High School Debate has failed, just like American politics

Interesting viewpoint, in particular:

The problems plaguing high school debate are mirrored in our public sphere. Political discourse is often little more than a game. Its goal is to score political points with witty rejoinders and scathing takedowns. The purpose of “adult debate,” as with debate for 16-year-olds, is to bludgeon your opponent into submission instead of engaging in open-minded dialogue.

Also I love the author coda / mini bio at the end:

Jack McCordick is a freshman at Yale University and a former intern at America. He and his teammates from Regis High School won the high school debating national championship this year.

When building Discourse, we had questions about formal “debates” and I found them stultifying and pointless. The main things you get out of social discussions like these are:

  1. Ideally, and most importantly, empathy from your fellow man. Really that’s it. That’s all you’re supposed to get. Anything else beyond that is gravy.

  2. If you are really, really lucky, the discussion will encourage other people to have slightly more nuanced viewpoints. Changing minds is never gonna happen, at least not where you can actually see it. But nuance matters. Nuance is important. On any problem of substance that people are going to strongly disagree about over time, shit is not easy. And people who think shit is easy are, uh … kind of the problem?

People do, in fact, change their minds… very slowly, then all at once.

Seriously. When was the last time you actually saw someone change their mind? It doesn’t work like that. At all. Minds do change, but you’ll never see it happen. If that’s discouraging to you, perhaps activism isn’t your field.

Anyways, the takeaway here is to

  1. Try to build empathy, even if you disagree.

  2. Don’t present (even if accidentally) an overwhelming show of force that bludgeons people into submission via sheer volume / size.

(So for people that complained about the “why is Discourse nagging me that I’ve posted 30% of the replies in a topic”, and “why is Discourse nagging me that I’ve replied to the same person 3 times in a row in this topic”, well, that’s why we have those warnings, even if @stusser decided to turn them off. But there is still more we could do. For example, we have a bit of an oversight on reply length. I’ve seen people come to my blog instance on the rare political topic and just post reams of text, tens of thousands of words, over and over, in individual posts.)

So it’s an earnest opinion piece.

High school in general is full of this ass backwards mentality. They taught us how to persuade people that our ideas are true but not how to actually find any true ideas. It’s as if the goal of education was to produce students who can score lots of reddit points.

My high-school aged kids would agree 100% with this assessment. But then, I’ve taught them well how to be jaded.

I liked your post and your two takeaway points. As a counterexample, have you ever listened to this radio show?


It’s a debate series that’s scored by how many audience members are swayed from their positions at the start of the show. If only those snotnosed high school kids could take a page from that book.

As long as you can measure it in terms of “how swayed were you”, like as a floating point number range from 0.00 to 99.99, and not “did you change your mind” — that seems reasonable.

Radiolab had an interesting piece on High School debate a while back: http://www.radiolab.org/story/debatable/

I had no idea until I listened to that piece how absurd traditional competitive debating had become. You can’t even understand what the debaters are saying because they are spewing facts and “arguments” at 300 words per minute. The Radiolab piece talks about a movement started by African American debaters at the University of Louisville which challenged the basis and structure of competitive debate as inherently biased.

Edit: Hmmm… Discourse tried to embed that as a Podcast. The link to the summary page is radiolab.org / debatable without spaces

Not HS debate related but relevant and trending high on r/politics today:

India Landry began protesting the pledge last year, her attorney said, sitting down “some 200 times,” according to Houston’s Channel 2 News.

But when Landry was sent to her principal’s office on Oct. 2 for texting in class, she refused to stand for the pledge as it played over the intercom and the principal sent her home, said Landry’s attorney, Randall Kallinen.

"The school secretary said, ‘this ain’t the NFL’ and the principal said ‘you have to stand,’ and she said, ‘no I do not have to stand’ and she was instantaneously kicked out of school,” Kallinen told Channel 2. “They told her she could not come back until she stood for the pledge.”

Landry was suspended from Windfern High School for four days before the principal changed her mind and said Landry did not have to stand for the pledge.

The following day, Landry’s mother filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against her daughter’s school district and principal.

I just listened to that from another source. What I got out of it was the uselessness of formal debate in terms of achieving anything, the ultimate rejection of debate as a form, in favor of empathy. Which was my first point.

My first exposure to High School debate was that first Anna Kendrick movie. That was really eye opening. And my reaction was “This is supposed to be debate?”

The collapse of empathy i think is harder for older generations to understand - it does seem to be at the root of many of the political crises today which seem to have found fertile ground in millennial and sub- generations. Why this is the case is perhaps the real question.

Trying to encourage empathy is a noble goal. I think here at Qt3 it’s a harder sell because we’re (by and large) older and not as adverse to thinking unempathetically and don’t see the point. When you see the rise of alt-right / neo-nazis - and most of whom are young, well off shitheels, the crisis of empathy seems to be a real thing.

OTOH it would be awesome if in your quest to build empathy into Discourse you did it scientifically - which you may have already done, i don’t know. That is have studies that test what techniques in forum software work best rather than rely on gut instinct. The same way FtP games have a whole science of addiction behind them, surely there can be a Science of Empathy. It’s great to have moonshot ideas but if your moonshot involves the world’s biggest slingshot to lift things into orbit, it seems like perhaps less efficient use of time.

I think this is why i’m was skeptical about likes as a basic assumed-to-be-true principle. If the answer to “Be More Emphatic” is Be More Like Facebook - considering how Facebook has turned out - i think the answer has missed the mark.

Now this is debate.


This was because if a team “dropped” an argument by its opponent—if it did not respond to the other side’s claim—that argument was conceded as “true,” no matter how inane it was. Chief among the strategies exploiting this rule was “spreading” (a combination of “speed” and “reading”), where debaters would rattle off arguments at a blistering pace. Their speeches often exceeded 300 words per minute. (A conversational pace is about 60 per minute.)

This is a pretty clear failure of game design that they should have caught early playtesting.

I do think some political problems basically come down to the same failure of the ‘rules’ because they had unanticipated consequences. Civics needs more game designers.