Against Competitive Debate
Essays Society

Against Competitive Debate

John Ehrett

Debate kids, like theater kids, are a type. Those of us who were debaters instantly know the look: the off-kilter neckties, the boxes of Tic Tacs, the stacks of three-ring binders jammed with old case drafts and printouts of evidence, the fingertips slightly stained with ink from Bic pens. And, of course, there’s the tendency to rattle off information at a faster-than-average clip—a habit I’ve still never quite kicked.

I started out a nonbeliever, vowing that I’d lock myself in the family minivan rather than actually compete at a tournament. But all it took was a little success before I was hooked. Debate became the driving theme of my high school years, and stretched on into college. And from an educational perspective, what’s not to love? Debate, after all, is inherently participatory, requiring a competitor to distill complex ideas and communicate conclusions in her own words. It is the ultimate alternative to what Paulo Freire derisively described as the banking model of education, “in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits.”[1]

Perhaps that’s why debate, understood as part of the transition from bare fact-knowledge (“grammar”) to articulation of persuasive argument (“rhetoric”), has been a mainstay of the classical education movement.[2] And the sentiment is broadly shared. Indeed, a recent article in the left-wing magazine Current Affairs argues that “[m]erely encouraging more students to think critically is insufficient if we want a critical mass of the next generation to emerge with a more robust toolkit to resist the influence of right-wing propaganda” and speculates that “[w]hat is needed is a vehicle to train students with the skills that help them become better researchers, better critical thinkers, and better reasoners. Debate is that vehicle.”[3] The prospect of common ground is tantalizing: in a political moment unusually focused on education, might debate be the one pedagogical practice capable of uniting rival camps?

Or maybe not. Those of us who spent years in the tournament scene have learned to ask a different question: for those of us who drank deeply at the well of competitive forensics, what if there was always something slightly nasty at the bottom?

Over my years as a competitive debater, three styles loomed largest: traditional policy debate, Lincoln-Douglas “value” debate (known as LD for short), and parliamentary debate. Policy and LD were fixtures of my high school years; parliamentary didn’t make an appearance until college.

Policy is the most straightforward form, as my old league’s 2022 resolution makes clear: “The United States Federal Government should significantly reform its policy regarding convicted prisoners under federal jurisdiction.” That lays out the rules of engagement clearly enough: at issue here is the proposed policy of the U.S. government, which can naturally be evaluated on the basis of the U.S. government’s interests (however conceived). The “affirmative team” puts forward its proposed policy reform, and the “negative team” raises counterarguments. From a life-skills perspective, policy debate is probably the most useful and worthwhile form of the activity. Where else are high schoolers forced to grapple with the nerdy details of things like budget processes and unintended consequences?

But some details, of course, were left out. For the most part, the moral questions underlying policy debates were consistently kept offstage. All of us had heard whispers of something called a kritik, a distinctly moralistic attack on the very premises of the round—for instance, why should we be debating prison reforms at a time when thousands are starving overseas?—but, at least in my high school league, the kritik was largely taboo. It was a distraction, a cheap shot. Grandstanding about principle was something other people did.

In his 2019 novel The Topeka School, Ben Lerner offers a particularly lacerating depiction of this policy-debater instinct.

The parallel with the larger culture was imperfect, but undeniable: the supposedly disinterested policy wonks debate the intricacies of health care or financial regulation in a jargon designed to be inaccessible to the uninitiated while the more presidential speakers test out plainspoken value claims on civilians, a division underwritten by petrodollars.[4]

The arena of policy debate, then, was the arena of value-agnostic policymaking. In that arena, appeals to expertise, or the appearance of expertise, were fighters’ swords and shields. And in the ensuing battle, the debater most adept at invoking authorities familiar to the listener—the Brookings Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, and so on—would usually carry the day. That was how it usually went.

And yet years later, on the other side of the podium, I’m forced to admit that something like the hated kritik casts quite a long shadow. In the real world, nuanced policy debates are routinely terminated by the emergence of more pressing concerns, or by appeals to rival moral premises. Where has the ideal of policy debate, the regime of purely technocratic policymaking, actually emerged? Has it ever?

To be sure, those interested in “first principles” had competitive options of their own. For those with less affection for the grubby nuances of constitutional law or fiscal policy, there was always LD, which placed moral questions front and center.

