PF November

“Resolved: An Islamic cultural center should be built near Ground Zero”.


On the affirmative side, you have property rights and freedom of religion. On the negative, you have innuendo, guilt by association, and mob rule. That should make for a cheerful tournament.

That the so-called Ground Zero Mosque is even a national issue is a stain on our democratic discourse; its selection as a topic by a supposedly educational nonprofit puts debate into the same arena of sleazy non-argumentative yelling that passes for political theater on television.

I don’t know what the NFL will do about it, if anything; there’s some pressure to rescind it, and I already put in my two cents. But I do know what I will do about it. I’ll remove this topic and put in an appropriate substitute wherever I have sufficient influence. We’ll either come up with an alternative topic, or we’ll run October late and then December early. And I’ll not coach it or judge it.

Weighing it out

If a debater can learn only one skill, I would choose for them to learn weighing.   To progress beyond saying “You are TOTALLY WRONG and I am TOTALLY RIGHT” and instead say “These six things you say are right, but I feel that these four factors I’m talking about are more compelling still” is a hallmark of mature thought, in my book.   It’s all the more a shame that political discourse takes the form of TOTALLY WRONG and TOTALLY RIGHT.   One of my main objections to Public Forum’s format is that the brevity makes thoughtful weighing in an mature manner a losing strategy.   One of the hallmarks of the case wiki discussion has been that we’re all weighing and carefully so.     I wish all discussions of forensics policy could be done so.

So we’ve been talking about this disclosure idea, in its myriad angles.   Jim remains skeptical, I remain skeptical and even somewhat nervous about it, but many, including Aaron Timmons, remain thoughtfully for it, and will drive it forward.   He believes that the harms are potentially strong, but the link to debate is remote, which is a fair opinion.   I think the link is somewhat stronger than he does, and I don’t weight it against the existence of a case wiki itself.

First, the link: the nightmare scenario has happened already in college debate.   Twice.   The first is the YouTube rant by a policy coach at CEDA nationals that sat idle for several months, until finally emerging, hitting the news, and famously leading the college to fire the coach and disband the debate team.

A better link comes from APDA, the parliamentary league that most of the Northeastern “elite” schools belong to.   APDA would publish videos of a number of high quality elimination rounds.   In one, a debater argued for the teaching of masturbation in public school.   APDA’s format meant he had choice of neither topic area or side in this round; he was just following the rules of the game.   This video also sat online and unheralded for a while, until the student graduated and became the Republican candidate for a New York State Assembly seat on Long Island.   The video was seized upon, and his candidacy was done.   He was a long shot candidate anyway; unlikely to win.   However, if he had thoughts of moving into public office in the future, in races where he had more of a chance, those thoughts are gone now.   He’s now Pro Masturbation Boy forever.   The APDA video website has since been scrubbed of much of its best material.

So the link isn’t entirely nonexistent, empirically.   However, there’s plenty of space between videos about a coach’s ill-advised rant or an extemporaneous form of debate on an unserious topic, and an LD case wiki.   As Timmons says, Policy has had case wikis for a long time now.

However, today’s internet is different.   We’re at an inflection point as searching becomes commonplace, not the realm of teenagers or geeks.   Five years ago, no one Google searched prospective employees; now everyone does.   The first class of students with Facebook access throughout their high school careers just graduated last June.       The CEO of Google recently speculated that high school students should change their name upon graduation, to leave behind the legacy of their immature years locked up in search engines and online archives.   Google, of course, is the reason this online presence persists, but that’s what search engines must inevitably do: they’re the magnet that pulls the needle from the haystack.   Search engines, boundlessly useful, also change the nature of information: a lot of data used to be nominally public but impossible to filter and sift for what you wanted.     If Menick wanted to see what my house looked like, he’d could satisfy his curiosity only by driving to Boston; now he can hop online and take a look for himself in minutes.   The barrier to entry is a lot lower.   The appearance of my house was always public, but now it’s public and searchable.   And that makes all the difference.   A search can turn up anything about a student; Facebook photos, former dates, and yes, bizarre (to non-debaters) Marxism negatives and nuclear terrorism speculations in debate cases.   It hasn’t happened before, but we’re in a moment where it’s more and more uniquely likely to happen.

