Religion & Liberty Online

Are High School Debates Rigged Against Conservative Teens?

(Image credit: Associated Press)

Should conservative and Christian high school students continue to debate on the national level even if the judges are biased against them? Yes.

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I keep rereading James Fishback’s essay on high school debate. Published May 25 in the Free Press, he called out the national circuit of high school debate for being partisan, polarized, and punitive toward any students with sane, moderate, or conservative arguments. In a way, he’s right. I’ve coached students at the Durham Academy Cavalier Invitational in Durham, North Carolina, and at several of the Ivy League–hosted high school debate tournaments (Princeton, Harvard, Duke); all these are on the “NatCirc” level of competition. Such competition provides excellent opposition and favors a set of techniques and arguments that belong more to technical (also called “progressive”) debate than the images of high school debate conjured up by parents, school administrators, and other non-involved supporters. It’s that side of NatCirc competition that Fishback reveals. And, like any polemic based on cherry-picked examples, he makes a compelling case that national circuit debate is corrupt and unhelpful to actual human discourse.

I’ve had students come back to the team “base camp” area to tell me that the judge said, “Your arguments were good, but I’m a Marxist, so you lose.” I’ve judged on panels where I’ve been the lone voice willing to consider an argument on the resolution; my fellow judges just wanted to know if the Affirmative had made the correct response to a Negative claim that “the time allotment for the Negative skews the whole debate in favor of the Affirmative, so vote the Negation to restore justice.” The problems that Fishback identifies are real, and they extend beyond partisan politics to ignoring the actual purposes of debate.

But that’s only part of the story. Two missing elements prevent Fishback’s article from giving outsiders an accurate understanding of the “world of high school debate,” and without a full picture, those who should be indicted by Fishback’s analysis merely shrug his essay off as “far-right” propaganda attacking their favorite game. For example, here is one example of debate coaches ignoring Fishback’s analysis, and here is a second.

The problems Fishbank describes are not new—they’ve been developing over the past 50 years. Fishbank writes as if he were revealing a new problem, when in reality he’s a former competitor who got into the coaching side, saw the problems hundreds of his centrist- and right-leaning predecessors experienced, and decided to quit the National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA). Policy debate is the oldest and most complex form of debate in America, and approximately 50 years ago collegiate debaters began speaking faster and testing out different forms of argumentation. In short, such tactics worked. Judges rewarded speed and progressive argumentation, and those strategies spread to other events. Today debate falls into two broad categories: traditional debate, which limits speaking speed and focuses on the resolution, and progressive debate, which emphasizes “spreading” (speed reading at approximately 400–600 words per minute) and non-resolutional argumentation.

Students who compete in the most elite high school tournaments and win do so, typically, by learning to “spread” and using a variety of progressive techniques. Victory at a large enough tournament earns students a place in the Tournament of Champions. Competing at this level often results in students debating on scholarship in college, where debate speeds up even further and embraces a further set of critical theory arguments. The existence of these mutually exclusive theories of debate led to most large tournaments allowing coaches to “strike” certain judges whose paradigms they disagree with (I’m sure I’ve been struck for being too traditional by coaches who teach progressive techniques), and sometimes allowing coaches to “prefer” judges whose approach they align with. These practices help coaches fence the kind of debate experience they want their students to have.

The second problem with Fishback’s analysis is that he ignores the openness of the debate community to other perspectives being present at these tournaments. Tournaments never have enough judges, and tournament directors don’t care what ideologies are present. Tournaments lean on coaches to train judges, and most coaches bring parents, teachers, and alumni to cover their judging obligation. This creates a giant pool of perspectives and event-specific knowledge at a tournament. There is no guarantee that a student will get a highly knowledgeable debate coach as a judge; such a competitor is just as likely to get a parent who’s on her second year judging with her son’s debate team. There’s no ideological filter applied. All judges at a national circuit tournament typically write a “paradigm” describing their understanding of debate. Students will then adapt arguments to the judge’s paradigm. Fishback describes this process but neglects to note that it allows for conservative teams to gain a seat at the table. Currently, the conservative view that the resolution should govern the debate and that certain topics should be off the table for argumentation are in the minority. Surely I am not alone in rejecting the “pornography kritik” argument  or resisting the “AfroPessimism” framework. Such restraints on argumentation are the minority view, but they are still part of the NatCirc community.

