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Recreational & Competitive Debate: How & Why Your Teens Should Try It

By Diane Lockman
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #99, 2011.

Time spent learning to debate in high school will be valuable later in life
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Diane Lockman

Organized league debate is a re-interpretation of an old idea that has its roots in ancient Rome. Classical orators like Cicero and Piso regularly challenged each other in formal argumentation during Senate sessions. For example, after the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, these two men entered into heated debate over whether or not Caesar was a tyrant. The legitimacy of Caesar’s rule had a direct impact on the future fortunes or condemnation of the men who perpetrated the murder. Cicero argued the affirmative position while Piso argued the negative. Persuasive argumentation won the round for Piso, and Caesar was eventually deified and the murderers condemned as enemies of the state.

Today, elected statesmen engage in similar argumentation that can impact a nation for good or evil. But debate skills are not limited to U.S. Senators. Engineers debate the pros and cons of an inventive product design; scientists debate the probability of a disease epidemic; and doctors debate the safety of innovative surgical procedures. Attorneys debate the legality of proposed laws; salesmen debate the most persuasive advertising design; and musicians debate the best interpretation of classic compositions.

Effective listening, thinking, and speaking skills are critical to all walks of adult life, so how do you prepare your teens for winsome yet persuasive argumentation? By providing them with an opportunity to practice debate skills whether or not you have access to a competitive league.

Competitive Debate

Competitive debate generally includes one of three different styles: policy, value, or parliamentary.

Policy debate involves two-person teams in which the affirmative position argues for changing the status quo of a current federal policy. Conversely, the negative team argues that the status quo is preferable. Each season, the league issues a uniform resolution that all teams must argue; the policy resolution could be either domestic or international in terms of content. Students then research and create cases to change any number of components related to the policy. To illustrate, if the resolution is to change the U.S. policy towards an independent nation like India, the team could argue to change nuclear, environmental, humanitarian, or a countless variety of other policies toward that nation. Policy debate is heavy on evidence and ongoing research.

Value debate, named after the famous travelling debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in the mid-1800s, requires students to argue that one abstract value is better than another abstract value. For example, do individual rights create a more legitimate government, or does popular sovereignty better meet this claim? Hard evidence is not as easy to find as illustrations from literature and history. In many ways, value debate is more difficult than policy debate, since ideas are not always concrete in application whereas policies are objective facts that can be substantiated with hard evidence issued by governmental institutions. I would argue that every good policy round is really a value debate since subjective values are the engines that drive the policy, but it takes a while for debaters to really understand this premise.

Parliamentary debate, modeled after the rowdy style of argumentation displayed in the British Parliament, is usually seen at the collegiate level. In competitive high-school leagues, this genre involves extemporaneous team debate of facts, values, or policies with limited preparation time. Topics typically come from current controversial news events, such as whether the U.S. should sanction Iran or whether social justice is a moral obligation. Due to the limited amount of time to prepare arguments, this style of competitive debate relies heavily on logical analysis over evidence.

The Canons Summarized

Ethical, Emotional
Least persuasive —> Most persuasive
Prose, purpose, emphasis, eye contact

The Canons of Debate

Just as some excellent collegiate athletes choose to participate in intramural sports instead of division sports, your teen can still practice the tenets of classical debate without a league or club.

Instead of studying formal debate theory, why not teach your child the canons of classical rhetoric?

In the days of ancient Rome, every debater applied five basic canons or rules to every persuasive speech: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. With this basic rulebook, your child can debate any topic (policy, value, or fact) at the kitchen table, in the local co-op, or at mock demonstration rounds for the community.

The first canon, invention, is the process by which your teen brings order out of chaos. All the material necessary for a hearty debate is available through one of two kinds of arguments: discovery and appeal.

Discovery of existing truth involves reading, research, investigation, and testing of data gathered. Examples of evidence to support an affirmative position might include contracts, laws, personal testimonies, or statistics.

Unlike discovery, appeals are created by the debater, and there are three kinds of appeals: ethical, emotional, and rational. The ethical appeal relates to your teen’s credibility; his preparation in dealing with existing truth will increase his authority and confidence which will translate to audience approval. Emotional appeals tug at the heartstrings by evoking empathy, disgust, or alarm; stories are usually the best way to gain an emotional response. Finally, logical, rational arguments that are clear, reasonable, methodical, and authentic add powerful weight to any debate.

Arrangement of debate content is identical to arrangement of a persuasive speech or essay. Your goal in the debate is to persuade the audience that your plan solves the inherent problem. Build your case using the data collected during invention. Order the evidence and appeals from least persuasive to most critical, so that your argument builds to a climax where the audience decision in your favor is inevitable. Include the advantages of adopting your position and cite advocates (experts who also endorse your plan of action) to further solidify your case. Structure the written case so that you call the audience to action by the end of the speech; the action that you want is audience agreement that your position is the best choice.

You are probably already teaching your child canons three, four, and five (style, memory, and delivery). Style involves choosing effective grammatical structures, metaphors, or vocabulary. What linguistic conventions will be the most compelling? Memorizing the initial persuasive speech creates confidence and familiarity with the topic; any number of methods can be applied to commit the content to memory. Delivery involves posture, pauses, emphasis, and eye contact, all of which add value to your persuasiveness as a debater.

Try It! Here’s How

So how does recreational debate work in real life? Ask a friend, sibling, or other adult to debate. Assign your teen the affirmative position, and require a five-minute speech (about 750 typed words) using the five canons of classical rhetoric. Have the friend or sibling adopt the negative position, which means applying the same five canons with special attention towards invention of evidence and appeals that contradict the affirmative position.

First, the affirmative speaker delivers the prepared speech. Then the negative speaker cross-examines for two minutes. Like the leading questions a good attorney asks in a jury trial, short “yes or no” cross-examination questions should lead the witness to the desired result. Next, have the negative speaker rebut the affirmative speaker with a short five minute extemporaneous speech using the contradictory evidence and appeals that he has gathered. Allow the affirmative speaker to cross-examine the negative speaker. End the debate with a final concluding extemporaneous speech by the affirmative speaker, or continue the pattern of back-and-forth rebuttal until you feel that you have exhausted the topic.

Argumentation is a daily component of life, but it can be so much more rewarding if time has been invested in preparing the arguments through discovery of existing truth and construction of ethical, emotional, and logical appeals. Equipped with the tools of classical rhetoric and plenty of regular practice, your teen will be ready to persuade with confidence when real issues of national and local concern come before him. Like Cicero and Piso of ancient Rome, he will eagerly welcome the debate.

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