Most simplistically, debate is the exchange of arguments. Each side will advance a number of arguments that are related to a given topic – as spelled out in more detail in a resolution – and then will answer their opponent’s arguments throughout the debate.
The goal of the constant argumentative sparring is to produce an answer to the question of whether or not the plan in particular, should be supported. The affirmative will advocate supporting the plan and the negative team will argue that the plan should be rejected. At the conclusion of the debate, a judge will decide which side has prevailed based on the arguments made in the debate.
Developing arguments in support, or in opposition to, the plan, requires a number of general steps.
Advocacy. Advocacy involves making your arguments in a given debate. You need to present arguments in a way that will convince the other judge to accept them and consequently vote for you.
Inquiry. Inquiry involves research. Debaters do research on the resolution under discussion in order to be prepared to present specific knowledge in support of what they are arguing for, and to refute the arguments that are being made by the other side.
Invention. Invention involves creating arguments and will be necessary if you wish to become a more advanced debater. During the process of inquiry you will discover arguments that have been made by others, and you will often take the arguments of your opponents and make many of those in your debates. Invention, however, is the next step – creating your own arguments based on your reading.
Synthesis. Synthesis is being able to organize and combine and package a set of arguments in a way that supports an overall conclusion. Such a synthesis may involve a recognition that some of your opponent’s arguments may be correct, but that the negative or affirmative position is still overall the one that should be accepted.
Learning the process of inquiry, advocacy, invention, and synthesis will be a challenge. You will start your debate career simply advocating basic arguments in a debate with other inexperienced students. The goal of this stage of debate is simply to develop some basic advocacy and refutation skills.
Your participation in basic advocacy will encourage you to develop an inquiring mind because you will want to learn how to defeat your opponents’ arguments. To defeat stronger and stronger opponents you will need to invent your own arguments and eventually learn to synthesize a combination of arguments.
The main reason that the process of inquiry, advocacy, invention, and synthesis is so challenging is that it is a process of active learning – it is about you creating arguments, figuring out how answer the other sides arguments, and creating a synthesis of arguments. It is really not about simply obtaining knowledge from a teacher and then demonstrating your mastery of the content on a test. It is a new way of learning – one that you may very well may not be familiar with.
Hopefully you have a teacher or coach who can help you through this process, but even if you do not you will be able to succeed. Many students without one have done so, but it does require drive and determination.
Many adults say that debate was one of the most, if not the most, important educational experiences of their lives. John Sexton, the President of New York University, has noted that, “Admissions could go to the quarter-final round at any of the top debate tournaments in the country and admit the students that were in that quarter final round. … Put simply, the education the folks are getting in debate, if they’re doing it at the highest level, and doing it for the right reasons, is unmatched.”
Studies have shown that debate improves critical thinking skills, enhances reading comprehension, improves note taking skills & research skills, and boosts information management abilities. Jeff Parcher, former coach of Georgetown University, produced a comprehensive assessment of the available literature. A number of testimonials from administrators, teachers, and students are also available — #1, #2, #3
Successful people with debate backgrounds can be found everywhere. Supreme Court justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito both debated. Thomas debated in college at Georgetown and Alito debated in high school in New Jersey. Former President Clinton was a high school debater in Arkansas.
Many of my contemporaries from my college debate days in the early 1990s have gone on to quite amazing careers. Neal Kaytal (Dartmouth 92) just won a ground-breaking Supreme Court case related to the protection of the rights of Guatanamo Bay detainees. Neal is a law professor at Georgetown, where he is a colleague of Rebecca Tushnet (Harvard 94). Neal was assisted in the case by Tom Goldstein (UNC 92), who has successfully tried a number of cases before the Court and teaches Supreme Court litigation at Harvard and Stanford Law schools. Eun Young Cho (Harvard 2001) also assisted Neal. Mark Wilson (Dartmouth 95) co-founded Apian Software with his high school debate partner Michael Beckley. Mark and Mike both attribute their business success to their debate experience.
Glen Greenwald (George Washington, 1990) has recently published a best seller – How Would a Patriot Act, and has developed one of the most popular and interesting blogs on the internet. Glenn is a former litigator in New York City and successfully started his own constitutional law firm. Most of the research for Glenn’s book was done by four of his blog readers — an attorney, the president of an information technology company, blogger Dave Johnson, and Dave Harris, “a sophomore at Michigan State University and an assistant coach for Okemos High School’s debate team.”
Wake Forest University is the home to one of the strongest college debate programs. I coached there as a graduate student from 1994 to 1997. Many of the debaters I worked with during that time have gone on to interesting careers. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross (97), National Debate Tournament champion, is a graduate of NYU law school and a full-time terrorism consultant and the author of a forthcoming book on his involvement with inside “radical Islam.” His debate partner, Brian Prestes (97), is a litigator in Washington D.C. John Hughes (96) just finished a clerkship for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. His former debate partner, Adrienne Brovero (95), is the Debate Coach at Mary Washington College
Debate not only produces, but also attracts, incredibly intelligent and ambitious individuals who are intrigued by the processes of inquiry, advocacy, invention, and synthesis. If you are reading this text, you have an incredible opportunity to be a part of an amazing peer group that you may not find any place else.
Regardless of the level of competitive success you achieve in debate, you will always be a part of a community of debaters that will provide you with innumerable opportunities. One of my assistant coaches last year, Alex Marcoplous, just finished his first year of law school at Tulane. He was interviewing in New York City at one of the leading law firms in the hopes of developing future job prospects. Debate stood out on Alex’s resume, and one of the interviewers explained that she was a former debater from New Orleans who had won the Lakeland District’s debate tournament a number of years ago. They spent most of the interview talking about debate, and Alex was called back for a second session.
In the course of developing an incredible skill set, you will have a lot of fun. Debate affords you opportunities to travel and interact with some very talented individuals from your city, your state, your region, and throughout the entire nation.
It is difficult to write a debate textbook that neatly orders and organizes debate instruction. All students who use this book receive a different amount of instruction before attending their first tournament, will receive instruction that emphasizes different types of arguments, and will bring their own unique set of skills to the table when preparing.
With that in mind, there are two things worth emphasizing. First, there is only a very minimum amount of knowledge that you need before you participate in your first tournament. If you understand the material in chapter II, you will at least be able to debate at your first tournament. Second, the earlier you debate the better. Debate is an active learning process, and you will not begin to see what is involved, or be able to take advantage of most of what is discussed in this book, until you have debated at least once – either in practice or in a tournament. The earlier you are able to debate, the better off you will be because you will be able to understand more of the content of this book if you have debated. Every debater you speak to will give you that piece of advice.
Third, reread sections of this text as you gain experience in debate. The more experience you have, the more that what is written here will make sense to you.
Fourth, complete the review questions. The questions aim to capture the essential issues that are being discussed in the chapters. Many of the review questions are best answered in a discussion either in your debate class or in conversation with other debaters.
- What initially promoted you to sign-up for debate?
- Identify one of the people discussed in the “Why Debate?” section. Explain how you think debate may have benefited him or her in his or her career?
- How do you hope to benefit from your participation in debate?
- Do you have any friends that are currently involved in debate? What do they describe debate to be like?
- Have you ever participated in any form of debate?
- Have you ever watched a debate? If so, what are some of the things about the debate that you remember? What side do you think won the debate you saw? Why?
- What are the four essential general steps involved