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I recently went with the PHC team to NCCFI (‘Christian Nationals’) and judged about 11 rounds of debate. My favorite was quarterfinals in parli where it was Grove City on GOV vs. Pt. Loma on OPP (same team that won the tournament). Both teams had one ex-NCFCAer (Kelsey Winther and Dan Nadal) and more than just being good debaters, they all knew A TON about EVERYTHING — which is what debate is supposed to cultivate. Their content knowledge outpaced their formidable debate knowledge and put everyone else who tries to imitate the “best” debaters to shame.

Does this guy know more than you? Yes. Does he talk like a debater? No. Is he still right?

I was hearing arguments like “the commodity prices of tellurium (a mining component in solar panels) don’t link to your DA because State-run vs. private business demand for tellurium is different. Here’s an example of that… (blah blah) so China does not link to this DA. Let’s move to my second no-link argument…” I could go on, but basically the whole round was a pile of really specific content knowledge from four highly educated people who knew everything from economics to science. It was also fun to watch (so many speed/theory rounds are WORK for the judge rather than enjoyable).

The best debaters are unbelievably good at debate theory (form), but only because they have researched, studied, and know enough to use the form as a tool to organize and present their content. Content is still king. Wannabe debaters who practice speed breathing, subpoint everything they say, and use lots of theoretical arguments, when they don’t know squat about the subject matter — these are the sophists. They are learning a TOOL without knowing what it is actually for or how to use it. They are what is wrong with debate.

I’ll share a story quickly from my high school debating in the past. California was always talked up as the best debaters (I debated east coast and midwest only before attending nationals in NCFCA). But I think the best debaters there were masters, whereas the vast majority were arrogant about their theory but knew little about the topic and how the U.S. Government works. So at nationals we hit 4 CA teams my first year and 4 again my second year. We lost to Chris Heggem and Rajan Trejan in round 6 at the first nationals, fighting for 1st seed. We had some very even debates with other teams, and maybe won one or two that we shouldn’t have. That’s not the point I’m reaching…

Most of those rounds were funny experiences because we would run a disadvantage off of one long card and they would respond with “there was no given link, no given brink, and no separate card for an impact, so it’s not a disadvantage.” The round would devolve into this kind of debate where we would say “but look — there is a clear cause and a clear effect mentioned in the card, and our opponent’s case corresponds to the cause mentioned, so of course it is a disadvantage!” And we would get ballots from experienced debaters saying things like “the neg didn’t have all the theory points laid out, but the content of their argument established a clear link, brink, and impact, and of course was a disadvantage.”

As you seek to become an excellent debater, evaluate what you are imitating of the advanced debaters (the best ones, the ones you respect). Are you modeling the forms of their arguments (printing off weird Biodiversity K’s that you don’t actually understand, but can read off and get the theory of), or are you modeling the content of their argument (researching, understanding biodiversity, and putting that forward even if you don’t have the perfect form)? There are very few teams who have mastered both. Add to that a third element of presentation skills, and there are even fewer master debate teams who can successfully use the forms to convey content in a persuasive and enjoyable communication style that makes you WANT to listen to them.

Are you pursuing content or form first? Form is a way to present content, but content is king and often tells its own story and creates a form for itself. Sometimes debate theory is a way to make content that doesn’t really fit somehow fit, whereas that content which truly has a place in the round almost needs no debate theory. The beauty of debate theory then becomes: discovering what tools you need to present the crucial information you already have. So let information drive your process and then you can innovate, learn the WHY of theory, and really become a great debater. If you let THEORY guide the type of information you pull in, limit your process, and limit your innovation, then you will limit your ability to truly learn what debate has to offer. You may strike the correct notes of the symphony, but it won’t be music.

[Disclaimer: This is not a California bash: Please note this is not a California bash. You can’t even typify teams into what states they are from and therefore better or worse. Generally, individual teams are better or worse and some amazing ones have come out of CA, which tends to have as many debaters as the rest of the country combined. I use this example because the FALLACY that any state is better or worse plays into the overall point I’m making. I have to use CA in this instance b/c that is what is in my experience and I am, after all, telling a story… okay? It’s just a story. Dan Nadal, my example of goodness here, is from CA both in NCFCA and now in college.]

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