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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

High school debate's decline: No arguing allowed

Abraham Lincoln debated Stephen A. Douglas in the 1958 Illinois race for U.S. Senate, arguing that slavery should not be extended to new territories.

High school debate competitions no longer value debate, writes James Fishback, a debater turned debate coach, on The Free Press. Until recently, debate judges rewarded evidence and reasoning, he writes. Now, students must agree with the judge's biases.

After months of preparation, a student can look up the debate judge’s name on Tabroom a few hours before the competition. Judges post “paradigms,” which explain what they're looking for.

For example, former West Point debater Henry Smith's paradigm asks students to “focus on clarity over speed” and reminds them that “every argument should explain exactly how [they] win the debate.”

But, increasingly, judges are telling students what not to say.

Lila Lavender, the 2019 national debate champion, is now a judge whose paradigm reads: “Before anything else, including being a debate judge, I am a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist. . . . I cannot check the revolutionary proletarian science at the door when I’m judging. . . . I will no longer evaluate and thus never vote for rightest capitalist-imperialist positions/arguments. . . . Examples of arguments of this nature are as follows: fascism good, capitalism good, imperialist war good, neoliberalism good, defenses of US or otherwise bourgeois nationalism, Zionism or normalizing Israel, colonialism good, US white fascist policing good, etc.”

"Judges with paradigms tainted by politics and ideology are becoming common," writes Fishback.

Two judges warn students using the phrase "illegal immigrant" will result in a loss -- and public humiliation.

Lindsey Shrodek earned a “Cultural Competency” badge from the National Speech & Debate Association (NSDA) for completing a brief online training, he writes. Until last month, Shrodek’s paradigm said: “[I]f you are white, don’t run arguments with impacts that primarily affect POC [people of color]. These arguments should belong to the communities they affect.”

Fishback asked Shrodek why she eliminated that line. She replied that she “doesn’t know if it’s exactly my place to say what arguments will or won’t make marginalized communities feel unsafe in the debate space.”

"'Unsafe' conversations should be encouraged, even celebrated" in debate, writes Fishback. "How better for young people from all backgrounds to bridge the divides that tear us apart, and to discover what unites them? The debate I knew taught me to think and learn and care about issues that affected people different from me."

One judge gives people of color priority in her debates. In general, students voluntarily, and mutually, disclose their evidence to their opponents before the debate round, as both teams benefit from spending more time with the other team’s evidence. But X Braithwaite, who’s judged 169 debate rounds with 340 students, has her own disclosure policy in her paradigm, which uses a racial epithet: “1. N****s don’t have to disclose to you. 2. Disclose to n****s.”

This kind of racial discrimination destroys "the sportsmanship and camaraderie that high school debate was once known for," writes Fishback.

In 2019, he formed a new debate league, Incubate Debate, which hosts tournaments for middle and high school students. Among this year's topics are: "Will AI in K-12 education lead to improved student outcomes?" and "Are the environmental benefits of electric vehicles overstated?"

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