more metathinking

Continuing from yesterday….. as I said then, I was really taken by the discussion of the connection between reading and thinking.  Then I was on YouTube the other day looking for something very serious and work-related when I thought "Hey! I bet they have debate videos on youtube now.  I will go look for some." 

Weirdly, they really don’t.  I mean there are some videos up there but really hardly any and even those that are there are very rarely showing actual competitive debates.  Which is interesting – why would that be?  It’s a pretty visual thing, and the people engaged in it are pretty much standing in one place and indoors so it would be easy to film.  Are there concerns about cheating?  About giving your opponent an unfair advantage?  Is the idea that debate is somewhat ephemeral or in the moment – that what you say in a round will to some extent stay in the round an inherent part of the culture?  I mean, the idea of instant replays in debate sounds pretty horrible to me – debaters’ capacity to relive the same round over and over again without video is pretty frightening.  I can’t imagine that any round would ever feel truly over if you had the capacity to let armchair critics revisit and re-judge it over and over again. 

But those aren’t actually the questions I wanted to ask here.  I did find a few videos – and this one was a little bit interesting.

That’s the final of the 2004 NDT – Michigan State over Berkeley.  A result I have to give you because the video itself isn’t all that good and cuts off right before the winner is announced. Clearly, it’s not interesting because of the video itself; what got my attention was the comments.  First, that there even are 100+ comments on a mediocre video about an arcane activity like academic debate.  But more than that the tenor of the comments – mostly those that are displaying on the first page.

As someone who was on the fringes of collegiate debate for a long time (my own experience came in high school where I was pretty successful but not really technically skilled) I have certainly heard these types of reactions to the very technical, very fast debate shown here.  But when I read these in the context of the many discussions Shaun and I have had recently about the need for liberal education, the conversations Kate and Sara and I have had about the thinking/ learning connection in the context of research and writing, and the thinking/ reading discussion I was having in my own head yesterday — these really struck me.

First we have edfehrman — its too bad that "debate" has become much less about making a good argument and the strength of your reasoning as has now become more about who can unleash the greatest volume of words, regardless of their content. No wonder logical discussion is in such short supply in our culture.

Now this really isn’t too bad.  I would probably counter that competitive debate has never been about making a good argument so much as it has been about making a winning argument.  But at the same time, I don’t really think those things can be separated.  To do so would suggest that one could make an objectively "good" argument totally separate from its intent, and its impact on the audience.  These video debaters are making their arguments in front of an audience they know well, in a way that is familiar, expected, and valued by that audience.  But still, my knee doesn’t jerk when I read this comment.  Probably, I’ve heard it too many times in my life for it to have much of an impact.

That brings us to sixlbs9oz
who says — "I agree with daytraderaz– this kind of debate doesn’t have anything to do with persuading normal people with watertight arguments and compelling rhetoric– this kind of debate is called "speed and spread" by debate teams (not all of whom do this kind of debate exclusively). I guess it’s interesting as an academic exercise, but it seems like an Ivory Tower hobby to me."

Again, this starts out totally familiar.  As if this kind of debate even wants to have anything to do with persuading normal people with watertight arguments.  As if watertight arguments alone are enough to persuade normal people of anything.  As if there is an objective standard of watertightness that we can use to decide whether or not we normal people are persuaded.  As if – all of that. 

No, what I find really interesting here, and a little bit depressing, is that last part of the statement.  That this is just an "ivory tower hobby"  – what does that even mean?  Because sixlbs9oz seems to understand a few things — s/he seems to understand that these debaters ARE performing for an audience.  And s/he gets that this specific audience both has the overt power to decide how effective this rhetoric is by giving a win or a loss in the round – and that this specific audience likes this kind of debate.  S/he seems to understand that this performance is built upon a ton of work, and that there’s some thinking going on there.  And yet, it’s just an ivory tower hobby.   The cognitive, rhetorical, critical thinking skills – these apparently won’t matter at all outside of the academy. 

Thanks to the reverse chronological order of YouTube comments, we only now come to  daytraderaz
comment — Only academics could come up with a system that if [sic] absolutely no use in the practical world.

