BY DANIEL FOLTZ
Anyone who has so much as dabbled in competitive debate can tell you that it is near impossible to go a tournament without hearing a complaint resonating the familiar message of “If only we had had a flow judge, we would have won.” These statements carry the underlying message that a debate centered on the premise that everyone partaking in the round being an educated debater inherently makes for a better debate. If we want evidence of this, we need look no further than the 2014 Parli TOC General Assembly, in which many of our event’s most successful competitors advocated judge strikes, internet prep, and more policy-based resolutions, among other ideas.
While I don’t often consider myself one to oppose progress, the fervid desire of others to ‘advance’ our event greatly worries me. Parli has already come quite a ways from the days when the only allowed prep materials allowed were a dictionary and your partner, and I by no means condemn this evolution. My concerns stem from the fear that the event that I’ve done since before my freshman year is attempting to become something that it is not. While the sentiment goes that “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” I think we need to consider if a near-cult of insanely fast speaking and arguments incoherent to the layperson is really the group that parli should be attempting to flatter.
Despite my personal distaste for Policy debate, I have only the utmost respect for the event. I just don’t think there should be two divisions of policy debate, with one operating under the guise of parli.
It is my belief that every debate event should serve a specific purpose within the debate community: under this idea, the purpose of parli is to play the bridge between layperson and debater in terms of accessibility while necessitating a worldly approach to learning and observation.
In order to fill the above niche in the debate community, it is my opinion that parli needs to prevent any rapid changes furthering the current attempts at policy-mimicking. Some of the ideals and techniques being utilized in recent tournaments, including the TOC, have been getting closer and closer to policy on the spectrum of debates in a way that is ultimately destructive of the benefits that the activity provides. Speaking at speeds that make following arguments difficult, extinction scenarios with link stories pulled from who-knows-where, and overuse of kritikal arguments and de-dev (you know who you are) make for scenes that appear just as often at asylums as they do in rounds. Though the quality of the presentation and the depth of thought that obviously goes in to arguments of a pre-fiat or a priori nature goes without question, their excessive use in a debate round is troubling.
For anyone unfamiliar with the many forms of college debate, there’s a wide variety of events, including upwards of 3 or 4 different types of parliamentary debate. My thoughts on British Parliamentary will be saved for another article, but the comparisons to be drawn between the NPDA(National Parliamentary Debate Association) and APDA(American Parliamentary Debate Association) serve as an effective lens through which to compare Policy and Parli. The NPDA spans the country, with tournaments nationwide, whereas the APDA is primarily centered in the Northeast of the US. The NPDA is, in my opinion, an organization promoting policy labeled as parli, similar to my fear for our high school format. A typical NPDA debate round is practically guaranteed a policy resolution, allows prep with computers, internet, and often coaches, and will feature the rapid spreading of multiple kritiks and zany counterplans. In contrast, an APDA round can center around anything from art and literature to economics and philosophy, with a much more comparatively relaxed and approachable atmosphere rife with wit, creative argumentation, and impressive rounds emerging from little outside resource usage and topics that often initially sound devoid of any strong contentions.
It is my personal opinion that high school parli can best provide the widest range of opportunities to debaters and connect the world of debate and less-entertaining life by taking a form more similar to that of the APDA than of the NPDA. APDA debates allow creativity of style, argumentation, and presentation to an extent that is largely unparalleled in both high school and college debate. This makes it the more accessible of the two while ensuring an education that is nearly guaranteed to create Renaissance students out of all participants.
Though this article’s original intention was by no means to rebut that of Ms. Maciorowski’s “Net Polarity: Give us the Internet,” my staunch disagreement with her piece leaves me compelled to do so. Before I proceed, if you have not yet read her article, I highly advise you do so. Though contrary to my own visions of parliamentary debate, it’s a highly informative work that provides a stark juxtaposition with my ideas. That being said, I disagree with her to the extreme.
“Net Polarity” begins with a hypothetical glance in to the minds of the parli rule-makers, chastising the “misplaced belief that parliamentary debate must diverge from its brethren as much as possible.” The reasoning behind this is based on the misguided premise that diverging from public forum and policy entails only a lesser usage of information, a premise that ignores the numerous other differences in style and in culture amongst the events. Public forum, for example, promotes the ability of our youth to yell in a fashion akin to that of a nineties’ grunge band, while policy directly prepares students for the lucrative job market in the United States’ “Speaking at Incredibly High Speeds” sector.
