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Resolved: school debate thrives...

Updated: November 18, 2012 6:45AM

Unlike you — well, unlike the vast majority of you — I have debated, formally, in public pressure situations, at least what passed for pressure in high school.

Debate is hard. I think that’s why, while all my school stuff was deep-sixed into the basement long ago, my National Forensic League certificate proclaiming that I’ve attained the Degree of Excellence is still framed in my office, albeit in the closet. I worked hard for that, and remember plowing ahead with debate long after I was ready to drop it for the more fulfilling pastime of chasing girls, because I wanted that Degree of Excellence.

The way that debate works in high school is you have one topic for the year — the one that sticks in mind is, “Resolved: that a comprehensive program of penal reform should be adopted throughout the United States” — which we’d research, copying evidence by hand, usually in the form of quotes, often quotes from James Q. Wilson, onto 3 x 5 index cards. There was an affirmative team — a pair of kids talking about their plan to fix the prison system — and a negative team, two kids explaining why the prison system didn’t need reform and, even if it did, the affirmative’s plan was wrongheaded.

Volume mattered when it came to research. The kids from the Catholic schools would roll enormous filing cabinets of index cards into debates. We public school proles took a perverse pride in our recipe box worth of cards, though we’d pad them with blank ones at the back. We liked to think we made up in panache what we lacked in preparation.

Debate seems like one of those antique school rites that must have fallen away long ago, along with Palmer penmanship. Not so.

“Debate is doing extremely well, as a matter of fact,” said J. Scott Wunn, executive director of the National Forensic League, based in Ripon, Wis. “The increase of use of technology, social media, the Internet and computers has enhanced what is happening with high school academic debate.”

They still have the affirmative vs. negative debate that I did — they call it “policy debate” and a student Congress. They’ve added two new forms — Lincoln-Douglas debate, based on values rather than policy, and public forum debate, designed to free students from the constrains of one-topic-per-year, plus a larger audience, like the presidential debates.

“Bringing on that debate event just exploded high school academic debate for us,” said Wunn, adding that about 120,000 students debate in the NFL. “Our national tournament is the largest academic tournament in the world. (Our Berea team never got to nationals, but among my strong memories is our coach, the fiery, white-haired Helen Somerville, having us hold hands in a circle and pray before finals. OK, this is strange, I thought, but if it helps us beat St. Ignatius . . .)

So why should kids bother with debate?

“Key basic college readiness skills,” Wunn said. “They’re going to increase their argumentation, critical thinking and research skills tremendously by participation.”

I let him go on in this vein, about “academic rigor” and “job readiness,” then cut in, pointing out that he was missing the main attraction to debate: It’s fun. Just as football is, at its core, a socially approved way to beat up kids from other schools, so debate is a way for the athletically ungifted to feel the joy of verbally horsewhipping an opponent — if only Barack Obama knew that, he might not have blown the first debate as badly as he did.

My cherished debate memory — maybe the highlight of my high school years that didn’t occur in a parked car — took place in a debate against the dreaded Catholic schools, whose Achilles heel, my partner Jeff and I knew, was that their speeches were sometimes written by the nuns and delivered by students who did not fully comprehend them. This kid was prattling on about how the affirmative’s plan falls apart because we failed to “quantify” — he must have said “quantify” five times. An idea stirred. Partners aren’t allowed to talk to each other, so I scribbled a question down for Jeff. He looked quizzically at me, and I nodded and touched my nose.

Jeff — who would go on to become a lawyer — stood up, said he’d like to ask just one question. “You say that our case falls apart because it fails to quantify, is that correct?”

Yes, the kid said, smiling confidently.

“Could you please tell us what the word ‘quantify’ means?” The kid’s smile died, and Jeff let his discomfort play out for just the right amount of time, just enough to establish that he had no idea what he was talking about. That’s debate. “It’s the good person’s drug,” Wunn said. “You just get hooked on it.”

Technology has endangered one aspect of debate as I practiced it: the 3 x 5 index card.

“It’s computerized now,” said Wunn. “More and more teams are going to a computer-based filing system.” You bring your laptop up when you speak and find your evidence there. Which must be playing havoc with the index card industry, but times change.

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