Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Decline and Fall of College Debate

I debated in high school, and was pretty obsessive about it. I did it for a while in college, too, but quickly realized that it was pretty loathsome. Debate is, in general, a two-edge sword in my view. It can help you gain certain intellectual skills--e.g. it can make you better at sticking to the point and relentlessly pursuing individual lines of argument. But it can also corrupt your mind by making you more sophistical, encouraging you to think in terms of winning or losing a contest instead of inquiring cooperatively in order to find the truth. I quit debate in college when it became clear that, even as a kind of contest, it had become a joke. Teams had prepared canned arguments that would purport to show, through long, improbable chains of "reasoning, that, basically, no matter what anyone did, it would lead to "GLOBAL THERMONUCLEAR WAR!!!111". I spent so much time arguing against the same patent nonsense over and over again that it stopped being interesting. (This only goes for certain types of debate...there's still Lincoln-Douglas, which is more sane. We used to make fun of it for being "soft" ("LD"--learning deficient LOL). But we were wrong...  Ah well...)

Furthermore, the activity become pretty repellent in other ways as well. I discovered that cheating (in the form of making up evidence) was, apparently, pretty common. And the participants would often speak so rapidly that they'd ostentatiously spit all over the podium. Bleh. I was fond of the rapid-fire style, but when I came to see how foolish it looked, that basically tore it.

Anyway, things have gotten rather worse since then. Here's some folks shrieking at each other in a championship debate about ten years ago... And, worse, apparently since then all sorts of postmodernist nonsense has creeped in, so that the long, canned, nonsense arguments now include a lot of fashionable quasi-philosophical nonsense to go along with the policy nonsense.

Ugh. I hear this has infected high school debate as well, which is too bad, since I have no doubt that high school debate was good for me. (Once, that is, I got over the asshole attitude that it can foster...)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

1) You're dating yourself, Winston. GLOBAL THERMONUCLEAR WAR as the first choice sophistical end point puts you in the High School class of '82, maybe? I would actually love to see a chart showing the rise and fall of sophistical debater's TERRIBLE CONSEQUENCES over the years; it provides a window into the popular dread of the time. From 2001 to about 2009 I'm sure it was TERRORISTS WIN, but I'm not sure what it would have been in the 90's or is today. Sociologists: stop doing bad philosophy and start logging old debate videos. We need this data.

2) But, more seriously: I suspect a big part of the current GOP's post-modernism has to do with the reliance of the Republican Party on the College Republicans for its fresh pundits, activists, and campaign operators, and the College Republican's recruiting of its members from the class of freshman debate junkies. When I arrived at a large state university in the mid-90s, there was no debate club, but the College Republicans did have weekly debates and discussion groups. They recruited incoming students aggressively with these events.

The debates were pretty phoney (of the "Bill Clinton: Monster or Beast?" variety), but they were the only game in town for someone who craved that kind of action. I attended a few, and saw that the kids attracted by these events, who did well in the discussion and tended to rise to leadership positions, were the obvious debate team veterans. These kids tended to take exactly the kind of tack in argument you describe: aggressive, sophistical, and Manichean. When the time would come for the Republican candidate for governor to recruit higher level volunteers, it would be from this set.

The Campus Democrats, by contrast, did not seem to aggressively recruit freshmen, or to sponsor the sort of debate-like events the appeal to the 18 year old in love with the form of politics, if not the substance. Instead, the Campus Democrats liked to co-sponsor events with various campus issue and identity groups in the "liberal coalition", usually aimed at a specific topic. These events were rallies, lectures, envelope stuffing, petitions, etc., not debates. Leadership of the CD appeared to be drawn from the leadership of the coalition groups, rather than from within. Campus Democrats who began to make a career of partisan politics would be likely to be kids who cared about at least one issue very much, and whose main skill was in organization, not debate.

This is just one observation of one school from nearly 20 years ago (Yikes!), but it seems to me to explain at least a part of the ideological void within the GOP, if this is how campuses are around the country. A young person with strong argumentative skills but little passion for any one issue is likely to be drawn into the conservative fold, mostly as a matter of team loyalty and a chance to excel. Lucky for me, my third College Republican meeting featured a screening of the Bill Clinton drug smuggling movie, which was enough to convince me that those people were bonkers.

Study of the pervasiveness and effect of debate team experience on partisanship would make an excellent sociology dissertation, if one could resist writing "The Finger on the Home Key: Privilege, Tragic Resistance, and the Deconstruction of Mavis Beacon".

4:50 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

I can neither confirm nor deny your obviously insane inference concerning my age...

Pretty damn interesting stuff there, A... Thanks for that.

9:53 PM  

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