More to the point, however, the inherently false connotation carried by this proposition is that a debate must closely resemble one of these other types of debate in order to further education. Nothing could be further from the truth. While access to the Internet would undoubtedly help some come in to rounds better prepared, it is, at best, the wrong solution to this issue. Approaching the controversy of uninformed rounds with the preconceived misconception that the system at fault is the equivalent of blaming a teacher for a student not studying before an exam. Parli debaters are given the equivalent of flash cards and whole textbooks to use during their tests, but it seems as if these “debate progressives” believe that the best way to prepare is simply to procrastinate until the last minute before scrambling to use the internet to save your behind.
Ms. Maciorowski proceeds with an attempt to disprove the idea that Internet access would deter earlier preparation. All is well and good until she contradicts her own argument by saying that a world with internet prep would allow coaches to stop helping students work on traditional methods of prep in order to coach in other ways, a hypothetical that clearly implies that a significant amount of pre-round research would be replaced by now-allowed last minute internet prep. Just as a personal example, I can honestly say that my knowledge that there would be internet at TOC reassured me that prior research in to the given topic areas was completely unnecessary.
Section B. of “Net Polarity” releases a barrage of rapid-fire critiques of the status quo, all based on the same idea; disallowed access to the Internet during prep harms the educational value of the debates. The claim that our current standards of accessibility to prep materials restricts education is a claim that attempts to redirect the weakness of debaters to blame the debate itself, a flawed statement based on the presupposition that students who neglect to put in the outside time for a work-intensive activity such as debate deserve to be rewarded.
A preemptive refutation of anti-Internet critics springs up from Section C. Not only do claims about the shortcomings of general knowledge fail to capture the whole picture of modern parli debate, but they also ignore the simple fact that it is the duty of a debater to constantly remain more educated than a member of the general population.
One of the biggest arguments stemming from this section is that the obvious and overwhelming expansion of classism accompanying access to Internet usage is a non-unique point of contention. Apparently, computers being allowed in prep already doom those who can’t afford them, so there’s no harm to be done in making Internet access allowed. This widespread misunderstanding of what makes classism unique is only going to drastically expand as parli continues to look more and more like policy. The problem with this idea is that it fails to acknowledge the simple truth that any additional benefits given to those with computers but not those without only goes to further widen the gap created by preexisting socioeconomic conditions.
An important matter of concern that failed to make an appearance is the inevitable logistical nightmares that would accompany the newfound access to the Internet. In addition to many current host schools not having WiFi for debaters to use in the first place, there is the unfortunately high likelihood of last minute connection problems, slowed access due to mass simultaneous connection, and a desire to legalize usage of phones for internet research in prep time. The latter is one of the biggest concerns of mine, as it could quite easily devolve debates in to a simple question of who has the best cell service or has the best data plan. This became an issue at last year’s TOC, when spotty school internet led to rounds of a quality contingent on the quality of a debater’s smartphone.
When discussing the issue of Internet prep as a whole, it would be foolhardy to avoid debating the clear attempt at leveling the playing field that comes with it. The nature of parliamentary debate is such that there is a maximum amount of material that can possibly be written down in the allotted 20 minutes. Under a rules structure allowing internet prep, the debaters who truly came prepared will come to be restricted and confined by that limit, leaving those who did not to take advantage of their new comparatively higher advantage of internet prep. This is an attempt at manipulating the debate field itself that, more than simply being unfair, clearly decreases the research incentive for those who do wish to try.
Once the illusions and misdirections of internet advocators have been stripped away, it becomes clear that prep must stay as it is.
The reason I deem parli “The Impossible Debate” is thus: as long as high school parli debate remains heavily influenced by the NPDA style of debate as it permeates through in to our techniques and our coaching, parliamentary rules and traditions will remain in flux. The constant improvement of prep material access advocated by Ms. Maciorowski and her allies, followed by rapidly occurring shifts in stratagem and a desire to “level the playing field” or “improve debate quality” makes it nearly inevitable that parli will continue to become more and more like policy until the need to have it as a separate event ceases to exist.
Daniel Foltz debates for Palos Verdes Peninsula High School and is the Southern California editor and correspondent for Point of Information.