An Answer to Professor Thomas

James C. McCroskey

While not being able to claim the privilege of intervening in the debate over debate recently begun in The Forensic on the basis of being an "innocent bystander" as did Prof. Thomas (Forensic, March, 1962), I believe that to let Prof. Thomas' opinions go unanswered would tend to make all of us "innocent bystanders" to an almost completely invalid attack on the foundations of educational debate. This paper is intended as a reply to this attack.

What Prof. Thomas is proposing is, in essence (although he does not call it this), an abolition of educational debate and the adoption of substantive debate for tournament use.

Why do I say that Prof. Thomas is proposing abolition of educational debate and the adoption of substantive debate? To answer this we must first define the terms (as any debater would tell you). Austin Freeley in his recent text Argumentation and Debate probably provides us with the best explanation of the two. Dr. Freeley states, "Debate may be classified into two broad categories: substantive and educational. Substantive debate is conducted on propositions in which the advocates have a special interest; the debate is presented before a judge or audience with power to render a binding decision on the proposition; and the purpose of the debate is to establish a fact, value, or policy. Educational debate is conducted on propositions in which the advocates usually have an academic interest; it is presented before a judge or audience usually without direct power to render a decision on the proposition--indeed, in educational debate the judge is instructed to disregard the merits of the proposition and to render the decision on the merits of the debate; and the purpose of the debate is to provide educational opportunities for the participants."

From this we see that debate in legislatures, courts, civic meetings, television, etc., is substantive in nature. Here the people debating and the people listening are intrinsically involved in the decision that will be made in regard to the resolution. On the other hand, debates in tournaments and in debate clubs are educational in nature. Here the people debating are merely using the resolution as a means of developing and displaying their talents in the effective use of argumentation. The audience is interested in the debate primarily as a debate and is not necessarily concerned with the topic itself at all.

Now let us turn to Prof. Thomas' suggestions and see (if I may use some debate terminology) whenever they are either necessary or desirable.

1. No debater should be required to defend both sides of a proposition. It is interesting to note the way Prof. Thomas states this position--that no student should be required to defend both sides. I know of no debate instructor who does require students to debate both sides. If a student firmly chooses not to debate both sides he then either chooses to debate only in tournaments with one-side debating or doesn't debate at all. In all parts of our country, there are plenty of one-side tournaments [and single or home-and-home debates] to enable a student to obtain adequate experience this way if he chooses. Thus, the students who debate both sides choose to do so; they are not forced to do so.

But even if students were forced to debate both sides, there would be no harm in it. In fact, it is very beneficial to do so. The usual attack against both-sides debating is on the basis of ethics. The opponents claim that it is unethical to speak for something that you do not believe, and thus contend both-sides debating should go. This attack is simply invalid when we look at it with a view of the nature of educational debate clearly in our minds. In educational debate the student is not standing before his audience saying that "this resolution is correct and thus should be adopted." Rather he is saying, "Our arguments for this resolution are better than our opponents' arguments against it, thus we should be awarded the decision." They don't say it this way of course, but this nevertheless is their real position. There is certainly nothing unethical in this--nor will there be the next hour when they believe that they are presenting better arguments against the resolution than their opponents are presenting for it.

The true or right position on a topic is rarely at one of the extremes represented by the affirmative or the negative. Rather it usually falls somewhere in between. Because this is true, it is my belief that a competent team instructed by a competent debate instructor can stand for their own beliefs, no matter which side of the topic they are assigned, in the vast majority of the debates they will enter. How is this true? Most topics provide a vast opportunity for selection in the affirmative case a team will use. Each topic has a large variety of reasons which can be expressed for its acceptance and even the most prejudiced can usually find some which he can accept. On the negative, the problem is even more remote. If a negative debater cannot find anything in an affirmative case with which to honestly disagree, he is unique indeed. While there might be some exceptions, a reasonable generalization would be that all affirmative cases have some weaknesses which even the most prejudiced individual could attack.

Clearly then, both-sides debating is not undesirable, and the elimination of it would not be beneficial to educational debate.

2. Debate must become . . . a discussion having as its purpose to "contretize" opinions. To this I would ask, "whose opinions are you going to "contretize?" The judges? The opponents? The timekeeper? The audience? Let's look at this a moment to see how absurd it really is. First of all, the judge. Most of the judges are debate coaches who have been working on the topic along with their debaters throughout the season. His opinions are usually well set, either affirmative, negative, or some more reasonable position in between. To expect a couple of high school or college students in thirty minutes, with their opponents having equal time, to significantly sway the judge's real opinion is to expect the ridiculously impossible. If we were to do this, the bias of the judge, which too often slips into debates even now, would become the major factor in all decisions. This is hardly desirable.

