[eDebate] MPJ and the purpose of debate

LACC Forensics forensics
Tue Oct 31 14:14:52 CST 2006

Having read the recent threads on MPJ and the lack of women in the elims
judging pool, I find myself again musing on the constant support for the MPJ
system in tournament procedures. I recall at CEDA Nats at SFSU (I believe)
participating in a survey about support for MPJ in the debate community. I
also recall some of the more prominent members of the community expressing
absolute shock at the idea that anyone would not support MPJ.

Now, I do not want to go into the statistics of how well it works and how it
does or doesn't affect representation and diversity. I think there is a
larger issue that is rarely (notice, I did not say never) discussed when
this issues is raised here on eDebate or anywhere else. That issue is the
purpose of debate.

What is the purpose of this activity? I really think this is the central
issue within the debate community and it affects us at multiple levels. I
certainly have no objection to the competitive nature of debate. I have
always believed that it is the competition that drives students (debaters)
to learn. It is the competitive nature of the activity that I think is
inherently problematic for those who take a critical approach to the
activity. At the same time, however, I think competition has to be put in
its correct place within the hierarchy of goals within the activity.

I think that it is the improper placement of competition within that
hierarchy that drives and creates many of the issues that cause people to
want to reject the activity and others to constantly want to reform it.
Competition should NOT be the primary objective of collegiate or high school
debate. It is not an athletic sport. Students who participate in debate are
exactly that - students. And too often, I think those that put competition
first lose sight of that. Do we all remember the debater at Samford who was
murdered by his coach? While certainly an extreme case (thank God) that
incident was an example of how the focus on competition is bad for the
activity and those who participate in it.

MPJ serves one, and only one, function in debate - that is to further the
competitive agenda. MPJ completely loses sight of the educational goal of
debate. And I don't only say this as a theoretical observation. I reach this
conclusion also from hearing coaches actually say that all that matters is
winning and that they don't believe that debate has a significant
educational function.

Now, as I mention above, I am not a member of the camp that seeks to reject
debate because of this problem within the activity. I think this distinction
is similar (if not identical) to the division between Plato and Aristotle
over the value of rhetoric. I think those who seek to destroy debate as it
is are absolutely Platonic in their approach - one that has been repeatedly
rejected throughout history for good reason. I think the only solution is to
take an Aristotelian approach to debate and recognize that there is value in
the competitive side of debate as long as we put it in its proper context
and have it serve its proper role. But that role is to be subordinate to the
educational function of the activity.

Those who believe that debate is just a sport and that it is ok to focus
only on winning in the activity are doing a disservice to their students and
to the community. Look at the world outside of debate and you should be
instantly able to see why it is different than athletic sports on the high
school and college level. There is no professional debate league. It makes
sense for high school and college athletes to learn nothing but how to win
because they are training for a professional career that cares only about
winning. Debaters, however, are not doing the same thing. The professional
career options for debaters are in fields that are governed (or at least
should be) by a sense of ethics that can and should be a part of the debate
experience in school.

I truly believe that if, as a community, we focused on the educational
objective of the activity first and only used competition as only a force to
motivate learning, we would be doing much better for our students and for
ourselves. And anyone who wants to argue this with me should be prepared to
provide some empirical evidence - because I have such on my side of the
argument. And, anyone who wants to engage in the argument that they need to
win in order to sustain their program, I am happy to have that debate as
well, because I also have the empirical evidence to prove that you don't
need to win national championships to sustain a program.

Do you really care about diversity? If you do, then getting rid of MPJ is
one step that can be taken to prove it. Force debaters to learn by adapting
to judges instead of forcing judges to adapt to debaters, and you will start
to see some actual learning occur and you will likely see an improvement in
diversity as well.


Ken Sherwood
Director of Forensics/Honors Program Director
Los Angeles City College

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