The Lost Discord: the Moribund Art of Honest Debating in High School

Apr 20, 2021 by

Do high schools still have debating teams?  Perhaps in name only, as most combat sports are forbidden, and debating would be the bloodiest of them.  That’s because there’s so little sportsmanship in the rivalry of ideas.  
Advocates of adversarial viewpoints would do well to monitor the porch of my house during the dead of night. Different species of outdoor creatures appear there, looking for food.  Occasionally they have chance encounters and may engage each other, as would debaters. 

You can almost feel their concentration as they do a risk-benefit analysis to assess the relative dangers of being torn apart or being famished to starvation. 

Should they attack, bluff or retreat?  Will they go all out for the prize or postpone gratification and live to fight another day.
Whether it’s red meat or the triumph of a proven principle, it’s still a battle.
So far, my night visitors have worked out their issues.  After warily posturing, sizing up distances, and displays of body language imprinted unto them by Nature, they depart none the worse for wear before sunrise, having found the balance between rationality and instinct.
It’s too bad that debates over food for thought cannot be so amicably resolved these days. It’s all about name-calling  and pigeon-holing one’s opponent shouted with ear-splitting decibels. 

Gone are the days when one could, with civilized language, be at each other’s throats contesting the problems of American democracy and still show sportsmanship. It used to be almost universally-observed etiquette form opponents to respect each other at the end of a match, as they do in the brutal cage-fights. 

 Instead, in discussing many topical issues currently besetting our nation and the world, every assertion strikes a raw nerve. Technique of argument is lost in the haze of indignation, tenacity and intolerance. To be on opposite sides of an argument, it’s at least necessary to occupy the same astral plane of thought.

Debates do not change the world.  It’s uncommon that they even change minds.  But they are cerebral war games of persuasion and they encourage intellectual craft and self-discipline.

Debating, like football, is sublimated war, but debating is rougher and the bruises don’t go away. 
The spirited high school debates I had many years ago about the Vietnam war and the civil rights and labor movements could not be sanctioned today, because the fisticuffs would be literal.  The oxygen of civility would be absent from the chamber. 
Too much polarization.  Too much sloppy thinking.  Too much ungoverned, raw emotion.. Too much vanity. Our schools today are more likely to be prisons of entrenched mindsets than bastions of free thinking.

When I was a student during the peak of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, one of the most popular electives was an entertaining class called Problems of American Democracy.  We’d play “devil’s advocate”, practiced role-playing, took up positions that were sometimes dead serious and other times tongue-in-cheek.
Points were scored on the merits of the arguments presented, despite the partisanship of classmates and teachers.It was clean, sometimes sophisticated, occasionally guttural fun and it made us more sophisticated and less suspicious of the motives of the competition and of “isms”.

I miss the etiquette of jousts over the great issues of the day and the storm and stress of contention and conciliation.

Debating has been mostly limited to high schools, but even in elementary schools, a formerly common assignment has fallen on hard times for the same reason. It was the “Current Events” homework and class review.
Kids would locate and select a news item of global, national or local significance, summarize it and answer specific questions about it contents. They also responded to classmates’ comments about it and there were fairly dynamic exchanges of subjective analysis.

The current events assignments sharpened a range of skills, such as locating main ideas from a passage, understanding the concept of textural content, and thinking about events, people, and the environment of ideas. 

Summarizing the current events-related article gave kids practice with sentence structure, vocabulary, and the mechanics of expression.

Around two years ago I surveyed teachers about whether they still do current events assignments in this way.  “Too much a hot potato in these times”, was a typical response.
Whether on the high school level with debates, or the elementary school current-events assignments, the conclusions expressed by students tends to be far more passion-driven than fact-researched. Hardly any scope for shades of gray. 

There is scant patience for differences of opinion.  The interpretation is set in stone even before the material on which it should based has been studied.  It’s like the tail wagging the dog.

Debating is a lost art in our schools. Maybe that’s preferable to its being a Pandora’s box.
Ron Isaac

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