Friday, April 11, 2008


When I was in High School I did debate, two-man policy. I was pretty good. My partner and I took 2nd place in the State Tournament and qualified for Nationals. There's a lot of stories in this area, but that's not the point of this post. It's to talk about my #1 daughter's fledgling debate career. First off when you've done debate, or more broadly argued in a structured environment you have a tendency to be annoyed with arguing in a more unstructured way, even though you still enjoy arguing otherwise you wouldn't have been in debate in the first place. This can be kind of frustrating. But it maybe even more frustrating when someone pretends to have implemented the structure of a good debate, but when you look closer it's only facade.

So obviously I was pretty excited when my daughter started doing debate. This actually started last year, and she was doing pretty good. But I quickly began to suspect that something was rotten in Denmark, if you will. Last year the topic was alternative energy, this year the topic is pollution. Now I'm not saying those aren't good topics. But because of the limitations of elementary school debate it ends up being more of an exercise in indoctrination than an exercise in rhetoric. For one at the elementary level you don't have the time or the experience to really do a policy debate. As in the affirmative taking a very specific policy stand ("The US government should spend 5 billion dollars blanketing the southwest with windmills") Instead you end up with more general "Alternative Energy is Good" or "Pollution is bad" positions as part of the affirmative plan.

Another limitation is that a student must choose to be always affirmative or always negative. In high school debate you trade off. Half the time you're the affirmative and half you're the negative. This more than anything else is the real benefit of formal debate. Being forced to defend both sides of an issue is an exercise I think every student should have to go through. Combine these two aspects of the way they've set up elementary debate and you've got a huge number of people who want to be affirmative, and you've put the negative side at a serious disadvantage. Guess which side my daughter ended up on? Oh yeah, negative.

Rather than having the advantage of picking apart a specific plan, they basically end up having to take the unenviable general position that pollution is good, or alternative energy sucks. And most of their arguments devolve into a quasi-libertarian "the government shouldn't do anything". Now that is a pretty strong position all by itself, but it still paints them into an unenviable corner, and leads to, I believe, a fundamental imbalance at the root of the entire set-up...

No I'm not living vicariously...


Blogger aozora said...

It is standard fare to insert certain social and political agendas into school curriculum in Japan. The English textbooks for eample are full of "leading"/"leaning" conversation examples. It is a slippery slope. I'd go rattle the PTA cages now if I were you.

The lack of comments recently has more of an influence from the continuing day-job than the blog contents. A couple high-stress overnighters really shakes up the priority perspective.

5:57 AM  
Anonymous Ed said...

I was always fond of the "Tu quoque" or the "Mater tua" argumentation, myself.

(Lat: You too! and Yo' mama)

4:46 PM  
Blogger Liz said...

I checked the district website, and our daughter will not be going on to the state competition. I'm hoping she's okay with that, especially since it means she can participate in the school jump-a-thon.

1:52 PM  

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