Has LD Debate Become Too Esoteric?

David McGinnis

January 31, 2012

LD debate is too esoteric.

The skills necessary to be a top-flight national LD debater are increasingly so hyper-specific that they appear arcane to anyone outside the activity -- including novices who aspire to it.

In the past two years I have had over a dozen potentially talented novices either quit debate entirely or shift to public forum because the idea of spending countless hours learning how to engage the hyper-specific aspects of debate seems pointless to them. Some of the brightest potential students are turned away because (A) they don’t have time to engage in the activity when they are also pursuing a challenging course curriculum, and (B) they recognize that much of the material they learn in LD is of limited-to-no use outside the activity.

The increasingly esoteric nature of the activity is a natural result of students and coaches pushing the envelope. LD is no longer simply an application of concepts from other disciplines. With the proliferation of camps and the institutionalization of a continuous national circuit where last year’s top competitors become mentors to (and judges of) this year’s students, LD debate has long engaged in a process of generating its own unique knowledge and meanings. Consider this list of “varsity concepts” that we brainstormed today:

A few of these topics are of general benefit to critical thinkers, particularly those who plan to study philosophy. But many of these issues -- particularly the theoretical ones -- have application only in LD debate.

I think the problem can break down into three rough areas:

  1. The theoretical issues debated in rounds have become so finely detailed that they are taking over the activity;
  2. The level of philosophical inquiry has become so sophisticated (and in many cases, ill-conceived) that non-philosophers feel inadequate to the task of coaching or starting programs;
  3. All of this happens at speeds of 300-400 WPM so that any non-debate person unlucky enough to stumble into a round has absolutely no idea (A) what’s going on or (B) how it could possibly be of educational benefit.

I have no problem with LD being specialized. The problem here is that the level of specification is so profound that the necessary learning curve is too steep. You can no longer generate successful competitors by starting with bright novices who learn the basics of argumentation and work their way up to varsity skills gradually over a year or two; now, a sophomore who can’t engage the meta-theory debate by November is doomed. And more novices are realizing that and jumping ship rather than waste their time slogging through the morass of necessary knowledge.

I don’t know if the problem is capable of solution. When I run it down in my head, I inevitably come to a brick wall: The increasingly esoteric nature of the activity is a result of smart people pushing the strategic envelope. Any effort at restraining this would result in dumbing down the activity. And, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to reach consensus on which aspects of the current form of LD -- if any -- are actually problematic. Naturally, some schools (the very successful ones) think that everything is just peachy keen.

All the same, something needs to be done. The National Forensic League has convened a committee on the “State of LD Debate,” and they are in the process of discussing this and related issues and generating possible solutions. I think it behooves the “national circuit community” to do some introspective soul-searching and see if there might not be a solution that doesn’t involve begetting an LD version of Public Forum.