Well, how about the opponents? While it might occur in rare instances, a debater who can convince his opponents is truly a freak of nature. To expect this would be like expecting Sen. Goldwater to convince Sen. Humphrey that he should vote for Gen. Walker for president in a thirty minute argument with Sen. Humphrey getting equal time. I don't believe Sen. Goldwater could do it, capable as he is, and neither do I believe that our high school and college debaters are more capable than Sen. Goldwater.

Maybe the timekeeper? Here is a person that we just might appeal to. He usually doesn't know anything about debate, the topic, or for that matter timing either. I would hate to think that I was training students to present their arguments on this level.

Our last hope is the audience. Unfortunately, I must ask, "What audience?" I believe that I would be safe in saying that at least 75 per cent of tournament debates are carried on without any audience, save a judge and timer. The bulk of the remainder of the audiences are made up of debaters primarily concerned with the debate as a debate and with copying down evidence for later use.

In short, if we were to attempt to adopt this recommendation we would be trying to adapt substantive debate to the tournament situation where it simply would not work.

3. Forensic skill must not be judged by the hobgoblin of a foolish self-consistency . . . Even the extremity of an absolute shift of sides should not be ruled out of possibility . . . Congressmen do it. While I certainly agree with Prof. Thomas that it is desirable for debaters to agree on points that are obvious in the debate, I certainly cannot see the logic in the extreme position expressed above. If we may go back to the definitions again, there is a significant difference between congress and academic debate in their very purpose. A student debater is charged with the responsibility of developing the best case for whatever position he is taking. If he is to admit that a major portion of the position he expresses is wrong in light of the opponents' attack, he is admitting that he has not fulfilled his responsibility to the resolution. If he completely goes to the other side, he admits complete failure in his responsibilities. What would debate be like if we accepted such actions as permissible? A bright negative team might well stand up and say, "We agree with this resolution too. But we think that it is even better than the affirmative has indicated. Thus, we will show how it is better." Absurd? It certainly is. But this is what Prof. Thomas' suggestion really advocates. It could hardly be considered either necessary or desirable.

4. The conventional "decision" must give way to a judgment of the debaters as debaters . . . winning and losing will have to be based essentially on a combination of speaker ratings. Whether I would agree with Prof. Thomas here or not depends on his meaning of "speaker ratings." If we take "speaker ratings" to mean the evaluation of a debater on a numerical scale as to his excellence in the art of argumentation as represented in the debate, I am in full agreement. For if this were done, the team with the better rating would clearly be the winning team. If we allow the decision to be thrown out however, and a tabulation of speaker ratings to determine the top teams we will obtain a wholly undesirable result. Judges are inconsistent enough in giving decisions, witness the many 2-1 and 3-2 decisions each year. But they are far more inconsistent in ratings. I once participated on a panel of five judges who agreed on the decision. The rating on a 25 point scale ranged from 11 to 24 for the same team in the same debate. To make this a basic factor in anything other than breaking ties is certainly not desirable

On this point I would have even farther disagreement with Prof. Thomas if he interprets speaker rating to mean delivery. With delivery as even a separate factor included in a rating scale injustice is often done. Debate is primarily training in argumentation, not in oratory. Many times I have witnessed debates when one team was very solid in argument and the other team top orators. The orators receive higher "speaker ratings" because of the delivery factor on the scale, but they are not the better debaters and should not receive the decision.

5. To have been "the national question is the kiss of death to any topic of discussion: once debated, it can never again be revived. What a waste of our national resource in brainpower. At last Prof. Thomas and I have a point of agreement. I would only object to bringing back a topic within three years after it was used. This would have students debating the same topic for two years of their career. One year is certainly sufficient, if not more than sufficient, for any student on the same topic.

While I, too, find things in educational debate which I think should be changed and improved, I cannot accept most of the suggestions of Prof. Thomas as being improvements. I believe them, on the whole, to be unnecessary and so undesirable as to threaten the basic foundation of educational debate. Those of us who are not "innocent bystanders" should rise to defeat soundly these suggestions whenever and wherever they are proposed.

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