Friday, July 13, 2007

Yes, Debate is Weird . . .

Steve Sailer highlights this documentary about high school debate. Many people assume that high school and college debate feature students dressed in suits speaking eloquently about the issues of the day. But, in fact, debate has become its own little insular world, where both the speaking style and type of argument are incomprehensible to the average person. For the uninitiated, what happened is that people started talking really fast and using debate-specific jargon while judges took detailed notes, called a "flow."

As Sailer somewhat tendentiously puts it:

When I was in high school debate in the early-mid 1970s, it was obvious that debate had gotten off track and needed a rules change. To make the competition more objective, younger judges had started flowcharting the entire debate in enormous detail on three foot wide drawing pads. Debaters responded by increasing the number of arguments they put forward by speaking faster. If they could spit out 32 arguments in 8 minutes, and their slower-speaking opponents could only refute 24, then there were 8 arguments that had gone unrefuted and therefore, logically, they must win!

It is not true that sheer numbers and fast-talking necessarily win. If a team makes 32 arguments, odds are that a bunch of them are really the same argument in different terms, and a skilled debater can group similar arguments. Sailer also ignores word economy -- responding in fewer words. (The Variety review indicates that the movie does a good job of explaining how the fast-talking style came to predominate.)

Sailer doesn't like this fast-talking jargon-filled style modern debate:

Obviously, this emphasis on speed isn't good training for much of anything in the real world, where trying to talk faster than the other guy is more likely to get you a punch on the nose than the acclaim of your fellow men. When FDR, for example, was in debate at Groton in the 1890s, they taught him to try to persuade his audience, not overwhelm them.

It's quite true that debate involves a style of public speaking that one will probably never use outside of the debate context. But of course that's true of most games and contests -- chess players are rarely attacked by people dressed as bishops coming at them diagonally. Is tennis realistic? Backgammon?

Sure, the speaking style is bizarre, even ridiculous, and the arguments are often absurd. Nobody actually thinks that a minor change in education policy will lead to nuclear war. But, just as tennis develops physical fitness and coordination, debate develops other skills. For example, most high school debaters know how to use a university research library better than your average graduate student. In debate, people have to organize and keep track of a huge amount of information -- certainly a useful skill. They learn to think on their feet, under conditions of pressure and stress. And, they learn a lot about the specific topic subject area -- whether it's education policy or space exploration, always a good thing.

So yeah, it's true -- debate can be an absurd stylized ritual. But, like chess or Scrabble, it builds other useful skills. And, given Steve's obsession with IQ, you would think that he would find it admirable that it puts such emphasis on sheer cognitive ability.


Anonymous said...

Ahh...let me were on your high school debate team? On you college team?? Did the experience help develop your skills as a blogger?

cheerful iconoclast said...

Yes, I debated a bit.

No, being opinionated helped my blogging skills.