There are several schools of thought regarding debate, each offering a more or less comprehensive view of theory, strategy, and persuasion. Each insists the others are misguided in one or more significant ways, and compromise between the schools is uncommon.
Adjudicating this dispute would be easy if adherents of one school routinely accrued superior competition records. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. All of these schools have created national champions.
Perhaps this means different schools appeal to different kinds of judge. Perhaps this means personal work ethic, analytical skill, and rhetorical prowess matter more than any kind of training. But too often, we dogmatically assert that our own notions about debate are the one true way and that everyone who disagrees is stupid, evil, or both.
We — we as competitors and coaches — need a better way. We can do better than merely teaching and practicing what worked for us in the glory days, what we feel might be the right approach, or what other people have used well in the past — regardless of whether their success is attributable to their training or not.
The real problem is idea-driven coaching: the idea that teaching debate is primarily about teaching students a particular body of knowledge and helping them emulate the techniques of other debaters.
The real solution is radically student-driven coaching: modifying not just rhetoric and speaker personas but entire approaches to debate on the personality, preferences, and skillset of the speaker in question.
Debate is a universal human project that has endured for millenia. No one — not your coach, not my coach, not even Aristotle or Demosthenes — has said everything there is to be said on the subject.
In part, this is because the central object of debate is people, not theories. Each speaker persuades in their own time. Debate is radically contingent: rooted in the ineluctable time and place of the debater. It is a supremely individualistic activity paradoxically centered around building real, human relationships. You never have and never will win a debate round without persuading a living, breathing human that something you said or did — or maybe just the way you knotted your tie — was excellent.
But if we construct our theory of debate around the presupposition that debate is relational and all humans differ contingent on their time and place, we must also accept that debate theory and technique itself must be radically fluid. It must be as broad and wide and deep as the people who hear it.
To be sure, there are certain rational principles which remain immutable. But debate theory is less about rationality itself (and consequently, theory disputes are rarely about the actual nature of rationality) than how to communicate rational thought in a compelling, accessible manner. And the answer to this quandary has by no means been agreed-upon. Contemporary Boolean logic would be totally unrecognizable to Aristotle, the guy who literally invented syllogistic logic. But they don’t disagree on any foundational principles — rather, they devise different expressive systems for their contexts.
That project is the one debate theorists and coaches are ultimately embarking on. That’s why we foster robust metadebate — debate about debate. The ultimate foundational premise of debate is this: none of our assumptions are too sacrosanct to be questioned.
Our goal is never to hand you weaponry that someone else forged. Our highest aspiration is also not to forge you into forces to be reckoned with. Instead, we are guides. We all climb the same mountain, and no thinker has ever reached the summit. It remains shrouded, and we all peer into the luminous depths in search of wisdom.
Beware any teacher who tells you they have stood on its summit. We are all on the same path, and your best teachers are the ones who recognize that their authority to teach is conferred not by having completed the journey, but rather the fact that they are a little further ahead on the same journey as you.
If you’re a student, this means we want to learn from you as you learn from us. We’re here to provide resources and guidance that’ve been tested time and again in the crucible of competition — but we’re by no means the last word on, well, anything.
If you’re a coach, this means we want to remain in dialogue with you to sharpen us both. Debate is always collaborative, and we want your ideas!
Comment below with your thoughts on debate theory, strategy, and persuasion!