Liberty, Ethology, Pathology?

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.


  1. Interesting! I had talked to Dr. DwWitt Jones about the article, and he filled me in on all the differences between the various organizations that you mention. I told him it was a great example for my journalism students of not giving the full story. The article did shine an unflattering light on the Liberty debate system. Like you, I’m amazed that they continue in that particular style. (and Dr. Jones also says the one thing the article says about BJU isn’t accurate in any way… so even that one point is off track in its comparison between the two programs.)

  2. If you want a sad example of this kind of abusive debate occuring on a high school level, check out the video at

    Though this is Lincoln-Douglas format (supposedly created in part to emphasize the communication elements of debate), it bears striking similarity to several policy rounds I have also seen.

    As someone who has judged high school debate (and a little bit of college), this kind of public speaking is pitiful. It has bascially no educational value in my opinion.

  3. What!?! So you don’t think that a debate should be decided by which side talked the fastest and read the most evidence cards? Shocking.

  4. I was a Liberty Debator up until this semester and there are definite benefits to Policy debate. Although it is an accurate description to say that Policy debate is much more of a “game” and not a purely rhetorical excercise there is definite rhetorical value in the practice. Even though our style of speaking is not used in modern everyday life or political life it teaches us to understand and process information so quickly that it makes public speaking seem extremely easy. Several times a year we do have much more “Traditional” debates in front of the student body and just last week several members of the team competed in the rhetorical James Madison Debate tournament and had a team in the final round. Personally I believe that all styles of debate are valuable and promoting rhetorical competition in any form is a worthy undertaking.

  5. Having judged various sorts of debates over more than twenty years—including the who-cares-if-anyone-can-understand-this sort—I wouldn’t do another “air gulper” if you paid me. As for Liberty’s decision: verily, they have their reward.

  6. Two points:

    1. O’Donnell is headed for an ethical trainwreck with comments like, “[Home-school debaters] put a big emphasis on good manners. I’ve got nothing against manners or praying, but we want to win.”

    2. The “postmodern” debate approach mentioned in the NYT article has real possibilities, as in: “Judge, we’ve been taking about global warming for sixty minutes, but our opponents from Bob Jones University reject all legitimate science by maintaining that creation occurred just a few thousand years ago. We urge your vote for the affirmative on that ground alone.”

  7. I’m on BJU’s intercollegiate debate team, and Dr. DeWitt Jones (our coach) told us about that NYT article. As a matter of fact, the article is incorrect that we refused to debate a topic that Liberty did. O’Donnell says, “the topic dealt with the right of privacy. That means, among other things, abortion. The question arose, can we let our students argue the pro side of the case? Some conservative Christian schools decided that they couldn’t argue both sides of certain issues. Bob Jones University wound up dropping policy debating.” That is a gross error. Because the topic was privacy, not abortion itself, we did not have any problem debating it — we simply ran a non-abortion affirmative case and didn’t have any problem debating negative against abortion cases. It was not until later that we left CEDA, and as you pointed out, it was due to debate style, not ideological problems with the resolutions.

  8. I very much appreciated Scott Buchanan’s distinction above. I must admit, however, that the notion of any modern school of higher education refusing to argue the opposing side when challenged sickens my stomach and pains my conscious. As a corollary to that point, any debate team policy that permits debating of the opposing side of the privacy issue but prohibits the arguing the other side on the sub-issue of abortion is equally offensive to the collegiate academic intellect.
    Perhaps I should assume readers would read between these lines to grasp the underlying point that — the point of college, particularly any intellectual (or, after just witnessing film clips from the national collegiate debate championship on UTube just moments ago which led me (propelled by shock and via Google) to this site,

  9. … [whoops, sorry for the premature hitting of “send” (which undoubtedly led to spelling errors and incomplete clauses)]….

    Anyway, the purpose of the collegiate academic environment is to instill learning through enlightenment within a broad and pluralistic setting, where all ideas, arguments and suggestions are considered. Anything less undercuts genuine intellectual training and compromises the collegiate education. Bob Jones University’s position does not surprise me… then again, I’m not sure I would ever accuse that particular institution of ever have been guilty of actually cultivating, rather than brainwashing, the minds of its student body. Hillsdale College, which actually has the nerve to label itself a “liberal arts college” (e.g., a school dedicated to intellectual enlightenment in the liberal arts, as opposed to one limited only to fostering “neo-conservative arguments falling within those subjects encompassed within the liberal arts”) comes just short of such criticism.

