Should High School Debaters be Forced to Promote Marxism and Leninism?

Should High School Debaters be Forced to Promote Marxism and Leninism?
I was dismayed when I read a recent article in the New York Post titled, “Woke Judges Say There Are Topics High School Kids CAN’T Debate.”

Like many students, I benefited immensely from my experience as a high school debater. In addition to the basics of public speaking, debate helps students learn to think on their feet, look at an issue from various perspectives, use evidence to back up assertions and evaluate the effectiveness of multiple arguments.

In my teaching career, I worked with many such students and took a role in judging many debates. Most young people said the effort was fruitful in their personal lives and enhanced their academic and professional prospects.

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So, I was dismayed when I read a recent article in the New York Post. The title, “Woke Judges Say There Are Topics High School Kids CAN’T Debate,” encapsulates so many of the education system’s deficiencies in the age of political correctness run amuck.

The Nature of a Debate

A brief explanation may be helpful for those who never participated in the event. A “team debate” on the high school level consists of four students, the two pairs coming from separate schools. The debate must be based on some aspect of the national topic, decided by the National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA). The 2023 topic is “Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its security cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in one or more of the following areas: artificial intelligence, biotechnology, cybersecurity.”

Two students—labeled the affirmative—will argue that some aspect of the topic needs to change. Part of their task is to lay out a plan by which that change can take place. The other team—the negative—argues in favor of the status quo. Each student speaks four times during the hour-long process, plus one cross-examination of questions.

One essential aspect of the competition is for students to apply expert opinions to every point they make. For instance, the student might say that “Last year, Former Assistant Secretary of State Horatio Blunderbuss argued that ‘NATO is obsolete.’”

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In many tournaments, the students are to prepare both sides of the debate because the side that each team argues is chosen moments before the event begins. I always had—and still have—a problem with this practice because it forces students to argue in favor of a position in which they may not believe. I hold that this promotes a relativistic view of the world in which the truth matters less than crafting the argument. However, I acknowledge that the counter-argument that this practice forces the debaters to know and understand both sides of the topic does hold some weight.

The Judge’s Role

Although the judges seldom speak to the debaters, their role is crucial. When I was debating, the judge was supposed to be someone about whom the debaters knew nothing. If the judge did happen to know one or more of the debaters, the rules said that the judge should notify the organizers and request a substitution.

There were also certain expectations that the students had of the judges—that they would be objective. As the adult in the room, they would check their own opinions at the door and evaluate the arguments made in the students’ speeches, their speaking abilities, the evidence offered and the other team’s counter-arguments.

That situation has apparently changed. The article’s author mentions that today’s high school debaters can use an NSDA website, “Tabroom,” to gain insights about the judge that they are about to meet.

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Advice or Coercion?

Most of the material is relatively generic. I gleaned the following items from several different profiles.

  • Do what you do best. I will try my best to adapt and be unbiased. I care much more about argument quality than argument type.
  • Don’t claim something is abusive unless it is.
  • Debate is a speaking game where teams must construct logically sound, valid arguments to defend while challenging the same effort from their opponents.
  • I have done relatively little judging/coaching on this topic, so don’t expect me to know the ins and outs of the affirmative’s case.
  • Your job is to make sure you define the framework of the round. Don’t assume I have read your advocacy authors. Spell it out.

Frankly, such a practice holds the potential for more harm than good. The personality and preferences of a particular judge are irrelevant in a situation that is supposed to be about developing students’ abilities. However, this is the Internet Age, and I suspect there is nothing wrong with students knowing what the judges want to see. As long as the advice applies to both teams, any harm would be minimal.

Training Young Revolutionaries

However, it seems impossible for some people not to use the Internet to further their own political views. One such “judge” is featured in the Post’s article. Her name, unlikely as it may seem, is Lila Lavender. Miss Lavender wants to ensure that her opinions will be at the center of the debate.

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“Before anything else, including being a debate judge, I am a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist. I have realized, as a result of this, I cannot check the revolutionary proletarian science at the door when I’m judging…. I will no longer evaluate and thus ever vote for rightist capitalist-imperialist positions/arguments. Meaning, arguments/positions which defend the bourgeoisie’s class dictatorship (monopoly capitalism and thus imperialism), from a right-wing political form. I.e., the politics, ideology, and practice of the right-wing of the bourgeoisie.”

Her position, boiled down to its essential ingredients, is that her opinion is the only one that matters. To disagree with her jaundiced view of the world is automatically wrong. The only tolerable arguments are those that fit into her worldview. The event is no longer a debate but a revolutionary chorus of forced approval. It is the difference between a fair trial and a Maoist Struggle Session.

It is grossly unfair to put students in front of such a “judge.” It is, however, very much in line with the whole “woke” mindset.

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