Policy Debate and the Academe
by Dale A. Herbeck, Boston College

*At the Third Conference on Argumentation sponsored by the International Society for the Study of Argumentation, David Zarefsky lamented that "debate does not get enough respect."/1/ While Zarefsky was talking about debate's lowly standing in the speech communication discipline, one might easily extend his remarks to include the entirety of the academe.

A review of the list of schools subscribing to the National Debate Tournament (NDT), for example, demonstrates that relatively few colleges and universities field debate teams. Moreover, many of the leading institutions of higher education do not support debate programs and we seem to be losing, rather than gaining, ground on this front. Given the dwindling number of policy debate programs, legitimate questions have been raised about the continued viability of the NDT./2/

It is, of course, not difficult to speculate on some of the varied causes contributing to the sagging fortunes of policy debate. While there is insufficient evidence to isolate a single factor, my personal experience leads me to conclude that debate suffers because it is ultimately a practical activity. As the communication discipline has grown and matured, many have come to believe that debate is concerned with "performance" as opposed to "substance."/3/ This is damning, because "performance" is traditionally perceived as being subservient to "substance" in importance and intellectual merit.

Such thinking directly threatens debate in that it assumes that participating in intercollegiate debate either teaches students how to win tournament championships or how to think critically and argue effectively. It suggests that there is a difference between formulating, researching, and assessing arguments, and the actual practice of debating. If this reasoning is accepted, teaching debate is destined to be regarded as an enterprise largely concerned with perfecting technique at the expense of substance. Debate instructors and their students will become the Sophists of our age, susceptible to the traditional indictments elucidated by Isocrates and others./4/

If intercollegiate debate is to thrive and prosper as an intellectual pursuit in the twenty-first century, we must demonstrate that argumentation and debate has a place in the curriculum and that experience in competitive debate should be a valued part of a liberal education. Rather than accepting the strict dichotomy between theory and practice, our community must embrace debate as a productive union of "performance" and "substance." The goal of debate should be to produce students who are capable of thinking critically and arguing effectively. While he was speaking to the broader goals of the study of argumentation, Michael Calvin McGee explained this view as follows:

I hope to see an argumentation practice that self-consciously aims to avoid an oligarchy of expertise which would condemn our students to the sad occupation of greasing organizational procedures. I aspire to contribute to a theory of argumentation aimed at understanding the cultural materials which we must use to carve out the best possible life-world. Above all, I hope to live in a community where reality is lived, truths are made, and facts are used./5/

If we adapt this view of argumentation to debate, it suggests that we must think of training in debate as both an integral and essential component of a liberal education.

Regrettably, a growing body of evidence suggests that a disparity may be developing between our stated educational objectives and the forensic experience that we are providing to debaters./6/ Working from a survey of participants at the National Debate Tournament from 1947-1980, Ronald Matlon and Lucy Keele found that former NDT participants perceived a decline in argument quality and an increase in esotericism. They reported that:

by decade, the following beliefs are clear: that the use of jargon is on the increase, that unrealistic and spurious arguments are on the increase, that lack of synthesis of thought is more noticeable, that quantity over quality is apparent, and that too much reliance on evidence at the expense of developed arguments surfaces more in the last decade./7/

Commenting in "On College Debating," former debater Craig Pinkus charges that contemporary debate is "an exercise which would provide good training for only two occupations: becoming an auctioneer and making Federal Express commercials. And that's all."/8/ There is something seriously wrong when policy debate can no longer be celebrated in a public forum - when we must hide our activity from provosts and deans, faculty and students, parents and alumnae./9/ Such evidence is disconcerting, for it suggests that those involved in debate may have lost sight of the goals of our activity.

If debate is to prosper, our community must develop a philosophy that recognizes that crucial connection between debate practice and educational objectives. We desperately need a philosophy of debate that can meld these pedagogical aims with the competitive nature of the activity. Debate is a sophisticated game, but it must also be an educational exercise. If we remember that debate is part of a liberal education, it may be possible to reconcile forensics competition with educational demands.