    With respect to this new method of debate [the only reason I felt compelled to Google collegiate debate technique was to determine whether I had just witnessed some SNL spoof] I am left nauseous at the manner in which some of the best orators of our academic youth are being stripped of their inherent talents. Why would one ever extend praise to a debater who managed to pack more information in her argument than her opponent when demeanor is lost and her words made wholly inaudible??? Do not any within the academic debate world understand the essential purpose, talent and effectiveness of concise speech?? Is not the true gift of debate persuasiveness?? Should not persuasiveness (which obviously assumes clear, well-reasoned argument) be the prioritized reward?? Indeed, if not, what is “debate”?

    After the Harvard team rested their debate, I internally begged for that old debate moderator in the movie Billy Madison to respectfully respond to both of them, “Thank you team Harvard, at no point during your mindless utterances of sound could one noise be confused with any intelligent thought… and I can honestly say that this entire room is now dumber from having been forced to listen to it.” Perhaps that’s just a trial lawyer upset at the apparent historical occurence that on one foggy night in Cambridge, MA a mob of Sotheby’s-trained-auctioneers pillaged Harvard Square, “86’d” the current debate team and brainwashed their own new breed of pupils.

  10. For Brian: I am a student at Bob Jones University. In fact, I happen to be a political science major with an ancient Greek minor. I can vouch for Bob Jones University in that the teachers teach all sides of every debate. However, Bob Jones University assumes something that no state school or few other private schools assume. That assumption: The Bible is the standard for our actions and our eternal destiny. Just look at the creed. Most institutions of higher learning operate with the assumptions that you outlined. However, that is not to say that Bob Jones is wrong by virtue of the fact that it does not agree with the assumption that everything (including one’s morals, convictions, and beliefs) are to be shaped by debate. There are “rights” and “wrongs” no matter where you look in any society.

    As for the “brainwashing” thing: I am personally tired of listening to arguments against Bob Jones University with so inaccurate information about the university that if you were to put it up online, the students themselves would not know the place being spoken about. Having said that, the students at Bob Jones generally (and by that I mean about 90-95%, maybe more) enter the university knowing its stances on issues that pertain to theology and how it is lived out. Personally, I did my research three years ago as to whether or not I should go to BJU. I am a Hispanic-American Baptist born in the Dominican Republic, raised and trained in between Manhattan’s Washington Heights and Harlem. Even I knew where I was getting into by applying to BJU and it was the only place I applied to knowing very well that my grades and SATs could have put me in an excellent school in New York State and elsewhere, a school with probably more credibility in the academic community’s eyes than Bob Jones. However, that was not the deciding factor in my application. It was how the school lined up with the Bible. The students here know where they are going as well. Therefore, it is hardly brainwashing. To brainwash someone, they have to be unaware of the fact that they are being brainwashed.

    Every student is taught in the classes through the lens of the Bible. If the student does not believe the Bible to be the Word of God, then they are in the wrong place, just as anyone would wonder about a person that does not want to read a textbook for a class in any university and fails the class. The Bible is taught in every class and every theory is put up against the Bible, taken literally and by its own merit, to see if the theory stands.

    What taking the Bible literally means for evolution: All things considered (Hebrew and Greek grammars), evolution and theistic evolution are highly improbable, so improbable most people that take the Bible to be literal wouldn’t even be talking about it.

    What taking the Bible literally means for abortion: Murder is wrong, period.

    What taking the Bible literally means for living according to what you preach: Let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” be “no”. In other words, don’t mince your words. Live according to your convictions. A person that believes that the crime of murder is wrong and supports abortion in every case because of a “right to privacy” based on “penumbras” and flying goats is not subjecting his actions to his mind, and therefore is called a hypocrite. What that means for Bob Jones as an institution: we will not mince our words. We will not take a position the Bible does not take and in fact is explicit against.

