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Editor’s Note: As Isaiah steps down as CEO, Head Coach, and Leader of Ethos, it seems rather prudent to publish this post, which embodies everything Isaiah taught and will continue to teach. This idea of teaching with a lens of “But why?” continues to be the spirit of Ethos. This concept is at the heart of how Isaiah taught students and is at the heart of what Ethos is.

A team I coach via Ethos XL is going to Colorado this week (Editor’s note: wrote this post many weeks ago). We spent a bunch of time prepping to debate for “Colorado judges,” since their coaches got together and determined what debate theory they count and don’t count (even though they say they keep their minds open). This team is national-class, but last year in Colorado lost a round to a well-known debate coach who applied a perceived rule: he voted against them for saying the word “value” in their policy case, even though the other team did not argue anything about this.

But why? Well, because someone several times removed from the designation of value debate as “value debate” and policy debate as “policy debate” assumes that the contrast is between the types of arguments used – values vs. policies.

If they had been asked “but why” enough times, they would have dug in to find that this contrast is actually not the difference between value and policy styles: facts, values, and policies are used to discuss virtually anything. The actual contrast comes from the debatable motions known to propositional logic: questions of fact (interpretation), questions of value (judgment), questions of policy (deliberation). It is from the phrasing of resolution, not naming it “value” debate, that value debate got its name. As such, the decision that “values should not be used in policy” is an incorrect conclusion. How could you make a policy decision without questioning what is valuable? It’s not possible.

“But why” is the heart of learning debate, and any training performed where trainers provide a rule but not a rationale is counterproductive to the goal of debate. Debate is too often taught as an elementary subject, where the law is given by the authorities and memorized by the peons, than as a thinking skill.

Let’s look at the goal of debate, and then why debate should be learned a certain way (dialectically!), and finally how so much current coaching violates the goals of debate.

The Goal: Survey of Mission Statements

What’s the purpose of debate? I have my own ideas, but to establish some common ground, let’s look at some popular leagues and their mission statements.

NCFCA’s – Skills for Critical Thinking and Effective Communication. “…homeschool students develop the skills necessary to think critically and communicate effectively in order to address life issues from a biblical worldview in a manner that glorifies God. …While others may pursue speech and debate for the sport, NCFCA aims to use forensics to teach life skills”

NSDA’s – Skill for Citizenry, Jobs, Leadership. “…communication skills are essential for empowering youth to become engaged citizens, skilled professionals, and honorable leaders in our global society.”

CCA’s – Critical Thinking Skills. “to assist parents who are home educating their children with the development of communication and critical thinking skills, equipping these children to be faithful servants of the Lord Jesus Christ by preparing them to give a defense of their faith to everyone who asks for a reason for the hope that is within them, and to do so with grace, seasoned with salt.”

Stoa’s – Unclear. This mission statement doesn’t actually say what the benefits of speech and debate are. The statement equates “to do more of it,” around the world. As currently written, the mission statement kind of says “we’re not exactly sure why debate is good.” So, unfortunately, we’ll have to pass on a Stoa description of debate’s purpose.

We want people to argue the “but why ” not to merely logically link to some prior rule. It’s the difference between the type of critical thinking that can change things, and the type of lawyer thinking that uses past precedent to ensure everything stays the same (discussed by Alexis de Tocqueville). It’s the difference between questioning an assumption and getting more of the same. Unfortunately, it’s never “the same,” the traditionalists dream, as the original intent is lost and one strays from the mission in even the most dogmatic groups (see “The extended problem of dilution” section below). The originator of a theory will always explain it better than someone to whom it has been explained eight people down the chain. “But why” leads to fresh conclusions on old truths that apply to current times.

Where I’m Coming From: Classical Rhetoric

Depth is counter-cultural. It certainly takes guts to embrace a method that isn’t cookie-cutter, scripted, and boxed. How can you be confident in thinking differently? I think there are three considerations you should take to embrace the classical rhetoric model for debate.

  1. It’s More Traditional

The deeper roots of debate, and my frustration with coaches who honestly believe their 1980s-based debate theory is “traditional,” is behind this post that I consider a must-read for anyone taking or giving coaching.

