Mark Oppenheimer writes in the Wall Street Journal:
It used to be that high-school and college debates mirrored, in a salutary way, political debates. In school, young men and women learned to research topics and then debate their rivals, using all the tools of oratory, including sound reasoning and witty flourishes. But scholastic debate today is very different, and its sorry state has consequences for the health of the republic.
Oratory has been replaced by a fast-talking, point-scoring debate style. That’s now being challenged by “postmodern debate,” reports the Chronicle of Higher Education. “Postmodern” seems to mean complaining that debate is racist rather than arguing about the topic. In the debate caught on YouTube, Bill Shanahan, coach of Fort Hayes State, who’s white, was furious when a Towson debater accused him of racism for using his challenge to knock out Shanara Rose Reid-Brinkley, the only black judge. Towson went on to win the debate by arguing about racism, rather than the official topic, agricultural tariffs. When the video got out, Fort Hays State fired Shanahan and suspended its successful debate program.
The Chronicle describes a Towson-NYU debate, which also strayed from agricultural tariffs.
Elaine Zhou, a senior at New York University, spewed arguments about why the United States should end tariffs on ethanol from Brazil. Doing so would improve U.S.-Brazilian relations, keep Brazil from becoming a failed state that would seek nuclear weapons, reduce U.S. reliance on fossil fuels, and thus help save the planet. The team had clearly done its homework, and Ms. Zhou gave citations for each argument.
Towson’s Valarea Jones, a student at Towson University asked Zhou, “Do you think that debate is multicultural?” Zhou noted that neither team included a white debater.
Jones’ rebuttal “began with an account of the trading of African slaves in the early years of the United States.”
Ms. Jones, who is African-American, then read from her own diary, focusing on an entry she had written while attending a debate tournament this summer. “We had our first full round today and I want to go the [expletive] home. You should have seen the looks I got from these people. I even asked this one [expletive] what the [expletive] she was staring at,” she said. “In the debate world, people look at me and what I have to say as if I’m less than [expletive] human, and this is some serious [expletive].”
She accused her opponents of furthering “white supremacy” by playing by the traditional norms of debate. She urged the judges to make a statement against such oppressive forces by ruling in her favor in the debate round.
Towson won the debate unanimously.
There’s some push back, Oppenheimer writes.
The National Forensic League recently introduced an event at its tournaments in which debaters can be penalized for fast-talking and jargon, and it was instantly popular. The New England boarding schools practice parliamentary debate, with the Brits’ more oratorical style as a model. The Ivy League tries to practice parliamentary debate, too, although many of its competitors have bad policy-debate habits picked up in high school.
Debate officials are working on rules of civility and professionalism. (Rule One: Keep your pants on.) Perhaps they need a stick-to-the-topic rule.