The success of the seer Nostradamus seems in large part a product of
his skillful use of ambiguity. Unlike the End-of-the-World visionaries
who specified the date and even time of Armageddon, only to revise the
details to disappointed followers the "day after," Nostradamus' predictions
contained sufficient situational
ambiguity to avoid being clearly disproved. Describing the National
Debate Tournament of 2046 or even predicting its changes en route will
require all the visionary ambiguity the language can provide.
One way of predicting
the future is rediscovering patterns of the past. If the curse of ignoring
history is having to relive it, perhaps examining the history of the
NDT may reveal ways in which reliving history can be more productive
or even enjoyable. Hence a vision of the future might well begin with
an examination of our past.
The past five decades
of the National Debate Tournament have been ones of permanence and change
(Parson, 1995). With two major exceptions, the aspects of permanence
seem to dominate the tradition of the NDT. Among the permanent aspects
are fifty years of policy topics, and a format that has varied only
slightly over the years, first to include cross examination in the format,
and then to adjust the constructive speeches and rebuttals by one minute.
The tournament has varied in size, from a low of 32 teams to a high
of 78 teams. Current procedures have provided tournaments ranging from
72 to 78 teams.
The methods of
team selection have varied over the years. Initially all teams were
chosen through geographic regions; later ten then sixteen first round
at-large teams were selected before district teams competed for bids.
More recently, up to sixteen second round at-large teams have been chosen
after district selection, and up to six of these teams could be third
teams from a participating school.
Thus there have
been changes, but most changes have been minor or cosmetic in nature.
Two major events, however, have changed the tournament in substantial
ways. The first of these was the departure from West Point. When West
Point Commandant William Westmoreland informed George Ziegelmueller,
then President of the American Forensic Association that the Academy
would no longer host the tournament, the NDT began a pilgrimage across
the nation with a different host each year, and with a National Tournament
Committee in charge of the tournament and its selection process. The
NDT Committee also picked a tournament director, and in the 30 years
since leaving West Point the tournament has had ten directors.
A second major
change affecting the National Debate Tournament was the development
of a second national tournament, one representing the Cross Exam Debate
Association (CEDA). Until 1996-7 the two tournaments chose different
topics, and programs generally engaged in only one type of debate, although
a few schools had programs in both areas. Occasionally NDT debaters
would enter the CEDA National Tournament, but given qualifying procedures,
CEDA debaters did not enter the NDT, since debaters needed a whole season
of participation on the NDT topic to qualify for its tournament. The
debate world was split: the resulting dialectic has had its share of
unpleasantness, much of it unnecessary.
The NDT has maintained
a core of 80-100 subscribing schools. More realistically, 40-50 schools
have sent teams to the NDT during the past five years. As the number
of subscribing schools decreases, there is increasing pressure to increase
the number of teams from each school. Some invitational tournaments
have handled as many as 8-12 teams from an individual school. One argument
is that any team meeting NDT qualifications (such as a win-loss record,
or ranking by the NDT Committee) should be able to attend, regardless
of the school represented. In this way, the NDT would resemble many
of the current invitational tournaments.
An extension of
this position is the "open" NDT with the possible limitation of teams
from any single school (such as three or four). This would change the
tournament in major ways, and probably decrease the number of judges
per round to two and possibly one. The number of teams invited might
well have an effect on the number of schools willing to host the tournament.
One can find among
NDT coaches two quite different positions on the size of the tournament.
One group would move toward the more "open" NDT with possible limitations
on the size of the tournament. Another group would move in the opposite
direction, and reduce the size of the NDT, possibly to a maximum of
36-48 teams. These coaches would make the qualification process more
rigorous, with result that the very strongest teams would qualify. The
current practice of including sixteen first round teams, 46 teams through
the district process and up to sixteen second round at-large teams seems
to steer a middle course between these two positions.
One of the major
questions to be answered is the effect of having both CEDA and NDT debating
the same topic area, or debating variations of the same topic. Thus
the 1996-7 year will provide an interesting test of its possibilities.
Debaters will thus be able to debate in both CEDA and NDT divisions.
In addition to providing debaters with broader debate experiences, programs
will have greater variety of tournament choices, and programs stretched
to the economic breaking point may breathe a bit easier. If students
debate one topic area in both divisions of debate, then perhaps students
can qualify for both the CEDA National Tournament and the NDT. Such
an eventuality has ramifications on the possible size and function of
of this suggestion is the presence of two national tournaments, one "open" to all teams which qualify and a second limited to a smaller
number of teams. Within this framework, the "open" tournament might
be prior to the second tournament, with qualifiers from the first tournament
receiving bids to the second tournament (perhaps all quarterfinalists,
or qualifiers). Such a scenario is only possible as coaches representing
CEDA and those representing NDT resolve outstanding differences and
work together on both tournaments. As choice is extended to students,
the quality of their forensic experience would increase. To see this
scenario enacted would require a continuing dialogue between representatives
of both organizations, but it is not difficult to visualize it in operation
in the early part of the twenty-first century.
If the NDT has
had ten directors in the past 30 years, it has had 27 hosts. Only Jack
Rhodes who has hosted three NDTs and Chester Gibson with two NDTs had
hosted more than once. The reason is not difficult to fathom. In addition
to the time and effort demanded of the debate director and staff, the
cost to the school may reach $25,000 and beyond. One dean, familiar
to the author, encouraged his school to host the NDT: "It will be a
fine way to use your debate budget this year." As costs have escalated,
tournament fees have skyrocketed, from about $75 a team in 1976 to $275
in 1996. As a percentage of the typical debate budget, the NDT has increased
disproportionately, and most schools need additional funds to attend
the NDT. The NDT may not find sufficient schools able and willing to
expend large sums to host in the future.
One potential answer
to the cost problem has prompted NDT Board of Trustees Chair Lee Polk
to initiate and endowment program involving former NDT debaters, coaches
and institutional members. An NDT that is not underwritten by its own
endowment in the next century will need to be a "stripped down" tournament
The computer age
has altered both tournaments and debaters' methods of research and preparation.
The NDT currently uses TAB ROOM ON THE MAC, a program created by Rich
Edwards of Baylor to administer the tournament. Invitational tournaments
use versions of the same program. Schools now set up LEXIS and NEXUS
connections for quick evidence search during tournaments; no longer
does a closed library on Sunday deter debaters. Most of these changes
have occurred during the last decade. Yet the use of computers in debate
may still be in a period of infancy.
What will be the
use of computers fifty years hence? One can envision a screen on which
the debater displays supporting evidence at the touch of a computer
button? Perhaps the computer will enable competition without travel
a sort of "briefing" system similar to moot law courts. Perhaps oral
advocacy will no longer be practiced in debate. Perhaps the 2046 NDT
can be conducted over the computer. But then in early 2047 a coach named
Northworth will suggest we scrap the whole system and invite a very
few teams to meet each other face-to-face and have a single competent
judge render a decision based on the arguments heard. It will seem revolutionary,
but worth a try. Or perhaps not.