Thoughts From A Debate Tournament

I judged several rounds of debate at the Heart of America National Forensic League District tournament at Liberty High School in Kansas City this past weekend with my friends Carl Werner and Rick Puig, both former Kansas City public forum debaters; they also own DB8Zone, producing quality LD and public forum briefs.

My high school debate career was 4 years of policy for Parkway North in St. Louis. Later on I debated at the University of Missouri-Columbia, where I spent 2 years debating policy on the NDT/CEDA circuit. Curiously, for some time I was involved in, through which I met, virtually speaking, Phil Kerpen. I had many great conversations with Phil over the years and he has an exceptionally sharp mind, though he is far more radically libertarian (dare I say conservative?) than I am.

At this tournament I saw some interesting rounds of value debate (Lincoln-Douglas) over the topic of jury nullification. Debaters on this topic tended to make extreme arguments, getting away with claims like ‘jury nullification overturns entire bodies of law’. That’s true when multiple juries nullify multiple trials over the same issue with the same law, but doesn’t generally exist in the more common and likely example of juries nullifying specific trials on a one time basis. I thought the argument was generally stronger in favor of the affirmative on this topic, though I did vote negative in one of these rounds.

Policy debate results were mixed. I think I judged all three teams who qualified to nationals, and was fairly impressed by one. They ran an affirmative expanding Medicaid reimbursement to midwives, making an argument that the existing restrictions on reimbursement excluding midwives constituted a meaningful and illegitimate restriction on women’s reproductive rights, linking it to larger claims about biopolitics and governmentality. The negative made arguments about topicality, federalism, and the economy. The level of debate seemed fairly comparable to St. Louis debate and the debaters seem to know what to do when they recognize that their judge is familiar with the structure and language of policy debate. I do remain concerned about the short and intermediate viability of policy debate teams particularly in the state as school districts face budget shortfalls.

The sole public forum debate round I judged was the break round to nationals (a 7-judge panel). The topic was affirmative action. I believe I was the only judge with any policy experience, and also the only judge to vote negative in a 6-1 decision for the affirmative. I’d voted on a framework argument advanced in the initial speech by the con side making the claim that we should evaluate oppression and inequality from a class-based, not a race-based, perspective. I’m not sure I can claim to have made a correct decision, but I found it curious that I was the only judge in the round that evaluated that framework.

I am hearing good things about debate in Missouri this year. More high school teams are traveling and receiving TOC bids, and the team at Missouri State did fantastically well at the NDT last year. I don’t know if my anecdotal sample lets me come to any conclusions about how vibrant the circuit remains, and it’s hard to comparatively evaluate teams from this year against teams I remember. I find good argumentative development and not a lot of strategic development, but that’s generally true of high school debate in all years.

After the entirety of my experience, I conclude the the single most urgent problem facing debaters is the lack of consistent quality judging at tournaments. It is a hard thing to get qualified former debaters to high school tournaments, mostly because they’re in college and the short distance they’re willing to travel is inversely proportional to the amount they get paid. I am gratified to see several former debaters continue to be active in the activity, coaching and teaching debate at high schools, and I am gratified to see the restrictions on competition imposed by the Missouri State High School Athletics Association ease after years of diligent pressure.

The other problem facing high school debate programs is the one no one wants to talk about. Where does the funding come from in rocky financial times?

Thought: do any charter schools offer debate programs?

Oh, and if any former debater or interested person is interested in judging at state and national qualifiers in the upcoming month, information on tournaments is available on, here.

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