Silencing debate

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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27 thoughts on “Silencing debate”

  1. I will always hate the notion that everyone should get a trophy on a team. Dammit, there are starters and reserves on every squad and you become a starter by beating them. If you don’t a get a chance to do so, that’s just crap.

    1. One of the nice things about cycling. You go fast, you’re going to do well, no matter who ride away from.

  2. Great read; excellent points. Some funny kid raising going on nationwide, where so many think by never letting a child be a loser, they’ll grow up to be a winner. Plus it reminded me of growing up in the Panhandle, and dating girls from Bellaire.

    1. If you learn to quit and give up, you will learn this debate coach’s most important lesson: STFU and do what you’re told.

  3. Barbara Radnofsky

    What a backwards, bad policy to force kids to forfeit a debate round, particularly on the pretext that they know each other and/or can’t get along if they debate. Unlike a knife fight, this is life skill training for peaceful issue/dispute resolution. On any given day, in a debate where ground rules allow each side time and safe opportunity to present their issues, evidence, argument and plan, either side has a chance to win. What a good lesson! You learn to lose, too, having done your best. How foolish to cancel educational activity because adults think children shouldn’t face peaceful resolution of disputes with people with whom they might not get along or people they will see often. I hope you can persuade them to change their policy. BAR

    1. First we have to overcome a bit of institutional knuckleheadedness: witness this email exchange:

      Dear Judy,

      Mark has said he will not communicate with me further; you have not responded to any of the several communications sent by me or xxxx. This is my final request for a meeting with both of you, in person, to discuss the walkover policy. If you choose to continue to ignore our requests, we will make our next request for a meeting with the school administration. We have a right to be heard to have our concerns discussed in person with you, the teachers in charge of and responsible for the speech and debate program.

      Please advise when we can meet.

      And the debate coach’s response:

      I have clearly explained the policy to the class and in my emails. This ends it for me.

      Sent from my iPhone

      1. Sounds somewhat counter-intuitive for a debate coach to be so closed lipped (and minded), but whatever. Hopefully there’s another step up the food chain you can take it…

        1. It’s pretty funny that a debate coach is afraid of debate. I think in cycling circles it’s called being a “wanker.”

  4. The means don’t seem to justify the ends. Sure the coach has the most probable approach to “winning” but what about the experience of debating?
    I sure hope your son gets more chances to debate.
    By the way congrats on your work being published in the Peloton magazine, love the pictures that are paired with your articles.

    1. Thanks! Peloton has sunk to a new low in search of editorial material, and it appears they have finally found me as a result.

  5. Peter Schindler

    Continue to be a thorn Judy’s side. Contact the school board or whomever and do whatever you can to make it uncomfortable for Judy and Mark. These are the type of people who don’t really care what is best for the kids but rather what is best for their perception of what is good for kids. One of the biggest problems with today’s youth is they are not being taught how be be good winners and good losers and that there will always be winners and losers. It is what the real world is all about. School is supposed to prepare our children for the real world but I fear that nowadays it falls far short of this requirement.

    1. I couldn’t agree more. Their actions also show a side of Peninsula HS that many parents criticize and resent: doing things for the “glory” of the school, to the detriment of the actual students.

      1. I agree with what you are saying. But:

        Your first problem is you aren’t thinking like a school administrator in 2014. Most schools are being managed into this place by their districts, and distantly, nationwide testing.

        The schools themselves are now pitched against each other in a battle for “continuous improvement” among other things.

        The thing you can do: work on changes to the rules so the next time, it doesn’t end like this. And you can’t do that emailing teachers.

        I’m reminded of an episode of Community.

        The upside down world of getting the rules changed will make great blog material!

        1. The principal has agreed to meet with us. The actual teachers refuse. Apparently I’m a rude and abrasive person. Who knew?

  6. Here’s an email on the subject from a reader:

    We are slowly killing ourselves with political correctness and misplaced compassion.

    My college debating and speech competitions is one of the best experiences of my life. This is one entry from my “ten favorite teachers” memoir.

    Lee Granell, Cal State Fullerton, Junior and Senior Years, Speech

    Lee Granell was a world-class speech instructor and debate coach who was so highly regarded that he was also employed as a consultant to prominent Orange County Republicans in the development and delivery of their political speeches.

    The most feared class in the Speech department was Dr. Granell’s Persuasion. It was a graduation requirement for Speech majors. Most students put it off until their last semester. I didn’t have to take it, but I entered the class with a grim determination that I was not only going to get an A, but I was going to do it my way. Each student was allotted 60 minutes speaking time to support one persuasive proposition. You could divide the time any way you wanted. I broke mine into four 15-minute speeches advocating space exploration. The first three speeches were the premises of a carefully crafted deductive argument, and the final speech was the conclusion. I practiced the speeches for hours and hours in soundproof music practice rooms. Dr. Granell was the kind of guy who inspired hard work and made it seem worthwhile.

    I was watching the TV news about 20 years after I had last seen Dr. Granell, and there was a story about an aircraft mishap at John Wayne Airport in Orange County. An airliner attempting to land in a rainstorm slid backwards off the runway. Everyone was OK. I was delighted to see that one of the interviewed passengers was Dr. Granell. The other interviewed passengers stammered, misused the word “like” and said “you know” too frequently. When it was Dr. Granell’s turn, he looked directly into the camera, gave it just the right dramatic pause and said, “It was like a Z-ticket ride at Disneyland.” Then he smiled and walked away. The reporters didn’t know who they were dealing with.

  7. Of all the things I’ve read on your blog this one explains the most about who you are and why you write the things you do. It’s like a window opened that we all kinda knew was there, but wasn’t completely sure about. Or maybe I’m just not around you enough. None the less, good luck to you and your son.

  8. Character cannot be developed in ease and quite. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.

    Helen Keller

  9. Great post, thanks! Did four years of debate AND football in H.S. I had abusive coaches in both!!! Loved every minute of it as it made boot camp and Vietnam “easy”.

    Our cycling club ride is WAY more competitive than any race I have ever been in. Elbows fly, guys are rode into the ditch, and foul language is the norm. I love every minute of it tooooo….

    I might add that my behavior on these rides is exemplary but that would be a lie….

  10. Underdogs are underdogs for a reason. They are generally weak, sometimes defenseless and are by definition overmatched by the overdogs. But if the underdog accepts his fate and cowers at the overdog, he will never grow stronger. Moreover, if the underdog never laps at the heels of the overdog, not only does the underdog remain weak, but the overdog himself weakens, as superiority unchallenged leads to complacency and weakness.

    And yeah, sometimes the result of an honest, fair competition is that the underdog, now matter how weak and feeble, manages to WIN the fight, even when surrounded by a pack of overdogs (feel free to skip ahead to 3:00, but best to keep things rolling from there):

    1. Sausage, I want to take a moment to tell you what a beautiful, moving film this is. It moves me to tears every time I watch it several times a day. This is the beauty and the strength and the resilience of the human condition, depicted in a stunning medium amidst incredible struggle and valiant courage. I hope we can all take hope and encouragement from this powerful testament to the beauty of the human spirit. Thanks again for sharing this wonderful, unforgettable moment.

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