When I lived in Miami, Texas, pop. 588, I became friends with Dr. Malouf Abraham, who lived over across the way in the big town of Canadian, pop. 2,100. Dr. Abraham was an anomaly in his rough and tumble Texas hometown. He went to college and medical school, became a doctor, and devoted his life to medicine and art.
Dr. Abraham always encouraged education, and seemed to care little about sports in a place where the high school football team was the high temple of human achievement. My kids were young then, and he gave me the best advice about education I’ve ever gotten. “Make them into good students,” he said. “You know why?”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because in the real world, it’s the nerds who sign the paychecks.”
In the school experience, no activity is as cathartic, stressful, educational, intense, and applicable to all aspects of adult life as formal debate. Kids who go through four years of high school debate are changed by it forever. Kids who go through an elite high school debate program often find themselves on the receiving end of scholarships and admission to elite universities. Kids who are derided by their athletic classmates as “master debaters” will go through life never suffering from the number one fear of American adults — the fear of speaking in public.
When I debated at Bellaire Senior H.S. in Houston, the program was run by an opinionated tyrant. Unlike other schools, we were not allowed to attend summer debate camps, or to buy our cases and briefs, or to use materials from other schools. Every piece of evidence we used, we researched ourselves. In 1979 that meant going to the Fondren Library at Rice or the library at the University of Houston, and first learning to use the index for the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature. We had to learn to use the extensive collection of federal government documents, and we had to type up our briefs and cases on typewriters.
The Internet didn’t exist, and Google wasn’t even a gleam in Sergey Brin’s eye.
But the real bottom line to our debate program was our coach’s religious devotion to the principle that in order to improve you had to compete. And compete we did, from September through February, most weekends traveling to outposts as far away as Lubbock, where we would lug our sample cases into rounds and fight, tooth and claw, for primacy in a debate over whether it was better to legalize marijuana or not, whether it was better to provide food aid or not, whether it was better to mine the seabed or not.
Those brawls were as charged with fear, aggression, passion, uncertainty, the humbling of defeat, and the elation of victory as anything I have ever done. So I agreed completely when my youngest son signed up for debate at Peninsula High School. In fact, it was the school’s debate program that caused him to choose Peninsula over the high school that his elder brother had attended.
His first year he competed at a few tournaments and did okay. His second year he competed at a few more, and the high point of his year was breaking into the elimination round at a tournament, where he made it to the quarterfinal round before losing. This year, his third, he broke again at his very first tournament.
That’s when he got the shock. Because another team from his school had also made it into the elimination round, he and his partner would be forced to forfeit to the other team because the other team from his school had won more of their preliminary rounds and had a better record. I was, quite naturally, outraged.
Back in the day when two teams from the same school ended up against each other in elimination rounds, they debated. The better team won, and it wasn’t always the one with the higher ranking. The idea that any team would ever forfeit to another team was incomprehensible, scandalous, beyond the pale. But as I took up the issue with his coach, I learned that it has become common practice to tell kids to give up and quit, to deny the underdog the chance to beat the overdog.
What is inconceivable in track, or in chess, or swimming, or any other type of competition is apparently normal for debate in our corner of Southern California. You pay your money, fight your heart out and then, instead of being given the same chance to compete as all the other kids in the elimination rounds, you are told by your coach to quit.
The reasoning, as explained by my son’s coach, is that it “conserves resources” and “prevents intrasquad rivalry.” The first argument is odd, since the debaters pay to attend, and the only resources that are being conserved are proceeds received by the tournament, which pockets the savings by not having to assign judges to the round. The other justification is crazier — it assumes that debaters, whose sole modus operandi is combat and argument, can’t take defeat at the hands of their friends.
Although I’m no fan of youth sports, especially when kids engage in them to the exclusion of academics and crucial “extracurriculars” such as music, art, or debate, I have to take my hat off to athletic endeavors like cycling, in which kids from the same team go at each other hammer and tong. Some of the best competition I’ve ever seen has been at the Carson velodrome, where teammates in Connie Cycling’s youth program go all out to beat their compadres.
My debate coach was a tyrant and in many ways an abusive guy. He was the debate equivalent of the old school football coach, with this exception. Winning and losing didn’t matter. But competing did. If there was a holy temple, it was revelation of self and the sharpening of skill that only occurs when you pin on a number — in a debate round, in a chess match, on the boards.
Telling kids to quit in any endeavor because there’s someone out there who’s just better than they are, because the underdog has no chance of beating the overdog, says everything you need to know about the person who espouses the policy. Dr. Abraham, in his homespun Texas way of looking at the world, would have had some choice words for this kind of anti-educational defeatism. Maybe he would have said “That debate coach is obviously never going to be a nerd.” If he did, I’d agree.
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