Balancing these competing and often conflicting considerations will be difficult, according to Zarefsky, as "an educational approach leads inherently to the tension between providing structured environments - formats, rules, standards, guidelines, and the like - to maximize the chance of positive results, and providing freedom and guidance to students as they learn to make difficult choices for themselves."/10 /These difficulties notwithstanding, such an effort is vital if we are to achieve the lofty goals we have set for debate and to secure its place among the liberal arts. I have been privileged to be a part of the debate community for the past two decades. I entered the communication discipline through debate, and although I am no longer actively directing a program or traveling the tournament circuit, I remain interested in argumentation and intercollegiate debate. Although distanced from competitive debate, I continue to believe that debate remains a vital component of a liberal education. Debate may never again claim to be the very core of communication or argumentation studies, but debate should not be forced to the periphery.

At the same time, I must confess that I am worried about the continued health and vitality of policy debate and the NDT. The decline in participation and the growing concern about the quality of debate is ominous. Even a cursory review of contemporary debate practice suggests that competition has been privileged over education.

If policy debate is to endure as a meaningful educational exercise, we must accept the responsibility for proving that debate has a place in institutions of higher education.

Before this can be accomplished, our community must insist that debate practice actually reflects these lofty educational aims. If we fail to think of debate as more than an intellectual game, I fear that the future of our policy debate and the NDT will be rather dark and dismal.

David Zarefsky, "Argumentation in the Tradition of Speech Communication Studies," in Perspectives and Approaches: Proceedings of the Third ISSA Conference on Argumentation, vol. 1, edited by Frans H. Van Eemereo, Rob Grootendorst, J. Anthony Blair, and Charles A. Willard (Amsterdam: SICSAT, 1995), 35.

  1. See, for example, Donn W. Parson, "The National Debate Tournament at Fifty: W(h)ither the NDT?" Argumentation and Advocacy 33 (Summer 1996), 43-45, and Robert C Rowland and Scott Deatherage, "The Crisis in Policy Debate," Journal of the American Forensic Association 24 (Spring 1988), 246-250.
  2. My argument here is based on insights developed more fully by Michael Calvin McGee, "The Moral Problem of Argumentum per Argumentum," in Argument and Social Practice: Proceedings of the Fourth SCA/AFA Conference on Argumentation, edited by J. Robert Cox, Malcolm O. Sillars, and Gregg B. Walker (Annandale, VA: Speech Communication Association, 1985), 1-15; and Bruce E. Gronbeck, "Rhetorical Criticism in the Liberal Arts Curriculum," Communication Education 38 (July 1989), 184-190.
  3. See, for example, Isocrates, Isocrates II, translated by George Norlin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962).
  4. McGee, 12.
  5. Any number of critics could be cited to substantiate this claim. See, for example, Michael McGough, "The Decline of Debate: Pull It Across Your Flow," The New Republic, 10 October 1988, 17-19; and Karen McGlashen, "On the State of Debate," California Speech Bulletin 23 (15 April 1990), 26-28.
  6. Ronald J. Matlon and Lucy M. Keele, "A Survey of Participants in the National Debate Tournament, 1947-1980," Journal of the American Forensic Association 20 (Spring 1984), 203-204.
  7. Craig Pinkus, "On Collegiate Debating," Spectra 19 (September 1983), 6. See also Norman Snow, "Letter to the Editor," American Forensic Association Newsletter 9 (June 1987), 11-13.
  8. See Thomas A. Hollihan, Kevin T. Baaske, and Patricia Riley, "Debaters as Storytellers: The Narrative Perspective in Academic Debate," Journal of the American Forensic Association 23 (1987), 185.
  9. David Zarefsky, "In Search of the Forensics Community," California Speech Bulletin 23 (15 April 1990), 32. The essay contains Zarefsky's Keynote Address to the 1989 National Conference on Forensics Education, Evanston, Illinois.