LD debate, generally speaking, hinges on abstract statements—such as “In the context of innovation, the proactionary principle ought to be valued above the precautionary principle.” In the course of each round, competitors are expected to flesh that statement out for themselves. To do so, each competitor advances a “value,” such as prosperity or human dignity, and an accompanying “criterion” such as “GDP growth” or “number of lives saved” that provides some metric for determining whether that value is achieved.

Pause here to consider how the sort of debate I’ve described here might actually look. The competitor assigned to defend the “proactionary principle” adopts the value of prosperity and criterion of GDP growth; the competitor assigned to defend the “precautionary principle” adopts the value of human dignity and criterion of lives saved. Thus, the debate unfolds.

Or does it? If one debater places “prosperity” at the center of her moral system, while the other situates “human dignity” at the heart of his, how can this “debate” possibly proceed? With two rival values in play, there is no common foundation to which either competitor can appeal in the course of their argument, so any “debate” cannot in principle get off the ground. Any claims to the effect of “my value is superior” must inevitably boil down to mere assertions: superior, by what standard? The core dilemma here is identical to the one identified by Alasdair MacIntyre in the opening pages of After Virtue:

The most striking feature of contemporary moral utterance is that so much of it is used to express disagreements; and the most striking feature of the debates in which these disagreements are expressed is their interminable character. I do not mean by this just that such debates go on and on and on—although they do—but also that they apparently can find no terminus. There seems to be no rational way of securing moral agreement in our culture.[5]

MacIntyre remarks that, where no underlying standard is agreed upon, “when we do arrive at our premises argument ceases and the invocation of one premise against another becomes a matter of pure assertion and counter-assertion.”[6] And it is difficult to imagine a more apt description of the problem of value debate. The fact that competitors are invited—even encouraged—to put forth rival values denies, in principle, the possibility of coherent LD adjudication.

In the absence of any common conception of value, the basis upon which LD rounds are judged must therefore be something decidedly anti-foundationalist, some aggregation of characteristics like poise, presentation, internal coherence, or verbal fluency. Those characteristics may be meritorious enough on their own, but they are not the stuff of moral reasoning as such.

One might suggest that this is the point of the activity, that the “esoteric heart” of LD debate is the competitor’s dawning intuition of MacIntyre’s observation, of the radical incommensurability of value claims. But this traffics in a kind of moral cynicism that classical educators and Marxists alike would reject (and notably, for MacIntyre the theme of incommensurability was the beginning, not the conclusion, of his own philosophical project). Nevertheless, one is led inexorably to the conclusion that serious moral reasoning is a kind of practice that simply cannot occur in the truncated space of a debate round. It is something that occurs over the course of a lifetime as one lives and studies and grows and acts. Whatever practice LD debate is teaching students to master, it is not that practice.

The twin pathologies inherent in policy and LD debate—uncritical appeals to elite authority, and a blindness to the seeming incommensurability of core values—reach their synthesis in British parliamentary-style, or “Worlds,” debate. “British parli” rounds involve four teams of two—two on each of the affirmative and negative sides, which means that even competitors on the same “side” must work to distinguish themselves from one another. The subject matter is always some global issue or other, usually a topic that consciously blurs the line between policy and value. Recent championship-round resolutions include subjects as diverse as “this House believes that the present condition of humanity is preferable to its condition in 100 years’ time,” and “this House, as China, would grant universal suffrage to Hong Kong.”

In the world of British parli, everything is fair game. A debater can freely castigate her opponents for trafficking in Western hegemony or (conversely) for betraying the universal ideals of human rights. Or, supposing she’s actually familiar with the nuances of the policy issues involved, she can draw on empirical facts and data to wreck the claims of her rivals. (And even if she doesn’t, nothing’s stopping her from merrily making things up as she goes. Who’s going to call her on it?)

The psychological effect of this environment should be obvious enough. Channeling alien ideological convictions in round after round, day after day, is the kind of practice that eats away at any possibility of moral clarity. Acting master Konstantin Stanislavski once wrote that, in order to successfully inhabit a particular role, it is “necessary that you really believe in the general possibilities of such a life, and then become so accustomed to it that you feel yourself close to it. If you are successful in this, you will find that ‘sincere emotions,’ or ‘feelings that seem true’ will spontaneously grow in you.”[7] And that is precisely how one succeeds in parliamentary debate: forcing oneself to adopt not only the ethos and logos, but the pathos, of one’s assigned side, and allowing those value commitments to suffuse one’s rhetorical appeals.

