The Book Club

Is Style More Important Than Substance? It Is, Actually.

Mark Oppenheimer, age 14, competes at the World Debate and Public Speaking Championships, Reading Blue Coat School, England, May 1989. He made the semifinals in the interpretive reading category; his selection was John F. Kennedy's inaugural address.
Mark Oppenheimer, age 14, competes at the World Debate and Public Speaking Championships

Dear Michael,

I am glad that you enjoyed my memoir, Wisenheimer, especially since we are from different debate planets. It was definitely a labor of love, a shout-out to all the Alex P. Keaton-loving, bowtie-wearing boys and dynamic, Tracy Flick-anticipating girls I debated with. I am certain that if I had gone to your high school, I would have done your kind of debate—anything to find the other kids who might enjoy Scrabble more than soccer, arguing more than drinking. Debate was especially important for me because I never liked science fiction or fantasy literature, which of course is the No. 1 way that nerds find one another.

To recap: My preppy, gentlemanly debate league held one-day “parliamentary” tournaments that frequently required no research, while your gritty public-school “policy debate” league, much more the national norm, spent 12 months on one topic and put much more of a premium on research than on speaking style. Each of us thinks our style was better. You rightly frame the key question as “What is the purpose of high-school and college debate?” You might have pressed me even harder by noting that the National Forensic League, the big umbrella group for your kind of debate, offers a dozen “speech” events, in which glib and eloquent kids can shine, so why not reserve two-against-two “debate” for the research wonks?

I will answer in two ways.

First, I say that the purpose of high-school and college debate—beyond being fun; beyond providing a forum for nerds to mate; beyond being one of many activities, like 4-H and academic decathlon and all kinds of sports, that give teenagers an opportunity to travel and see the world; beyond being a line on a college résumé—is to help boys and girls develop skills that will help them succeed and be good citizens. Those skills, I bet you will agree, would include critical thinking, research, and public speaking.

Policy debate is very heavy on the research side, while parliamentary debate is very heavy on the public-speaking side, what we might call eloquence. A typical policy topic—which, as you note, thousands of high-school debaters study the summer before, at camps or “institutes” with college debaters as their coaches—is something like, “Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially reduce its military and/or police presence in one or more of the following: South Korea, Japan, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Iraq, Turkey.” That is next year’s national topic, and it is obvious that anyone wanting to succeed has a lot of research ahead of her. Load up on the Red Bull and cue the Justin Bieber psych-up mix.

A typical parliamentary topic, by contrast, is something like, “Resolved: Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice,” or “Resolved: The meek shall inherit the earth.” It will help to know that the first is from Barry Goldwater, the second from Jesus, but beyond that you don’t need any special knowledge to argue them. You can cobble together some examples from general knowledge, and the argument’s winner will probably be the boy or girl who comes across as more philosophically cogent, maybe funny or winsome, definitely statesmanlike.

Let me add, because I know you are thinking it, that this kind of topic, at which I excelled, can also be won by a good bullshit artist.

But what it takes to win a policy argument is truly horrifying. As you know, in the last 30 years, policy debaters have realized that the judging criteria are weighted so heavily toward evidence they can win arguments by coming up with sheer quantities of it. (You can read a very good article about this problem, and Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe’s contribution to it, here.) As a result, they have taken to talking very fast—so fast that they can’t be understood by the average listener. Want proof? Check out these videos, taken from major national championships—the moments at 0:37 in the second and 1:15 in the third are particularly priceless—or this scene from the documentary Resolved.

That is what happens when you separate arguing from eloquence. It becomes all argument—but argument as breathless bloviating, not as subtle analysis. And it thus becomes an activity that can be evaluated only insiders, which is why policy debates are judged almost exclusively by policy coaches. It is an entirely hermetic world.

That some skills can be learned within this hermetic world is surely true. But what if we were to pose this question, which reflects the situation that many high schools are actually in: If you want to start a debate program, what particular event should you start with? You could start with policy debate. Or you could start with parliamentary debate. One will certainly teach you research skills but perhaps saddle you with bad speed-talking habits for life; and you can only succeed if you commit to it year-round. The other is lighter on the research but is far more likely to teach you how to give a likeable toast, or a speech to a board of directors, or a political address.

In subsequent posts, we may want to mention the alternatives that the NFL — that is the National Forensic League, duh—offers, like Lincoln-Douglas debate and Public Forum. But in order to keep people reading that far, I will tease them with an answer to your baseball question, about my Yankees fandom. I lived in Springfield, Mass., but was born in New York and came to fandom in 1981, when the Yanks were in the World Series.

As we say in parliamentary debate, I thank you, Mr. Speaker, and I beg to propose.

Yours truly,

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