The short view is this: today’s “debate lingo” that probably felt like a second language to learn is not rooted in classical thinking on rhetoric and debate. Modern thinking turns debate into a subject, but Aristotle opens the Rhetoric by arguing that rhetoric is the great subjectless subject. Its pursuit is not meant to help you “be a rhetorician” (a professional speaker) for a job, but rather to prepare you to think deeper and communicate more effectively no matter the profession.

Therefore, one should reject any trappings of debate as its own subject. Instead, look to its applications outside of debaterland – in business, government, and conversations. One essential here is to avoid debate taking on its own language, but instead to use the language common to all disciplines of life. Such an approach is possible! It’s why I wrote Upside Down Debate, which attempts to teach debate from a “normal language” perspective, so debaters don’t have to work as hard as I did to find transference of their debate skills to the “real world.”

Quintilian, Cicero, and Aristotle – some of the greats of rhetoric – would find NCFCA and Stoa debate unrecognizable, with its need for judge orientations, debate lingo, and expected forms of cases. You can confidently tap into 2,000+ years of knowledge, not just modern distortions of the great art of rhetoric. Join history.

  1. Ph.D. calls “debate theory” a sham

Debate has isolated itself in academia so that it may cheer itself on, even as it embraces more and more specialized audiences, and less and less everyday language and communication techniques.

But at Patrick Henry College I met a rhetoric professor who was willing to look at modern “debate theory” from a historical perspective. He wrote an article on how even calling what passes for “debate theory” in NCFCA and Stoa circles is a glorified title it doesn’t deserve.

The entire purpose of homeschooling is to depart from the norms of education, but in debate sometimes it feels like the blind lead the blind. Here’s a good time to “trust the expert” in rhetoric.

  1. Observation from Real Life

I’m the co-founder/CEO of a startup. This is my fifth small business (not even counting Ethos), and I’ve had the privilege to hire over 25 debaters to government contracting and software businesses in the last few years. In addition, I have consulted for Fortune 500 companies and dozens of global medium and small businesses at the executive level.

Not to brag, but I’ve got legit experience in the world of upper management, executives, and business. I’ve had the opportunity to use skills from high school debate as an analyst whose briefing/reports went to the desk of the Director of Homeland Security, as a consultant working with top of the top at General Electric company, and running company strategic offsites, and process improvements, and action teams at dozens of small businesses through the Fortune 500.

What I’ve observed is this: there are core skills needed in the 21st Century, that are desperately lacking from most people. These include problem-solving, adaptability, researching, communicating, organizing information, identifying the crux of an issue, and managing conflict.

Debate can teach how to handle all of these things. Too often, however, debate teaches none of these, as it blindly deploys forms and structures that prevent the depth in debate required to pick up the essentials.

I want to see more people prepared for the 21st Century, and learning “what” rather than “why” throws debaters into the same general pool as everyone else. Yet, debate is the number one activity I know of that can cultivate 21st Century skills!

Rhetoric-Stage Learning Meets the Goal

Rhetoric-stage learning is different from the elementary fact mastery of grammar-stage, and from the non-integrated subject analysis of logic-stage (dialectic). Rhetoric, in classical learning, is the integrative stage – where all knowledge and skill comes together.

The outcome of the rhetoric stage is someone who has learned to learn. We’re talking about how to think, not what to think. Making independent moral judgment is a key component of this mentality. And that word “independent” is where the ceiling goes far too often in education: we’ll teach you to analyze, but you have to reach the same conclusions that us authorities have already.

John Henry Cardinal Newman, in his The Idea of a University, writes of a classical liberal education…

“…the man who has learned to think and to reason and to compare and to discriminate and to analyze, who has refined his taste, and formed his judgment, and sharpened his mental vision, will not indeed at once be a lawyer, or a pleader, or an orator, or a statesman, or a physician, or a good chemist, or a geologist, or an antiquarian, but he will be placed in that state of intellect in which he can take up any one of the sciences or callings I have referred to, or any other for which he has a taste or special talent, with an ease, a grace, a versatility, and a success, to which another is a stranger. . . . I say that a cultivated intellect, because it is a good in itself, brings with it a power and a grace to every work and occupation which it undertakes, and enables us to be more useful, and to a greater number (U Notre Dame Press,1982, pp. 124 & 6).”

