The War On Standards Comes to College Debate [with comment by Paul]

shutterstock_153531818Paul has been writing about the war on standards in various aspects of our society, generally as a means of advancing the interests of minorities (or purporting to advance them, anyway). Now it appears that the decline of standards–indeed, the abolition of any standards at all–has come to the world of college debate. The Atlantic reports:

These days, an increasingly diverse group of participants has transformed debate competitions, mounting challenges to traditional form and content by incorporating personal experience, performance, and radical politics. These “alternative-style” debaters have achieved success, too, taking top honors at national collegiate tournaments over the past few years. …

On March 24, 2014 at the Cross Examination Debate Association (CEDA) Championships at Indiana University, two Towson University students, Ameena Ruffin and Korey Johnson, became the first African-American women to win a national college debate tournament, for which the resolution asked whether the U.S. president’s war powers should be restricted. Rather than address the resolution straight on, Ruffin and Johnson, along with other teams of African-Americans, attacked its premise. The more pressing issue, they argued, is how the U.S. government is at war with poor black communities.

In the final round, Ruffin and Johnson squared off against Rashid Campbell and George Lee from the University of Oklahoma, two highly accomplished African-American debaters with distinctive dreadlocks and dashikis. Over four hours, the two teams engaged in a heated discussion of concepts like “nigga authenticity” and performed hip-hop and spoken-word poetry in the traditional timed format. At one point during Lee’s rebuttal, the clock ran out but he refused to yield the floor. “Fuck the time!” he yelled.

It sounds as though academic debating has come to an end. Debating is all about logic, and what these folks are doing is not logical. In some instances, new-style participants reject the proposition that they are supposed to be debating:

In the 2013 championship, two men from Emporia State University, Ryan Walsh and Elijah Smith, employed a similar style and became the first African-Americans to win two national debate tournaments. Many of their arguments, based on personal memoir and rap music, completely ignored the stated resolution, and instead asserted that the framework of collegiate debate has historically privileged straight, white, middle-class students.

It is hard to believe that such tired cliches could win anything, but when you abandon normal standards of judgment, I suppose anything is possible.

The assertion that “the framework of collegiate debate has historically privileged straight, white, middle-class students” is puzzling. By “privileged,” the writer apparently means that these are the people who have been good at it. Historically, most college students have of course been white and middle-class, but so what?

When Paul and I were debating in the late 60s and early 70s, all kinds of people were good at the activity. There were not a lot of African-Americans on the circuit, but there were a few, some of whom excelled. There were, of course, lots of women. Most of us were “middle-class,” but some were rich and some were poor. One prominent West Coast debater was the son of a pornographer who claimed that his summer job was writing one-paragraph descriptions of pornographic books for his father’s company’s catalogue. One of our Dartmouth teammates worked in sewers during the summer; his only prosperous relative was in the Mafia. Another of our teammates had returned to college after being shot up in Vietnam. Was everybody straight? Hmm, no one made an issue of it at the time, but I doubt it. So–in short–the world, including the college debate world, has always been a more interesting and diverse place than these obtuse kids realize.

One of the nice things about debate was that anyone who had talent and worked hard could succeed. I was a nerdy kid from a small town in South Dakota, but I was pretty good, so no one cared. My partner and I won the Northeastern intercollegiate championship twice.

College debate has always been an eccentric activity, and it attracted a lot of eccentric people. The activity did most of its participants a lot of good, I think. But that value apparently is now being lost, as standards have disappeared, logic is out the window, and bullshit about race is replacing actual argumentation. The loss of college debate is relatively minor, I suppose, compared to other assaults on our culture. But for those of us who laid the foundations of our careers in the rigorous give and take of debate, it is sad to see the activity come to an end.

The lights of our culture are going out, one after another, under the attacks of the know-nothings. This one is a relatively small loss, perhaps, but it hits close to home for Paul and me.

PAUL ADDS: The subtext here is the same as the subtext for much of the war on standards. College debating, it seems, has been radically transformed in ways that make it easier for African-Americans to succeed at it.

As for the notion of “privilege,” it is now clear that the debaters of our era were privileged in a limited but important sense. We were required to take the activity seriously and to meet high standards in order to succeed. For example, we did not have the privilege of ignoring the time limits on speeches, much less of blowing them off with obscenities. We took this for granted at the time, but it turns out to have been a privilege.

We had a debate coach, Herb James, who wanted us to obtain the full benefit of the activity and, through hard work and respect for the activity, become the best debaters we could be. As a college student in a tumultuous era full of distractions, I sometimes disappointed my coach. But we were privileged to have a coach who held us accountable and whom we could disappoint.

We were also privileged to be judged by adults who held us to knowable standards, and we were privileged to debate serious opponents. Not all of our opponents fit this description, but at least we could count on them not to break into song or inject their alleged “personal stories” into the proceedings.

I think John would agree that our efforts to meet the standards applicable to debating during our era helped us later on to meet the standards applicable to successfully litigating law suits. Will meeting the standards, if any, that apply to debating as performed by the showmen whose exploits are described above help them succeed in any serious profession outside of the entertainment industry? Will meeting these “standards” help them become serious adults?

The legal profession is changing; so is the concept of a serious adult. But they aren’t changing nearly fast enough to make debating as practiced by these showmen an experience with meaningful carryover benefits in the real world.

Responses