Finally, I’m weighing this possibility not against the benefits of the case wiki itself, but a publicly available case wiki.   I think a case wiki can achieve many of its aims by simply being private and password protected, and dumping it at the end of a topic run.   The password can be something simple, and it can circulate among debaters freely nationwide, though it should also change reasonably often too.   It can get emailed out to NDCA members whenever it does change, and they can in turn pass it on to anyone else.

A semi-private password is a very porous barrier; anyone with determination could defeat it.   That’s the point.     First, it would keep out casual views of the case wiki.     Outsiders to debate wouldn’t be able to just stumble upon it and see what was there; to gain access you’d need to be trying.   Second, and relatedly, it would keep out search and archive engines.   A Google search on a student’s name would not turn this material up, and later removals would be real removals; the information wouldn’t linger on in the Wayback Machine.   There’d be no more lurking time bombs.

I don’t pretend to know what effect a case wiki will have on the rounds itself.   I suspect, in my uncharitable moments, that it’s being driven by large programs that long ago reconciled themselves to doing extensive scouting.   Now, those same coaches who gave up on judging several years ago are suddenly forced to actually watch rounds again, for scouting purposes, and they don’t like it.   The solution?   Disclosure.   More seriously, I worry that it may make debate less accessible, or at the very least the decision of whether to continue to use disclosure won’t truly weight accessibility in the final calculus.

But I think that a public and open to the world case wiki is just very poor informational design; especially when you sacrifice so little to make it just private enough to keep out most of the long term harms and risks.   And I think that the exposure to a tournament that requires use of a public disclosure wiki isn’t nonexistent either: witness that Shanahan’s rant destroyed not just his own job but his school’s debate program too.

And that’s what we don’t need, in a shrinking activity in a world of ever drying public funding for education.   That’s what we don’t need, at all.

Battle School

If you are or were a smart kid, or are someone who deals with smart kids, and haven’t read Ender’s Game, your education is incomplete.  It’s a science fiction book, but don’t let that scare you; I’m not a scifi person either.  The book centers around a kid named Ender, who’s 6-12 years old in the span of the book.   Ender has been selected based on his precocious brilliance to train to be one of the elite future commanders for the defense of Earth and humanity against the obligatory Evil Alien Race.   He’s is sent off to Battle School, an elite program located up in the asteroid belt, for training.   Battle School has classes and books and the like, but the center of the school is The Game.

The Game is where 11 and 12 year old generals lead armies of 40 of their younger peers in laser-tag like mock battles against the other armies in a zero gravity environment.   Its purpose is to produce leaders, and the Game does just that.  It’s real, applied learning, unlike books and lectures.  It’s a competition, which kids understand; it’s about pride, status.   Rank and standings are tracked and known by all.  If you’re good at The Game, you’re good at life.   These results are immediate, unlike “you’ll get into college someday.”

However, the main purpose of the Battle School shifts during the course of the novel.   The Game used to train officers; but now, the fleet needs its commander.  And that’s Ender.  So the teachers of the school start messing with the Game; they throw him unfair challenges; they ruin the balance and fairness in order to make sure Ender turns out to be the singular commander they need.  Everything and everyone else is sacrificed to that end.

Some of the teachers protest.  They dislike that the sanctity of the competition is being ruined; that the unfairness of it is going to destroy the order of the known universe.  They defend the Game for its own sake, and forget the purpose of it.  They, too, live for the competition, the standings, and want to know exactly who is the biggest badass among the 11 year olds under their watch.  And when you read it, you completely believe it, that adults could also be caught up in the Game itself enough that they forget the ultimate purpose the Game is meant to serve, even when that purpose is a matter of humanity’s very survival.  It’s utterly believable that the Game’s trappings could obscure its purpose among otherwise intelligent adults.

You believe it even more if you’re a debate coach.

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 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.