Rhetoric-stage learning is precisely where “but why” is explored.

Dialectical Reasoning Meets the Goal

Searching for “why” teaches dialectical reasoning. Accepting “why” on the basis of authority – some coach or book says so, but the reasoning for the why is not the reason to accept the why – stifles dialectical reasoning. It only teaches to reason around acceptance of authority or not, leading to either righteous (if secret) indignation or joining the herd.

So the fundamental question is this: should teaching debate teach debate, or teach dialectical reasoning? I believe that debate is a subjectless subject (standing here with Aristotle in his Rhetoric), and its value is not in learning to debate but in learning to delve into why, see from alternate perspectives, and set aside prior prejudice for open-minded investigation. These are quality behaviors in an individual that goes into academia, business, church ministry, music, and arts, or any other future.

If you believe like I do that debate is training people for other things, not to merely debate, then you should reject any notion of teaching debate without teaching “but why.”

Facts: Debate Training is Often by Dogma, Norms, and Assumptions

What does it mean to train thinkers? A trainer must be willing for students to think for themselves. Any dogma, unstated rule, or conclusion without premise, violates the notion of training thinkers.

Unfortunately, the debate training industry is rife with such mind-shutting training.

Problem Stories

Get ready. This is kind of entertaining and sad at the same time. I asked for stories of judges from debate, as parents or coaches, applying debate standards that no normal person would even think of, to determine the outcomes of rounds.

Here are some stories:

“…in our first AFF round all year, she voted against us because we “didn’t have solvency for our third harm.” Literally, she didn’t support any disadvantages, and our 1st and 2nd harm-solvencies were basically conceded by the end of the 2NR. We pointed this out and had already explicitly said “Let’s just consider for a second the possibility that we are wrong about our 3rd harm-solvency. It’s irrelevant because they have nothing else against our plan. In either circumstance (we are right or wrong), our plan is still beneficial to pass.” But apparently, she thought that we had to fill some abstract criteria in that every harm we claimed, we have to solve or else we lose.” – Harrison Durland

“My judge voted that ‘you had better arguments, but I counted the number of sources quoted and your opponents quoted more sources. So even though I agree with you, I have to vote for the other team. I just wish you had used a few more quotations!’” – Wants to be Anonymous

“In an elimination round at Nationals, my opponent contested my value of ‘Human Dignity’ because it was too ‘vague’ and replaced it with ‘Human Rights,’ which he claimed was delineated into ‘life, liberty, and property.’ The value clash was obviously absurd not only because dignity and rights are interdependent and practically synonymous, but also because I had defined dignity in terms of human rights. In my 1AR, I explained to the judges how my opponent and I were advocating for the same goal and moved on to address the rest of his case, but my opponent again devoted an inordinate amount of time to the (nonexistent) value clash in his NR. I again reiterated in my final rebuttal why the value clash was a non-issue, but one of the judges voted for the negative because I ‘had dropped my opponent’s value of human rights, and because NEG won the value, he won the round.’” –Joel Erickson

“the best story I have is about a coach who judged me last year in Stoa LD on Developing Countries Rez.  Aff presents a non-prima facie case running Quality of Life and basically talks about Economic Growth being good for six minutes.  I accepted the value and pointed out that she hadn’t proven the resolution true.  So I bit the entire AC and talked about conflict for the whole NC.  What followed was mostly straw-manning, so I left the round fairly confident.   But The judge voted against me on the grounds that the Aff value was accepted and that she proved that Economic Growth upheld it.  Drove me nuts.  Also kept me from a green check.” –Noah Farley

(note: if you can’t figure that one out, the key point is that this judge somehow believed that LD debate is between the values proposed in cases, not the values identified by the resolution and filtered through the values proposed in cases. It’s completely detached from the debate topic. See common debate ambiguities for a deeper explanation.)

