Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Debate camp flashbacks and lessons

In anticipation of tonight's third and final presidential debate, the New York Times has an article titled "Debate Camp," which triggered memories of the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school when I went to debate camp. I was in high school debate, and I debated for two years (and lettered in debate - how geeky is that?) before dropping out senior year to make more room for other activities (like newspaper and theatre - how geeky is that?).

I actually was thinking about debate just last week because I caught up with fellow high school debater and friend Jenell Williams Paris, who was speaking at the Ancient Evangelical Conference. Her talk on the church visible as good, bad and ridiculous is available online here. Excellent material - she argues that the church as the continuation of God's narrative necessarily includes the good, the bad and the ridiculous, and that all of these are integral elements of the plot and drama of the Christian story and our own stories, with all their character development, conflicts, plot twists and surprise endings. It echoed Kevin Vanhoozer's talk from last year's conference about the gospel as drama. (Speaking of Vanhoozer, I finally got a copy of his Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, which is an absolutely stunning compendium of multidisciplinary scholarship. I looked up the article on poststructuralism, and it had me at hello. Seriously.)

Jenell and I went to different high schools in the same debate league, and we debated against each other numerous times (she was very good). We got to know each other because we were in the same lab group at debate camp. I figured out that she was a Christian because she had Amy Grant tapes, and back then only fellow evangelical church kids had Amy Grant tapes. We reconnected years later because both of us wrote for the late, great Regeneration Quarterly and we bumped into each other at a Vine conference in 2000 and have kept in touch via the blogosphere and Facebook ever since.

Anyway, all this made me reflect on how much being in high school debate league has shaped my worldview and perspectives. First and foremost, I learned how to structure an argument. "Resolved, that the United States government should adopt a policy to increase political stability in Latin America . . . Contention 1. Harms. Contention 2. Inherency . . ." I find that how I organize and structure books now draws much from the flow of debate cases - you establish the significance of the topic and the harms/problems at hand, and explore the reasons that the problems are not being solved. Then you introduce your plan for addressing the problems and demonstrate how your plan achieves solvency, yada yada yada.

I also learned how to research, and I recall many long hours in the library making photocopies of the Congressional Record and clipping quotes as evidence to be cited from notecards. I learned how to think on the fly and write a rebuttal speech while listening to an opponent's speech. I learned how to tie a necktie. I learned how to talk fast. Well, I already talked fast, and debate made me talk even faster.

A side effect of being in debate was a tendency to frame everything in terms of argumentation, and I came to disavow this default setting later on. In fact, one of the reasons I quit debate was that I got tired of it being so adversarial all the time. It's exhausting, and some of the rhetoric of this current election season reminds me of those debate modes. Nowadays I'd much rather work more collaboratively in discussion rather than argumentatively in debate.

But I also learned from high school debate that basically every argument has some degree of merit, and every position has its strengths and weaknesses. No policy or case is ever fully right, or fully wrong. During the course of a debate tournament, we would regularly debate the affirmative side in a case one round and then debate the negative side the next round. We would routinely need to marshal our own best arguments against ourselves. We would have to learn how to argue for and against various positions, regardless of our personal beliefs on the issue. This didn't make us all relativists; rather, it taught us critical thinking skills and helped us learn to weigh the merits of every position and line of argument.

I think being trained in high school policy debate has made me more skeptical about absolutist claims from either political party or platform. Theorist Richard Paul talks about two kinds of critical thinking: "weak" critical thinking is only able to employ critical thinking against opposing viewpoints. But "strong" critical thinking is able to be self-critical and to examine one's own positions. As such, strong critical thinking usually leads to greater epistemic humility and is less dogmatic. As Esther Lightcap Meek puts it in her book Longing to Know, there's a difference between certainty and confidence. Absolute certainty is unlikely, and an impossible standard. But confidence is a more biblical way of thinking about things.

At any rate, I've been thinking about some of these things during the last presidential debates, and I'm sure they'll be on my mind tonight. I'll be looking for the candidates to move beyond the talking points of their stump speeches and to employ critical thinking and analysis, not merely attacking or deconstructing their opponent's positions, but also demonstrating epistemic humility and awareness of the complexity of the issues.


elderj said...

I never went to debate camp, but I was involved in debate and it was fun and tiring for all the reasons you mentioned. I used to always be the pro affirmative action, pro divestment from south africa, pro choice debater up against all the anti kids who all seemed to be Alex Keaton look a likes.

The presidential debates are much more boring, much less thoughtful and don't show any real complexity of argumentative

Ed said...

Very nice post, Al. But having said all that, watching the presidential "non-debates" must drive you batty! "No, John - that wasn't the question you were asked... Um, Barack, you just skipped the entire argument he leveled against you. What about that?"