For two years, Gary Alan Fine, a sociologist at Northwestern University in Illinois, immersed himself in the world of high school debate by accompanying two Minnesota teams to their debate classes, practices, tournaments, and—in the case of one of the squads—the National Forensic Championship in California. His thorough research, enriched by extensive interviews with students, parents, and coaches, resulted in the fascinating Gifted Tongues: High School Debate and Adolescent Culture (Princeton University Press). The book reveals a phenomenon that is as peculiar as it is intellectually challenging.
For generations, high school debaters have been regarded by their fellow students as brainy eccentrics—a characterization that turns out, to some degree, to be true. Fine writes about teenagers who work through the night, preparing sometimes bizarre arguments; lug to competitions heavy boxes (called “tubs”) of evidence; and talk so fast that even judges sometimes have trouble understanding them. But for all its oddities, debate serves these students well: Most excel academically, and many go on to become lawyers and policymakers.
Fine was recently reached at his summer cottage in North Carolina, where the father of a former star debater talked about the rules and rites underlying a unique subculture.
Q: High school debate, as you describe it, is a highly specialized form of argumentation.
A: Yes, it’s not at all like rhetoric, with the disputants making calculated appeals to the audience’s emotions. Instead, it’s a kind of information processing, in which students, drawing from heaps of evidence, present as many arguments as they can within their allotted time. Debaters are told that emotion is not argumentation, and so [they] strive to be very rational. For this reason, and because the debaters frequently speak at a near- incomprehensible rate, debate is typically not a spectator sport. There are exceptions, such as at a debate final before an unusually large audience, when the debaters are coached to slow down.
Q: You write that some teams are fond of “squirrel cases"—"nutty” arguments seemingly devoid of common sense. Can you offer a couple of examples?
A: During [one] academic year the topic was “Resolved: That the federal government should adopt a nationwide policy to decrease overcrowding in prisons in the United States.” One argument was to shoot prisoners into outer space. Another was to send them to Russia. Yet another was to establish transcendental meditation programs in prison; prisons wouldn’t be less crowded, but the people in prison would think them less crowded, which would have the same positive effect.
A team using a squirrel case might even run a case about how a policy designed to ease prison overcrowding can cause nuclear war. Let’s say the affirmative side says the government should build more prisons. Well, the negative side then argues that if more prisons are built, the public will be happy and more supportive of the president. Consequently, the president may feel more adventurous and receive new support to take on enemies. Other countries feel resentful, and nuclear war eventually ensues. The argument is ludicrous, but not psychotic—each link builds on the other link.
Of course, there were also a lot of plausible arguments about, say, legalizing drugs and placing nonviolent women offenders in halfway houses. So it’s not always about stretching the boundaries of common sense, though teenagers clearly have a lot of fun with cases that most adults think ridiculous.
Q: Students, in any given tournament, must at different times argue both the affirmative and negative sides of an issue. Doesn’t this promote cynicism?
A: It’s true that debating both sides of an argument can lead to a certain cynicism. It reminds me a bit of those talk shows on Fox and CNN where Republican and Democratic consultants come on with positions that are totally predictable. What they say may be separate and apart from what they really think. It’s a lot like high school debate. Students sometimes have to debate the affirmative, or the negative, even if they think it’s totally ridiculous.
On the other hand, in the main, I think this debating from opposing perspectives is a good thing. Students not only learn to make all kinds of arguments but realize that, for most arguments, there are at least two sides. Even arguing one side is a perspective most adolescents don’t have. Kids told me that debate has given them open minds, that learning to see both sides of an argument has made them less righteous.
Q: Why is high school debate so oppositional, with teams taking radically divergent positions?
A: It’s a very American form, reflected in our legal system and politics. In law you have the affirmative side, the plaintiffs, using any kind of argument they can win with within the rules. Same with the defense. In a courtroom, neither side is expected to be speaking the full truth. Then you have the jury or judge listen to the sides and make a decision. Debate is very much like this. It reflects the American two-party system, too. Republicans and Democrats often challenge what the other has to say in very stark, black-and-white terms.
Q: Should debate play a broader role in American schools than it now plays?
A: Yes. In a democratic society requiring civic involvement, all students should have some kind of speech training. I’m not saying that all kids should have this intense debate-team experience, but they should all learn how to frame a sound argument. It should be like in high school athletics: We don’t expect all kids to play varsity football or basketball, but we do-or should-expect them all to engage in some form of exercise.
Now, it’s true that high school debate can be technical and esoteric. But what debate does, and what I think is crucial, is it teaches people to think, research, use logic, and overcome stage fright by getting up before an audience and expressing beliefs. Debate and speech are essential for a democratic exchange of ideas, and yet they have largely been lost.
Q: Is debate gaining or losing ground in American high schools?
A: I’m told that it’s holding its own. A lot depends upon the attitude of the principal, who must convince the school community of its worthiness and secure financial support for its continuation. The one thing that needs to happen more is “Barbara Jordan debate,” or inner-city debate. There has always been this donut effect, in which debate occurs in a suburban ring around the city. This is now beginning to change. Educators in such cities as Atlanta and Chicago are beginning to bring debate programs to inner-city schools. These schools debate each other, which gives kids a great opportunity to learn skills that can make them successful in college.