“Middle East year we had a round at regionals where we were set to go affirmative. We didn’t use definitions in our 1AC because we thought it took up time better spent on explaining current conditions in the Middle East then describing the physical borders of the region. The entire debate was spent on topicality over the definition of the term Middle East. We had reasons to prefer our definition of the Middle East and the opposition could never really present reasons to prefer their different definition. We lost on Topicality, not because they had a better definition, which would have been fine, but because “the negative team offered the first definition and since their definition was the first offered it is the definition of the Middle East for the round.” –Blake Toman

“A man who judged at every Region 8 tournament one year once judged me. Before the round, we asked about his experience, and he told us he was going to pray over his ballot, close his eyes, and point to a side. They gave him a special recognition at the regional championship for judging so many rounds.” –Devin Radford

Problem Examples – of Teaching

Here are some really quick examples of some things told to students by coaches.

  1. Use this Case Structure – but learn how to make structuring choices that flow from audience analysis and information typing? No… just use this structure.
  2. Stock Issues are Like a Stool – not really at all. They are like a topology.
  3. “Don’t use any standards in policy; just common sense” – what if two people disagree about what’s common sense? How do you sort that out? Oh right… standards.
  4. Any points without evidence shouldn’t be considered – despite flying in the face of academic logic and rhetoric traditions, what “evidence” links to a quotation to a claim? Logical reasoning.

They key point isn’t the advice. It’s that providing a conclusion without the student thinking through the reasoning is antithetical to learning how to think well.

Extended Problem of Dilution

Over time, the problem magnifies. People begin making assumptions about previous assumptions, having not been taught “but why” themselves, yet now in a position of teaching.

It’s too far removed from the source. The original people to voice the stock issues or call value debate “value debate” would likely hotly disagree with how these concepts are used today.

Let’s consider another example: evidence. Many debaters and debate coaches seem to think debate is about “the evidence.” They’re not wrong. The dilution is this: “What evidence did you use for that?” = quotations. The word “evidence” has been diluted to mean: articles you found doing research from which you quote.

But that’s not what “evidence” means. The dilution problem leads debate coaches to say things like “if you don’t have evidence, I’m not listening.” And I end up with students who get all kinds of ballots saying “I agreed with your point, and the historical examples were good, but I couldn’t vote for you without evidence.” And on it goes.

Three reasons to not see evidence as merely “quotations:”

1. The Word Doesn’t Mean Quotations – A standard definition says something like the “available body of facts and information” that can support a point. The analogical reasoning required to say “and this situation is like some previous situation from history, and knowing what we know of human nature, should cause us to be afraid of my opponent’s policy” is to be encouraged, not discouraged. Combining facts from history, information on human nature, and logic to link it to a policy, is a skill worth cultivating – and the diluted view of evidence shuts down all such thinking.

2. Legal Meaning is Much Looser – I just went and Googled [evidence defined legal] and grabbed the first relevant result. Here’s what it said.

Notice how it doesn’t mean “rock solid quotations.”

3. Classical Rhetoric has a “Topic” for Proof – In the common topics (topoi), all the types of topics helpful for different speaking types have been listed out by classical thinkers over the years. I’ve taught myriad debaters to memorize this list, not just to overcome the “that isn’t evidence” in debate rounds (which I’ve had national champions need to do in outrounds at nationals, so glad they knew the list), but to know in life whenever you’re putting some kind of argument together (like this one) that you have a concrete list of types of proof. The list? Quotations/Expert Testimony, Personal Testimony, Logic (yes, logic – how else are you going to even argue that a quotation is supportive of a claim, without inference via logic?), Maxims, Rumors, Historical Examples, Statistics, Precedents.

So, as you can imagine, when I hear a parent, debater, or especially a coach say some kind of “you didn’t have evidence, just a historical precedent” I get pretty frustrated at ignorance. Debate is its own subject for that person and they need to be freed to look deeper – such as to a dictionary, to the legal field, or to classical rhetoric, as in my examples above. But they don’t know they’re doing it: someone called a quote evidence, evidence is what you need, so we just kind of assume that evidence = quotations.

To say “I refuse to listen to reasoning” is… irrational. By definition. And that kind of conclusion is where we get with the problem of dilution.

Dilution has affected: case structures, prima facie, FIAT power, stock issues, disadvantage theory, and so much more. When you free someone from the problem of dilution, they’re able to go much deeper.