I’ve been coaching for nine years; I’ve led teams to compete in North Carolina, Massachusetts, and New Jersey physically, and in California during the COVID virtual tournament years. The judging spectrum runs from the new parent who has never judged before to a left-wing radical professor who is using judging to advance activism to a snarky college freshman who just wants to punish everyone who does not make him laugh during the round. In such a space, where tournaments always need more judges, traditional teams can bring a needed level of sanity to the competitive space.

But why should they? Fishback has founded his own debate organization, and Thales Academy, in partnership with the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation, has done the same. Why bother swimming in the waters of NatCirc competition? I continue to take students to these tournaments for three reasons.

First, it gives them a wider understanding of the world. Last year, I took students who had never flown before from Raleigh to Boston. On that trip, they learned habits of self-sufficiency. They also met students from across the country. They learned that how we debate is not the only way to debate, and that to succeed they have to adapt.

Second, the NSDA has great systems in place to help motivate students. It’s silly, but students love getting their NSDA seals for competing. The NSDA’s Honor Society has a points tracking tool whereby students gain levels for competing. It recalls Napoleon’s famous line: “Give me enough ribbons to place on the tunics of my soldiers, and I can conquer the world.” The national system is set up to allow students to rank against each other, and that competitive drive keeps students engaged.

Third, NatCirc tournaments are the best place to cultivate rhetoric. The college honorary version of the NSDA, Pi Kappa Delta, defines rhetoric as “the art of persuasion, beautiful and just.” In these tournaments my students learn to articulate their convictions with clarity and force against arguments they do not encounter anywhere else. My high school students do not run in circles where they will encounter a “Black feminist intersectional kritik,” but if they debate Lincoln-Douglas at Harvard, they might. They must then understand the argument, figure out how to break the chain of reasoning being advanced, and convince a judge who may or may not be hostile to their position that their argument is so reasonable that the judge must vote for their position. That is the training ground I want for students who receive a classical education in a progressive world. They are not entering a world where we all sit down politely and exchange opposing political views. Conservative students entering adulthood must be prepared for intellectual war in a world where their only hope of victory lies in rhetorical competence. And NatCirc debate prepares them for that space well before they head off to mainstream colleges. The goal of participating in this level of debate is not victory; Thales Academy will never beat Durham Academy, Syosset, or Harvard-Westlake at the Harvard Forensics Tournament. But in competing at that level, my students are shaped into far better rhetoricians.

The NSDA is the oldest national speech and debate organization in the United States, and the largest such organization in the world. Alternatives exist: NCFCA, STOA, and Coolidge Debate all seek to provide a corrective. But there is nothing quite like competing in the real arena against students prepared to fight tooth and nail for the victory, and discovering you can hold your own in such a fight.

I don’t share the progressive views outlined in the paradigms that Fishback cherry-picked, but so long as I can have an equal shot at judging the progressive coach’s students and he has a shot at judging mine, I’ll keep taking students to these tournaments. We don’t go to win, but for the strong competition and rhetorical formation. We’ve won lower-levels awards, enough to show that good argumentation is rewarded to some degree. My students continue advancing in argumentation and have grown to love the game; that’s enough. The game is great and the benefits are real. The NSDA is not yet worth abandoning—there’s still value to be found in competitive rhetoric and learning to speak truth in a crazy world.

Josh Herring

Josh Herring is professor of classical education at Thales College, working to develop a new model of teacher preparation, specifically with attention to shaping future teachers intending to join the classical renewal movement. He and his wife live in Wendell, NC. Josh is a voracious reader and a regular writer with the Acton Institute, Liberty Fund, and The Federalist. He hosts The Optimistic Curmudgeon podcast and tweets @theoptimisticC3.