Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Beyond Debate

Debate is big among homeschoolers, particularly among Evangelicals, and most of my exposure to debate and public speaking comes through talking to Christian homeschooling moms, who are a pretty traditionalist, old-school set. So I was taken aback to learn from Joanne Jacobs that debate on the high school and, increasingly, college circuit has morphed into something quite different.
Scholastic debaters no longer aspire to combine erudition and inspiration. And neither do presidential candidates, nowadays. Debate in schools has been undermined from within and without.
The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on "post-modern debate," apparently approved of by many debating coaches as a legitimate approach. The main elements of the post-modern style are incomprehensible speed-talking, and meta-argument:

The policy topic for this year's debates is agriculture tariffs, and typically the team that goes first chooses a specific position to argue. The opening arguments in one round at Towson sounded like a tape recorder playing with the fast-forward button held down.

Elaine Zhou, a senior at New York University, spewed arguments about why the United States should end tariffs on ethanol from Brazil. Doing so would improve U.S.-Brazilian relations, keep Brazil from becoming a failed state that would seek nuclear weapons, reduce U.S. reliance on fossil fuels, and thus help save the planet. The team had clearly done its homework, and Ms. Zhou gave citations for each argument.

But like many other participants, she fired those arguments so fast that the uninitiated might not recognize her sputtering as English. Ms. Zhou had nine minutes to make the first strike for her two-person team. The flood of words — and occasional gasps for breath — ended abruptly after a digital timer chimed that the first part of the round had ended.

Valarea Jones, a student at Towson University, sat at the other end of the table, scowling. She now had three minutes to cross-examine the NYU team. "Why did you make a conscious decision to read as fast as you did?" she asked. And later, "Do you think that debate is multicultural?"
Go read the whole WSJ article above for background (including the weird YouTube connection), but I thought the telling point was this:
This debating style began in the 1970s as a populist movement against the more traditional oratory that had always characterized both college debate and political speechifying.
No, really? The disastrous move in education has always been the one away from "All children must be given the education previously preserved for the social elite" to "What passes for education among the less socially privileged must be considered just as worthy as that given to the social elite." This is populism in the service of the upper classes, who have nothing to lose by praising ignorance and idiocy passed off as worthy learning, so long as their own children are guaranteed a genuine and rigorous education. From steering girls and racial/ethnic minorities into "just as good" home ec and vocational tracks in the 1950's, to lauding po-mo "oratory" in state schools today, educational faux populism guarantees the status quo. And sets up the masses for the first demagogue--who has learned from Cicero and the Lincoln-Douglas debates instead of from Laurence Tribe--who actually knows how to use the rhetorical arts to persuade.

And they'll be all the more vulnerable because they'll have been taught that they're the slick talkers.

2 Comments:

Blogger Sophia said...

That's frustrating.

6:12 AM  
Blogger Sophia said...

BTW, I love that offspring #3 is already chewing on good books!

6:14 AM  

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