Dogmatic Debate Teaching Fails the Goal

What is the benefit of a goals-criterion case structure (which this post is modeled after)? If you’ve been trained in case structures, you likely know that it slowly reveals hypocrisy: there’s a stated goal (how to think) that we share as an assumption, but through factual analysis, we end up finding that what we thought was achieving that goal was perhaps counterproductive.

I don’t use that word hypocrisy lightly.

Training debate as a system of rules, norms, and standards is hypocritical to the mission of training critical thinking. It’s an elementary-education approach to rhetoric-stage learning.

Stop it. 

Ok, how do you stop closing minds and start opening them, with tools and skills rather than conclusions and terms?

Personal Solution: “But Why?”

Figure it out. Ask why and don’t be satisfied with non-answers. That doesn’t mean you’ll get a “why” from the person teaching – so learn to stop pursuing once someone relies on authority rather than substance to defend the position. Keep asking why by talking through the issues with many people, and mulling it in your mind – not pressing someone to admit “I was wrong about this theory.”

When debating to dogmatic people: mask substance in new lingo. Most likely, these people are fixated on certain words because of what they’ve been told. It’s not their fault. But you can pretty neatly assume that they don’t know the real reasoning behind those words, meaning you can convince them of the real reasoning as long as you’re not attempting to overcome the dogma. So change the words to synonyms.

So for years, I have practiced and then taught strategies like this:

  • Need to run a topical counterplan? Call it a “significance objection” and say “we shouldn’t do their plan because the real solution is likely X.” But don’t run X with actual mandates. Example: many added sanctions on Iran/Syria/Iraq in 2003 trade year, but my partner and I believed in lifting them. Rather than CP, we would merely run “engage, don’t isolate – our significance objection is the power of trade.” This helped us around the “non-unique disadvantage” responses since we were now advocating lift the current sanctions.
  • Want to argue from shared assumptions in a policy debate round, and talk about your reasons for believing things, but know your judge is triggered by the word “value”? Call it a goal, standard, objective, policy objective, policy purpose, policy mission, or any synonym.
  • Want to challenge your opponent’s case in LD, but know that your judge expects a “different” NEG case in the NC? Let them know “my case so perfectly matched up with my opponent’s case, even sharing the same value, that I’ll be sticking with the original organization. Turns out we just flatly disagree on each point, so I’ll attempt to show you that my opponent’s own reasoning points to my side.”

Don’t despair! Learning to overcome dogma is a valuable takeaway from debate. Wherever you go in life, there will always be purveyors of dogma who believe they are touting traditions not cultish and stymying customs. There will be fighters of dogma (like me!), there will be destroyers of tradition (not like me!), and then there will be people who still have to get their jobs done (like you!). You need to learn to navigate all those waters, even though we’d all prefer to stick to the purpose-driven approaches to our activities.

Parent Solution: “But Why?”

Get beyond assumptions. If you’re raising a thinker, the reasons – not the conclusions – will be what matter. Parents of debaters often lose their debaters because the parents are communicating dogma while the debater looks for reasoning. Encourage the reasoning at a level of depth and discipline and the truth will eventually be found.

Club Solution: Don’t Start Too Early; Teach Skill not Form

Eschew pre-written cases. Eschew dogmatic debate books. Get real audiences in there.

I’ve had students this year who are third-year students writing their own 1AC for the first time. Making a case is a right of passage to even calling yourself a debater, in my opinion. And novices do it just fine: take a thesis and do your best to prove it true with a couple claims and support for those claims.

Start simple, then build each skill one at a time. Don’t shoot for the moon from the start. 

But… if we’re teaching rhetoric as a rhetoric-stage activity, you probably shouldn’t be teaching it to those in dialectical stage. Here’s my argument as to why, generally, 12 year olds should not debate.

League Solution: community judges, untrained audiences. Do. Not. Become. A. Debate. Audience.

The debate community has eaten itself. And this is the ultimate frustration of coaches who teach skill rather than dogma: too often our students are judged by people “from” the debate community rather than the “normal” people they will communicate and think with the entire rest of their lives. Now being “from” the debate community isn’t the real problem, it’s where the bulk of the problem comes from though: we reward students for “matching the norms” that this group tends to apply (tends to doesn’t mean “always” – there are some freedom fighters in the judge pool), rather than their critical thinking in that moment.

