cases will win out in a long haul debate; the kid who can’t generate them will lose.  A debate topic that lasts only one round, on the other extreme, wouldn’t make for debates with as much deep understanding, perhaps — but it would help students with a breadth of general knowledge, which can be garnered freely by using Google, paying attention and reading a lot.  There’s not much that money can do to give you that advantage.  And that’s why I was an extemper, not a debater; that’s extemp in a nutshell, a ground where Chris Palmers thrive.

I don’t think LD topics should cycle round by round. But I do think that movement towards longer topic periods would exclude folks. The Jan/Feb topic already lasts half the year, to the detriment of locals and the betterment of the TOC. I tend to believe that case lists would do the same, but the jury is still out; but I do fear that the decision on them will be made without really considering the damage to equality that case lists do. If case lists do indeed increase the research burden, and raise the barrier to entry for LD, I don’t think that’ll be weighed on whether to use them. We don’t have a mature decision making body that would be the gatekeeper on it.

I’ve been on the edge of getting back into LD, but this dynamic makes me flinch.  Why give up time and energy to benefit a community that would exclude the high school me?  Why should I volunteer and run good bid tournaments for an event that won’t accept my cousins or nephews and nieces when they’re in high school?  If there’s no room in this world for the next Chris Palmer, why does this Chris Palmer do so much work for it?

And is Ernie asking himself that same question?  Is anyone else from the same background?

Someday, they may all answer “No, it’s not worth it anymore.”

And LD will be poorer and thinner still.