Let’s start with a little personal narrative, as that might make this post more resonant for some: Probably my main extracurricular activity in high school was debate. I went to a fancy private school in New York City, and I was part of Junior Statesmen of America (JSA). I did it in 9th grade and was pretty good at it, then I think some of us got busted early 10th grade for drinking on a trip, so I got suspended from it for a bit … came back in 11th grade and was mowing down fools in debates for about six months. Made some good friends through it at other high schools around the Northeast, and then in 12th grade a lot of my non-in-my-own-HS friends were JSA people. In short, it was a big deal for me most of ages 15 to 18, give or take.
I would not say I was a “nuanced” debater and anyone that knew me in that time frame would agree, I bet. I was pretty funny at points and I understand the 35,000-foot level of issues, but not always all the individual elements. I created this character called “Little Timmy” who was always being wronged by things like gun control, abortion, single moms, drugs in schools, etc. I got a lot of wins with Little Timmy because I painted this whole narrative for the audience before I got to my real point. I probably could have been a politician at 16, except I already had some skeletons in my closet by then (and have gotten a few more in the intervening 22 years).
Some of my JSA peeps went on and had actual political (and mostly legal) careers doing big stuff with big, impressive titles, salaries, and companies. They were all inclined to a success mindset beforehand, probably, because mostly this was rich white kids debating each other, but I’d like to think the JSA era prepared them for tougher conversations and back-and-forths of adulthood. I think a bunch of them would admit that, probably. (Because relationships change over time, I cannot say I actively talk to a lot of people I debated abortion with at 15.)
Now we come to the core question: Has debate declined over time? And does that mirror a broader problem in American/global society?
Caveat: I will throw some research into this post, but some of it is also “gut feel,” so I apologize for that in advance. I’ll begin with the research elements, though.
Is debate declining in high schools?
There are a few arguments for “yes,” including this article, the original “Coddling of the American Mind” article, this New Republic article on the decline of debate on college campuses, and this from Impakter.
Why would debate be in decline?
Couple of different reasons I could give you, broadly:
- The Internet: There is no real need to “debate” anything when most people have Google in their pocket. Sports in bars is the greatest example at a low level. You’re in a bar and some dude is like “Who has hit over .370 since Ted Williams hit .400?” 15–20 years ago, people would go back and forth and debate that, guess, try to use logic, remember moments of their fandom. Now some dude at the bar pulls out Google, just says the answer, and it’s over. Is that the same as a HS debate? No. But it requires less conversational back-and-forth, and that’s the broader issue.
- National narratives and Trump: You seemingly “win” debates these days by shitting all over your opponent, or giving him a funny nickname or saying “Lock her up!” or whatever. There is very little nuance to how you are supposedly going to “win” these days. Issues? Facts? Actual knowledge? Those seem to be out the window.
- How schools are assessed: A lot of it is test scores, obviously. While I would argue debate prepares you as a student in many disciplines and helps you with reading comprehension and other testable skills, a lot of times “extra” programs like debate are killed because of funding and because they don’t directly relate to better test scores, at least not in the spreadsheets anyone is looking at.
- Social Media: Easy to blame everything on this, for sure, but on social a debate is usually “Here’s a comment, here’s a reaction, here’s a hot take, here’s me insulting you, here’s a GIF, here’s the end of it.” It’s not nuanced or back-and-forth usually, although admittedly I have seen back-and-forth threads more than people often want to admit. They work well on Facebook (ha!) but on other platforms it’s harder. Obviously no one debates jack shit on LinkedIn because they’re scared of what hiring managers might think.
How does this tie to, say, work?
It ties deeply to work, adulthood, relationships, etc. Everything is about conversational agility, I’d argue. Most fights within relationships are what my man Peter calls “goalpost-moving” fights, where you start on one topic and you’re really fighting about a second topic, and the whole thing is a big debate. You need to know how to navigate those, and if you can’t, it’s hard to have relationships. (I would know.)
Work is mostly about control and relevance, with a dash of productivity and self-awareness here and there. You will consistently encounter people with whom you disagree. You think another strategy is better, a pivot is better, etc. You need to be able to debate and argue the merits of your side in that context. What usually happens? A bludgeon comes down and hierarchy wins. That’s not at all the same as debate, but we get that twisted a lot at work.
Most of your life is about “Hey, I have this list of things to do, and these ideas about what to do next in my day, week, and life.” And then, various people come along — spouses, recruiters, bosses, children, friends, guys at the gym — who disagree with something you’re trying to say or do. You need to be able to hold your position logically. That is, essentially, debate.
So if it’s eroding at the basic levels where it’s taught, do you see how this might become a problem?
What could we do?
Couple of different things, by my count:
- Teach it more in schools
- When we teach it, make students actually do a one-pager of research on their side and turn that into bullet points and “zingers” to incorporate when they actually debate
- Better parenting — fight in front of your kids to model what arguments/debates look like; too many parents do this behind closed doors. IMHO, the only thing parents should do behind closed doors is fuck. Letting your kids watch that is illegal and gross. But … letting your kids watch you fight is fine, if there’s an air of respectability and nuance to the debate you’re having.
- Keep drilling the idea that it’s not about “winning” so much as being prepared, knowing facts, and having a respectful conversation.
- Encourage active listening to the other side of a discussion. Listening in a debate is probably more important than your talking points, but we seem to have gotten away from that.
What’s your take? Has debate declined? And if so, what now?