[eDebate] MPJ and the purpose of debate - false dichotomy

Steve Mancuso mancussp
Tue Oct 31 15:47:10 CST 2006


Over the years I have found myself in agreement with most everything  
that Ken Sherwood writes on this list about debate.  In fact I agree  
with a substantial part of his message today about MPJ.  Personally  
I'm somewhat torn between the benefits and drawbacks of the MPJ system.

But I do want to disagree emphatically with his dichotomy that is  
based on the assumption that if one is in favor of MPJ that it is  
because they view the purpose of debate as competitive as opposed to  
educational.   There is not "only one" purpose for MPJ.

First, I believe there are extremely strong pedagogical reasons to  
use MPJ - when used in certain ways.   Ken's view that "having  
debaters adapt to all types of judging is educational" is obviously  
valid.  But I think equally valid is the view that our debaters learn  
more from certain types of judges - judges who have kept up on the  
topic and have a working knowledge of the topic that develops along  
with that of the debaters as the year continues.  Debating in front  
of these judges gives debaters incentives to research and make their  
arguments even more complex and sophisticated, which is certainly a  
sound pedagogical goal.

Yes, there are benefits to having debaters learn how to explain  
complex arguments to all types of judges.  But it also provides a  
greater incentive to them to continue their argument development over  
the year if their judges can process complexity rapidly due to  
familiarity.  This is preference based on "the topic-knowledge level  
of the judge."

A close cousin of this argument is preferring your debaters to be  
judged by more experienced judges.  Over the years there have been  
many tournaments where I have filled out my pref sheet in part based  
on this consideration.  I'm not saying that my debaters have nothing  
to learn from young or inexperienced judges, rather I'm saying - what  
I think is obvious - that debaters may have more to learn from judges  
like Ross Smith, Ken Strange, Dallas Perkins, Sherry Hall, Scott  
Harris, Ryan Galloway, etc.  I don't strike this way as much any  
more, but that has more to do with the specific pedagogical needs of  
my debaters more than disagreement with this philosophy of  
preference.  This is preference based on the "experience of the judge."

When you can find judging that is experienced and has great topic- 
knowledge, in my opinion, you have a strong pedagogical (not  
competitive) situation.

A subset of this argument - and one that is somewhat less defensible  
in my opinion - would advance the notion that debaters can learn more  
about the style of debate they prefer if they are judged by people  
who are more expert at this type of argument.  This is preference  
based roughly on "ideology of debate practice."  I'm not as  
comfortable with this argument, but I could certainly understand  
those who like it even more than my first two.

My second overall objection to Ken's argument is that I don't see  
competition being deployed in a way that is necessarily antithetical  
to pedagogy.  In fact, I believe there aren't five people in our  
activity who do not grasp that the competitive structure of debate is  
a means to the end of pedagogy.  If there are these people out there  
who coach debate primarily because of the thrill of winning - the  
"just a sport" crowd - as opposed to the good that it does for our  
students, I'd like to know their names.  I'm not sure I can even  
think of one.

Steve Mancuso


On Oct 31, 2006, at 3:14 PM, LACC Forensics wrote:

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