One of the most intellectually rewarding and challenging parts of my life has been my participation, in high school and college policy debate, first as a competitor and then a coach. Unfortunately this is an activity that is poorly understood by non-debaters because it is a hyperspecialized, academically rigorous activity. The popular impression is that people argue in some sophisticated, rhetorically eloquent format. While this is true, it is an inadequate characterization of policy debate, especially college policy debate on the NDT/CEDA circuit.
It is true that the best debaters argue in sophisticated, elegant ways. But policy debate has also evolved in some ways that make even sophisticated, eloquent argumentation inaccessible to the general population. College policy debate specifically is an activity that promotes hyper-specialization in the technical aspects of debate. Most noticeably, the existence of a stable judging pool has allowed debaters over the last 3 decades to increase their rate of delivery so as to maximize the argumentative potential of the round. Coterminously, college debate has also developed incredible intellectual diversity and any varsity level debater of merit has the ability to fluently argue a staggering amount of topics with very little in-round preparation.
What this functionally means to you is that college policy debate is an activity where competitors speak at speeds of up to 250-300 words a minute. Very few non-debaters can comprehend, let alone understand, speech at that speed. But this is only a matter of familiarity; I am told that the human brain can theoretically comprehend speech input that is twice as fast. Here is an example. This is the second speech given by a negative team (in this case, from the University of Iowa) during a debate round against an affirmative team from Harvard.
If you watched that speech without being able to distinguish more than a couple scattered words, play the video again and focus. Don’t worry about understanding initially; let your ear get attuned to the rhythm and cadence of the speaker and you’ll start being able to form a coherent impression of what he says. His speech is a finely structured, efficiently presented set of arguments that are impressively developed with both cited evidence and intricately developed analytical arguments. This is the part of debate that is most like pure science, with its hyper-specialized nomenclature and development.
Yet in a grander sense debaters who are able to perform at this level are also very multidisciplinary thinkers. To be a good policy debater one must be able to incorporate an understanding of the technical aspects of argumentative structure with an understanding of a very broad set of positions and the ability to adapt to accelerated communicative norms. And let us not forget the intensive research load; by the time a debater has spent 2 or 3 years competing seriously in college policy debate, they have done work equivalent to a masters in international relations or domestic policy.