The New York Times Magazine recently ran an article about Liberty University’s debate team (HT: Dappled Things). It has an impressively large budget of $500,000, and its five full-time judges are aggressive about recruiting and training, making Liberty the highest-ranked school overall in several national debate associations.
The article alludes to a difference between Liberty’s debate program and Bob Jones University’s much smaller one—Liberty has debated at least one topic for which BJU decided it couldn’t argue both sides—but it doesn’t mention a fundamental difference. Bob Jones is a member of the National Educational Debate Association (NEDA), a small group that split from the Cross Examination Debate Association (CEDA) about ten years ago.
The Times reporter notices that
Quick speaking hardly captures the velocity of collegiate debate. . . . Only experienced judges — most of whom are coaches from neutral schools — can actually follow the argument. . . . Debaters gulp air like competitive swimmers.
That style of speaking is one of the principal reasons NEDA schools left CEDA. No doubt, being able to “argue” at air-gulping speeds involves skill and the development of certain abilities. However, it’s more of a game than anything resembling typical public discourse. And speed-talking debaters can easily adopt harmful habits, such as relying on jargon.
NEDA tournaments, on the other hand, require that half of their judges be laypeople. “Laypeople” doesn’t mean just anybody off the street; it often means college professors, lawyers, and other professionals. Convincing such an audience requires good reasoning—what Aristotle called logos in his Art of Rhetoric—but it also demands appropriately employed pathos and ethos. Those skills, valuable in professional and academic realms, are often not valued in auctioneer-style debate. No wonder Patrick Henry College, with its heavy student involvement in politics, is a member of NEDA. And it seems odd to me that head coach Brett O’Donnell, who has helped the Bush team prepare political debates, would train his debaters in a style far removed from that of public persuasion.