James C. McCroskey and Donald W. Klopf

Pennsylvania State University and University of Hawaii

Most of us have heard the story about the elders of the medieval church who became embroiled in a disputation over the number of teeth in a horse's mouth. Unable to find a copy of Aristotle's works, they turned to the classics for the answer. A novitiate in their midst intimated that they could go to the stables, open a horse's mouth, and count the teeth for themselves. After a severe chastisement for suggesting such an indecent, unscholarly activity, they banished the unfortunate one from their membership and returned to their search in the classics for an answer they never found.

Today the "elders" of the debate coaching profession seem to be reacting like the medieval church elders on the issue of what constitutes worthwhile primary debate evidence. They, too, want to avoid looking in a horse's mouth.

Primary evidence, like interviews or letters, has won general acclaim among research and public speaking text writers as the best evidence for settling an issue. Auer states this position:

We commonly distinguish between primary and secondary source materials, and emphasize the desirability of uncovering the former.1

Brigance adds his support:

Whenever possible, go and see for yourself or write and find out first-hand . . . If you need specific information that others have first-hand, often you can get it by writing a letter.2

Crocker emphasizes the value of primary evidence:

The public speaker often denies himself a fund of useful information by not writing to agencies and authorities in the field . . . One wants to know more about a particular phase of the problem and discovers that only by writing to the author of other articles can he find what he wants.3

McBurney and Wrage view the excellence of primary evidence in terms of probable audience reaction:

. . . if you can report from "the horse's mouth," the audience is likely to attach higher importance to your report than it would to second-hand statements.4

Debate coaches, however, would cast aside these suggestions, if the results of a study recently completed by the writers are truly representative.

Five hundred fifty-eight of the nation's college and high school debate coaches were surveyed regarding their attitudes toward the ethics of forty practices which can occur in academic debate.5 The coaches were asked to decide whether each item was (1) ethical and good debate procedure, (2) ethical but bad procedure, (3) ethically questionable, or (4) unethical. One item included which concerns primary evidence was: "Using personal letters as evidence." We expected this item to be overwhelmingly supported by people trained in public address and debate. The reverse was the case. Eight-six percent of the high school respondents and 72 percent of the college respondents considered this item unethical, questionable, or bad debate procedure. In short, a vast majority opposed the use of personal letters as debate evidence.

Most debate text authors appear to disagree. Huber, for one, endorses the use of correspondence to obtain support material and infers that it is acceptable to use it in debate. He says:

When particular information is needed and a personal interview is out of the question, one may gather information by writing either to authorities in the field or people working in the area with which your proposition is concerned . . . letters will be helpful in gathering materials for analysis, for understanding the audience, and for obtaining good support material.6

Freeley does not specifically recommend the use of personal letters as evidence, but his approval is implicit in his treatment of correspondence. He tells us that:

Correspondence is often a fruitful source of information . . . [most organizations] are willing to answer thoughtful letters asking intelligent questions in the area of their concern.7

Braden recommends writing authorities and asking their opinions.8 We assume that if the authorities reply, he would not oppose the use of that reply in debate.

The strongest and most direct statement in favor of this type of evidence is provided by Ehringer and Brockriede. The state:

Consultation with experts through correspondence or interviews, when properly planned and conducted, often proves unusually valuable. It is a source of information too little used by most beginning debaters.9

Perhaps two practical concerns cause the coaches to oppose the idealism of speech authors on the use of letters as primary evidence. The first is fear of fabrication. Certainly, personal letters can be forged. But secondary source materials also can be forged. In fact, fabricating evidence cards would seem to be easier than fabricating those personal letters which are written on letterhead stationery. A few years ago one of the writers urged a debater to use a personal letter written to him by a noted labor law authority, which exposed frequently distorted evidence from this authority's often-quoted book. Unfortunately, the first time the debater used the letter to point out how the authority's views were being distorted, the judge berated the debater for the usage of unethical evidence, even though the letter was available for examination.

The second concern seems to be the belief that personal letters are not available to all debaters and, as a consequence, those who use them have an unfair advantage. Certainly this may be true. But nothing prevents all debaters from obtaining such primary evidence if they choose.

These concerns over the use of personal letters would be reduced or eliminated if this method suggested by Newman would be followed:

Personal letters are admissible as evidence, since their authenticity can be verified by the letterhead and their credibility attacked; but they must be submitted to participants requesting to see them.10

We believe the time has come for coaches to reevaluate their position on the use of this evidence. Securing this type of primary evidence, like opening the horse's mouth and actually counting his teeth, is sound research technique. The use of material gathered in this fashion should be encouraged in debate.


1. J. Jeffery Auer, An Introduction to Research in Speech (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959), p. 29.

2. William Norwood Brigance, Speech; Its Techniques and Disciplines in a Free Society (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1961), p. 199.

3. Lionel Crocker, Public Speaking For College Students (New York: American Book Co., 1956), p. 198.

4. James H. McBurney and Ernest J. Wrage, The Art of Good Speech (New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1953), p. 122.

5. For a complete report of this study see "Ethics in Debate," Journal of the American Forensic Association, Vol. 1, No. 1, (January, 1964), pp. 13-16; "NFL Debate Directors' Attitudes toward Ethics in Debate," The Rostrum, Vol. 38, No. 5 (January, 1964), pp. 5-7.

6. Robert B. Huber, Influencing Through Argument (New York: David McKay Co., 1963), pp. 70-71.

7. Austin J. Freeley, Argumentation and Debate (San Francisco: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1961), p. 44.

8. Waldo W. Braden, Argumentation and Debate, James H. McBath, ed. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1963), p. 71.

9. Douglas Ehringer and Wayne Brockriede, Decision by Debate (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1963), p. 38.

10. Robert P. Newman, "The Pittsburgh Code For Academic Debate" (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1962), p. 10.

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