The Duck of Minerva

Debate Day

6 September 2010

When I was a college student, I spent every Labor Day working in the debate squadroom at Kansas. Everyone on the team, in fact, was expected to put in a full day working on their affirmative cases, negative arguments, etc. Sometimes, debaters learned the identity of their colleague on that day — it is a two-person team activity after all. After the work ended, our coach and his wife hosted the team for dinner.

Even though it was a Labor Day of work and not rest, I always enjoyed it and have fond memories.

Recently, former National Debate Tournament champion Michael Horowitz (Emory 2000) wrote a short piece for Slate about his own fond memories and experiences in college debate. In the article, he discusses a book by Mark Oppenheimer about that author’s personal experience in debate. Indeed, the piece is penned as an open letter to Oppenheimer.

I’m not sure I agree with Horowitz and Oppenheimer that “debate is ‘football for dorks.'” Yes, it is a competitive activity, but I’d probably use a different comparison. My colleague during sophomore and senior year used to describe our skills metaphorically by quoting from Stripes:

The world isn’t fair! Truth isn’t fair!

Is it fair that you were born like this? No!

They’re not expecting somebody like you. They’re expecting some clown.

You’re different. You’re weird.
You’re a mutant. You’re a killer!

You’re a trained killer!

You’re a lean, mean, fighting machine!

I’ve written before about being a “made man in the Kansas debate mafia.”

For me, this is the key paragraph in the Horowitz piece:

One thing that struck me was how you were discouraged early in your debate career, by an “earthy, hippiesh senior girl,” from “trying too hard” and doing too much research. You were encouraged instead to exercise your brilliance and charm to win debates, and the most entertaining debate stories in your book are the ones in which you emerge triumphant thanks to a clever turn of phrase, an eloquent monologue, or your sharp wit. To me, eloquence, research, and reasoning form the trinity of good debate. Too often, all of them are lacking from our political discourse. To the extent any of them are present, however, it is often style (or attempts at style) privileged over substance. This is unfortunate, because debate without substance runs the risk of being mere sophistry or just a dilettantish rhetorical dance.

I could not agree more with this.

Incidentally, Horowitz recently published a book that looks interesting: The Diffusion of Military Power: Causes and Consequences for International Politics.

Update 9/7/10: A friend of the blog sent along a link to a new debate documentary: “Debate Team.” Apparently, it is available in DVD — and they have a lot of interesting deleted scenes online. The clips seem to support the Horowitz point about substance vs. style.

Also, if you look around on the web, you can find an old photo of my colleague and I holding Mike’s trophy. It gets around.