But surely this is not the end of the matter. In the absence of “first-order” moral convictions, don’t other instincts and desires simply surge to the surface instead? In reflecting on her own experiences as a high-level competitor, writer Sally Rooney hits on the inevitable trajectory of the hardcore debater mentality:

Maybe this kind of performance—pretending, weekend after weekend, to be passionate about whichever side of a debate I happened to be on—had some subconscious purpose. After all, debating is competitive, and competition necessitates a kind of aggression. Maybe faking conviction is how I learned to control and direct that aggression, to hide my ambition behind concern.[8]

In short, the game eventually bottoms out in a banal kind of will-to-power—a desire to prevail coupled with a disinterest in satisfactory resolution of the real questions posed at every juncture. Debate, in short, becomes a kind of end-in-itself, where winning rounds is the only real currency of the realm.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that high-level debaters are notorious for drinking themselves into stupors. At the 2013 World Championship in Berlin, multiple competitors were hospitalized after overindulging in yakka, a nasty “combination of bottom-shelf vodka, white sugar and lemons, left to macerate for hours, or sometimes days, before it’s ladled out at debate functions.”[9] But if there’s really nothing worth fighting and dying for, if the arguments and conflicts that take up so much of the world’s time and energy are at bottom merely a matter of who wins, why not go hard or go home? Eat, drink, and be merry, for eventually we all die.

Strictly speaking, I don’t regret all the years I spent debating. For one thing, I gained a tremendous amount of subject-matter knowledge about policy and governance. I made some of the best friends I’ve ever had, many of whom I still keep in touch with. And the all-time high point—winning the top LD speaker award at the last national championship of my high school career—still feels, in hindsight, like something out of a John Hughes movie. Nothing will ever change that.

But was it really debate itself that brought those good things about? I wonder sometimes about counterfactuals, about what might’ve happened if I’d spent less time trying to win the argument and more time trying to understand the argument.

One of my greatest regrets from college is how little I pushed myself intellectually. I learned quickly that I could perform well by making claims just modest enough that they didn’t require serious exposition or defense, but appealed to the right authorities. Econ class? Cite a lot of Hayek. Theology? Merely invoke Wayne Grudem, Neo-Calvinist author par excellence. Political theory? Just appeal to Plato all the way.

Looking back on all of this, I can see the omnipresent shadow of the debater mentality: the goal was never to resolve the question under consideration, but to win it (obtain the “A” grade), as easily as possible. It took me years to learn to write what I really believed.

In hindsight, it seems to me that those who benefited the most from competitive debate were those who never immersed themselves in it fully—those for whom it never became a lifestyle, and those who didn’t forget to care about their subjects. The universal “tell” of someone not yet steeped in the debater mindset—“I don’t know how I feel about this argument”—was not, after all, a sign of weakness, but of humanity.

And I’ve increasingly come to wonder whether, in all our culture’s talk of the need for “critical thinking,” something important has been lost. Critical thinking is important, no doubt. But equally important is critical belief formation, learning to affirmatively build up claims and arguments rather than simply knock them down. Such arguments, crucially, cannot be mere constructions serving a short-term end. They must be rooted in existential conviction, the sort of conviction that leads people to order their lives differently, to fight and to die for something true. And the only way to accomplish this is to learn the conditions under which primal trust is worth it, regardless of whether such faith could survive a Cartesian test of certainty or satisfy a jaded debater.

At some point, the debate ends. Then it is time to decide how to live.

  1. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergman Ramos (New York: Continuum, 2000), 72. ↩︎

  2. See, e.g., Christopher A. Perrin, An Introduction to Classical Education: A Guide for Parents (Camp Hill, PA: Classical Academic Press, 2004), 22–23. ↩︎

  3. Lawrence Zhou, “Why We Should Teach Kids to Debate,” Current Affairs, October 25, 2021, ↩︎

  4. Ben Lerner, The Topeka School (New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019), 136–37. ↩︎

  5. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 6. ↩︎

  6. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 8. ↩︎

  7. Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor Prepares, trans. Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood (London: Eyre Methuen, 1917), 51–52. ↩︎

  8. Sally Rooney, “Even If You Beat Me,” The Dublin Review, Spring 2015, ↩︎

  9. Drew Lazor, “Meet Yakka: The Trashcan Cocktail of College Debaters Worldwide,” Punch, March 17, 2017, ↩︎

Featured image: President Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter at the first of the three Ford-Carter Debates in photo (1976) by David Hume Kennerley from the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library via Wikimedia Commons.

John Ehrett is an attorney and writer in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of Yale Law School and Patrick Henry College. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.