  11. So it looks like this article has been commented on at least recently and I couldn’t help but stop and respond. I debate for Liberty University and there are some characterizations here that just need to be corrected. First of all it is true that college policy debate happens at high speeds. However, incomprehensible speech is never encouraged. In fact the best teams often are both incredibly fast, but when listened to sound every bit as eloquent as any good public speaker. Furthermore, it seems to me that praising NEDA debate because it is slow lacks an understanding of college debate. My first question is why do only 6 to 10 universities participate in NEDA (this is using figures derived from their list of member schools at their website). While Ivy league schools participate in ‘fast style’ debate and schools number to more than 100 universities. The real question is that there are other ‘slow debate’ organizations such as the APDA, British Parli leagues, and the NPDA. Each of these organizations draws competition from a myriad of quality universities. It seems to me that Liberty participates in a rigorous organization that draws the best schools. I don’t know about anyone else who is reading this, but when you go to an evangelical school you are already looked down upon. For us to isolate into our own debate league from the nation’s premier institutions seems to counter the purpose of being a credible school. That doesn’t mean we should embrace morally repugnant arguments as the previous poster said BJU simply just didn’t make those arguments, which proves we can participate in an honest way with these other schools.

  12. True, CEDA may require speeches to be intelligible (i.e., the words can be individually understood), but they do not require them to be comprehensible (i.e., at a speed comfortable for listening) to the average listener. I agree that it would be ideal if NEDA had more schools of greater academic reputation; however getting away from those schools was not why BJU left CEDA and helped start NEDA (which, incidentally, used to be much larger than it is now, even publishing its own academic journal). The fact is, BJU left because of a growing tendency to favor quantity of points over quality of discourse — a tendency which has since grown into standard practice. Furthermore, those alternative debate associations you referenced may bee larger, but they are parliamentary debate groups — an entirely different format from CEDA or NEDA. BJU wanted to continue to compete in standard cross-examination policy debate, but with a style that focused on persuasive public discourse.

    The change in emphasis for CEDA over the yearsis not just BJU’s claim: it’s recognized by many outside observers. For example, see this page by an economics professor out at California State:

  13. So my first response is that I did compete in the NPDA and NPTE when I debated for the University of Wyoming, and to say that this form of debate is nothing like policy or that it doesn’t have similar qualities is very wrong. Our team competed dually in NPDA and CEDA. Also the claim is made that CEDA has been getting faster and this trend is what drove BJU out of CEDA. However, high speed has been present in CEDA since at least the 1970’s and this is documented at the NDT websites in its own history and testimonials.
    I think another point also needs to be clarified it seems that the claim by many posters is that some schools use speed to beat their opponents over the head because they can’t keep up. However, going to a CEDA/NDT tournament would reveal that EVERY team in attendance is very very fast. Being fast in itself does not win very many debates especially the higher division you are in. There has also been a recent trend to value clarity (that is the ability of the listener to understand the speech) rather than absolute speed.
    Furthermore the claim made in that paper about CEDA is far before the NDT/CEDA merger that occured 11 years ago now. Also it seems that there has been a great discussion from the July archives of of whether or not CEDA has accomplished its aims.
    My final response is that you say it is unfortunate that NEDA has lost participants over the years but it was once larger and more prestigous. This still does not answer the fundamental question that this organization has only attracted a very small number of universities and does not have the competitive diversity of any of these other organizations. From the stand point of the original article it seems that the claim is CEDA/NDT style destroys speakers persuasive abilities. However, watching a CEDA/NDT debate might be hard for a layperson, but these debaters do incredibly well in slower style debates. As was pointed out above Liberty as well as many CEDA/NDT schools participate regularly in other more standard forms of debate and these events have always been well recieved and do demonstrate the transference of skills.

  14. I don’t think that speed is a good reason to claim for leaving CEDA. There are multiple teams in CEDA that compete at slower speeds. Take Fullerton for example, they’re incredibly successful and as far as I know, they all speak slowly. I was in a round at North Western against a Fullerton team, and they asked my partner and I before the round if we would not speak fast. We agreed, and so would most other teams. Surprisingly, the debate community is usually willing to accommodate peoples needs/preferences.

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