Thursday, April 12, 2007

High School Debate Competitions: Anybody Want To "Crossfire" Me?

The last time I set foot inside a high school was just a year ago, when I was the stage manager/board op/roadie for a touring Shakespeare company. While there, I noticed the egregious abuse of knowledge on public display; it was clear that one of the students' assignments was to "create a poster about Shakespeare's life!" and so the walls were littered with factually fraudulent, poorly-drawn gems such as "Shakespeare based his play Hamlet on the life of his son Hamnet."

That's the state of American education as it stands today. Not only are inaccuracies like the above statement allowed to stand unopposed, it is painfully obvious that students are not being taught to think critically about anything -- because a critical thinker would instantly realize that Shakespeare couldn't possibly have based Hamlet on the life of his son, as to do so Shakespeare would have had to die before he would have been able to write the play.

I was back in a high school today, having been pulled to judge a debate competition. This was not a local event; it was in fact the state regional debate competition, with the winning team going on to compete in the National Finals.

The competition was set up as a tournament, with rounds of eliminations, etc. until there was only one team remaining. However, although there were six teams in competition and five rounds of play (which means that there was, at minimum, eleven actual debates -- if I did the math correctly), there was only one issue under consideration.

Thus I heard the same debate, with the same arguments and the same statistics and the same rebuttals, multiple times.

As any attempt at analyzing and rating argument was out of the question, since it soon became clear that everyone had gone online and found the same USA Today article and the same Wikipedia link, I found myself rating form. (Though before I begin my discussion on form, I should note that the arguments -- the identical arguments that everyone put forward -- were specious at best and prominently featured straw men. The entirety of the critical thought present can be summed up by the student who began his final statement with "Education is the best solution, because education always works." Clearly.)

The students each had four minutes to present their initial argument, followed by a three minute "Crossfire"-style rebuttal period (coincidentally named "Crossfire period"), and then were given the chance to make additional arguments and rebuttals, closing in a final statement to the audience. Each student, perhaps to make the maximum use of his or her time, gabbled the arguments out at auctioneer-speed, staring face-down into a sheaf of typed papers.

I wanted to write on my evaluation sheets "No one is convincing me of anything. Both teams lose." Instead I commented on as much of the argument as I could comprehend from the mess of hyperspeed mumbling, and added a few notes about making eye contact with the audience.

The worst (and most surprising) part, however, was the response from my fellow judges. After the first round, while I was still taking notes and trying to sort out what exactly had been said, the judge next to me leaned back with a perky "well, wasn't that great!" Um... no.

Then the other judge said "yeah, they're really doing a fantastic job up there!" I can buy "they're high school kids, so we'll cut them some slack," but I saw nothing that even remotely approached fantastic.

"Didn't you find it a little hard to understand because they were talking so quickly?" I asked.

Judge #2 said "Oh, no! It's great! It's just like C-Span or Crossfire! Haven't you ever seen Crossfire?"

I said that the only episode I had seen was the one featuring Jon Stewart.

But I learned, through the course of the evening and through listening to the other judges (all of whom were debate coaches or teachers; I got pulled at the last minute by a friend of a friend when a slot suddenly opened up) that the contemporary style of debate involves imitating the talking heads one sees on Fox News; and that points are in fact awarded for rushing through an argument so fast that an audience has no time to consider its validity, for speaking in an incendiary tone rather than a persuasive one, for instilling anxiety rather than calm, and for attacking opponents rather than reasoning with them.

(There were judges who did agree that the students were talking a bit too quickly, or that the arguments were immature, but the general consensus was... see above.)

I suppose I was naive. At the same time, I wish I could take all those students into a classroom with me, for one evening, and give them all copies of Julius Caesar and have them take turns reading Brutus and Antony's oratories, one after another, until we can sit together and talk about how an argument is constructed, how rhetoric is used to dress a subject, and how a well-timed, well-paused phrase can make a crowd turn towards you or against you.

It will be interesting to see if I'm ever asked back. ^__^

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