As Thaddeus Tague says, “Debate theory and debate subjectivism in judging is actually one of the greatest threats to persuasive and empathetic communication. Bring in real audiences.

What originally was created as infra- and super-structure (debate rules), meant to guide debate for the audience’s benefit has turned us into a clique of debaters who fail to actually persuade an average joe. Not all the way true, but you get the point

Coach Solution: I’m NOT Saying You’re WRONG

One could easily read this post and think that I think most debate theory is wrong. But see, I don’t. I happen to teach most of it!

But the goal of teaching is to learn to communicate to audiences, NOT to conform. Since 2006, an Ethos coaching principle has been “if we cannot explain to you why, then you should not accept it. And please challenge our why to find your own answer.” As coaches, we often argue with each other in front of students at camps – something many campers have said they find different and refreshing – as we dialectically reason to our viewpoints. It’s much more like a conversation from Plato and much less like a professor’s lecture.

The key point is this: debaters should process the information and reach the conclusion. They may not reach the same conclusion as a coach, but that means that perhaps the premises and assumptions don’t actually point where the coach thought. Now we’re talking about seeing deeper and cultivating that skill of questioning assumptions and seeing their interrelationships as we split logical hairs. That’s skill. Accepting foregone conclusions is not.

So go ahead and teach four stock issues, learn why topical counterplans are probably bad (even I agree that they have the tendency to affirm the resolution), and recommend five parts of a plan. But teach these not as conclusions, teach the premises that lead to these conclusions and led students to engage.

Rather than plugging our ears and singing la-la-la every time we disagree with someone else’s position, we hereby cultivate an ability to see the other point of view. And maybe, just maybe, we find that our own opinions are still our opinions but should be held perhaps a little less dogmatically, since there are some decent reasons that people hold alternative views.

As coaches, that means adopting humility. And that’s a tough road. It’s upside-down to the world of authority = power.

But isn’t that what we’re supposed to model anyhow? I’m saying actually do it: don’t think you’re better than your students; reason along with them to conclusions and continually open your mind to the prospect that you may have made an error earlier. That’s servant leadership in coaching, and it’s the only way to preserve an open mind, which is what debate teaches.

So is This a Fringe View?

Ok, so is this guy crazy? I’m crazy enough to follow Jesus into this upside-down world, and champion the concept of doing well rather than getting ahead, of giving more than receiving, and seeking to maximize others ahead of yourself. So yes, I’m crazy. And I champion doing that in debate: partnering with novices, giving out your case instead of keeping it secret, going the extra mile in research discipline, and training others for free.

So is my view fringe? Well, yes and no. Yes – it’s a fringe view today. No – today’s view is a fringe view in all of history. If all the authors on rhetoric were here to speak, we’d have Jeff Motter, Christy Shipe, Austin Freely, and insert many popular debate camps people on one side, and I’d hope to find myself standing with Aristotle, Quintilian, Cicero, Paul, Jesus, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas on the other. I can’t prove this 100%, but I know that what we coach at Ethos always searches to find its alignment and inspiration from these sources, while many others coach rarely even make the attempt – they’re more rooted in the 1980s or more recent “debatey” thinking from debaterland.

Rather than a fringe view, this viewpoint continues the tradition of classical rhetoric.


Debate should not be about learning the norms and language that some believe are the “right” way to go about high school debate. Instead, debate should be about internalizing the dialectical reasoning process by evaluating “but why.” This cannot be achieved if the process of learning debate is not also subject to the same principle: one should offer reasons, not the authority of the speaker or a tradition, for any debate theorem, leading to internal and individual processing of “but why,” which may lead to a different conclusion than desired.

For what is debate training students? To debate to debaterland, or in the real world. Stop rewarding/punishing people based on their conformity to debaterland, or training will teach to the test and stunt the growth. A whole bunch of people won’t leave Plato’s cave while studying in the very activity that’s supposed to help them climb out. And it will have been the teachers, coaches, and audiences from debate that held them back.


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