Now, there’s been a lot of fights in debate over the years.  Actually, that’s not entirely accurate.  It’s more like there’s been the same fight and it’s happened a lot of times.  People worry that excessively technical debate – most of the time "excessively technical" can be read to mean "excessively fast" — is moving the activity too far away from practical skills. and that the activity should place a higher premium on a persuasive vocal style and the ability to turn a moving phrase.  Rules are changed, new leagues are built, new forms of debate are adopted.  Eventually, the debaters start to push at the new rules, and the argument begins again.   

And I’m not sure what my point is here except to say that this idea of debate having value only if it teaches transferable "real-world" skills is not just an us against them thing — debate people do this too.  Sometimes it is because they see something they value being lost in the activity.  But sometimes, I think it is because they take the daytraderaz’s of the world a little bit too seriously.  If the activity becomes so specialized or technical that the average person can’t see the value of it – then there must not be any value to see.

And this is where I get sad, and worried, because don’t you feel this happening in higher education?  A lot?  I think we frequently work under the assumption that the average person sees one value to a college education – and that value is all tied up in the ability to get a good job.   And I’m not saying that’s not a valid assumption.  At the very least, a whole lot of our students seem to come to us with the idea that the good job is the carrot they’re chasing.  But when we try to shift our focus to that value alone – to inculcating only those skills and characteristics that point directly (and measurably) to the "good job" — then we risk losing a lot. 

Because of course there’s more going on in academic debate than meets the eye.  I don’t think anyone would deny that the most obvious physical skills needed to win the NDT – the ability to flip a pen around one’s thumb and to talk really, really, super fast — don’t have a lot of real-world utility.

(Though I have gotten through a lot of awkward small talk situations because of the pen thing.  I’m just saying.)

But I don’t know many people involved in debate, even those who were not exceptionally successful, who think they got nothing out of the activity beyond an ivory tower hobby.  Instead, they argue that while the actual debates themselves might have been jargon-filled and specific to that context, the skills gained by doing the activity translate to almost every other context.

As a former female debater, I still take note of women who succeed in this very patriarchial activity, so I know that Greta Stahl – the woman in the video above – was not only a national champion debater, but she was also an honors student, and a Marshall Scholarship winner.  I’m guessing that some of the same skills that led to success in the debate venue helped her out in international relations?  I’m guessing that her ability to analyze, to research, to build an argument, to evaluate information, to find new ways to approach and attack a problem …. even practical things like controlling nervousness during public speaking …. that all of those things might have been honed and sharpened during academic debates.  And that they might have helped her succeed in all those other venues.  I don’t know Greta Stahl at all – but I still feel comfortable guessing that because those things are true of most of the academic debaters I know. 

And I have long thought, even though I was not a technically skilled debater myself and I would have benefited greatly from arbitrary rules set up to prevent others from using their technical skills against me, that debate as a whole should focus on all of those benefits instead of trying to turn the activity into something that a "normal" person can understand.  Because those under-the-hood skills are not just useful, they have actually been far more important to me in life than any practical public-speaking skills I developed.

And college too, is about so much more than measurable skills that employers say they want.  If that’s our goal – guaranteeing employability — we’re just measuring our students by someone else’s standard.  And by a standard that would call everything about college that doesn’t directly and obviously and measurably point to a good job nothing more than an "ivory tower hobby."

And that really, really scares me.  When the kinds of things that are not obvious, that happen behind the curtain of the academic performance — critical thinking, analysis, evaluation, creativity — become something that only a particular class of people get to do, when thinking itself is something that only those ivory tower freaks get to play at – we’re obviously the worse for it.   

Note:  if you want to look like a very cool debater, don’t start with the talking fast thing.  Start here:

One thought on “more metathinking

  1. Great post. I have never been a good debater, perhaps it takes training. I can talk fast but not always think fast. However I think of Aristotle who observed that audiences are often (perhaps more and more often nowadays) persuaded by emotion not by logic. So a logical and fast debater is relying on logic, which is not what motivates most folks. Otherwise advertisers would quit using photos. Smithsonian magazine in October 2007 has an article on “In the name of the law: how to win arguments without really trying” by Richard Conniff. For example, Conniff mentions someting called “Godwin’s Law” which “holds that the longer an argument drags on, the likelier someone will stoop to a Hitler or Nazi analogy” (128). Conniff doesn’t mean real, i.e. trained, debaters, but average folks. And aren’t the average folks the ones in my class?

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