In which Bwog correspondent and past-life high school orator, Andrew Flynn, sojourns to a recent Harvard high school debate tournament and waxes philosophical about the current state of that ever so nebulous academic activity.
When the wind-chills of February announce their arrival in Morningside Heights, when long papers and dry readings begin to weigh heavily on my soul, there is no respite I look forward to more than getting on a coach bus filled with rowdy 15 through 18 year-olds and making the seven and a half hour trip to Cambridge for the annual Harvard Speech and Debate tournament.
Harvard is one of the kings of high-school forensics competitions. (Unlike at my local state tournament, Harvard does not need to remind its competitors that defecating in the classrooms is against the rules.) Here, thousands of high school speakers and debaters from across the east coast and Midwest (sometimes further) meet to match wits and spend their downtime wandering aimlessly around the Epcotesque tourist trap that is Harvard Square. But, “Harvard” is a bit misleading.
A quick tour through Harvard Yard is all that most debaters will get (speakers, perhaps fare better), and if they are lucky, they will spend the bulk of their time in Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School, an educational establishment distinguished for having taught Patrick Ewing and for appearing to have been built improvisationally out of whatever materials happened to be lying around. (There were a lot of cinderblocks lying around). Eyes scan round postings for the black spots of the tournament, the ominous Van Serge, an isolated shack, and the equally howl-inducing Baldwin, a local elementary school. They will have to catch a shuttle to get there, and they will probably just miss the one returning.
I used to stumble through this routine, but in recent years I’ve become accustomed to doing something similar (but with more bad, free food) as a judge for my high school. This time, I judged Public Forum, or “PF” as it is now called by proponents and detractors alike. It was almost called Ted Turner debate—when I was a senior in high school the brand new event was to be showcased with a televised final round at the NFL (National Forensic League) national tournament, judged by the big man himself. None of this came to pass, as Turner was loath to shell out cash, or was otherwise disabused of lending his name to a truly goofy event. For PF is the bastard of debate, an event dreamed up in an effort to reform the increasingly theoretical Lincoln-Douglas debate, or “LD.” (When I was in high school, the final round of LD at Harvard featured a Derridian deconstruction of the resolution, which played to a house of flabbergasted judges). LD was itself created as a reform of the fact-heavy, speed-intense Policy debate, or “CX.” Perhaps the next reform will simply feature a return to field hockey.
As it stands, though, it’s hard to know what will happen. PF is team debate without real rules; the goal is persuasion, in the style of TV atrocities like “Crossfire”. I’ve seen kids show up in jeans and argue cases based on the economic thought of Ron Paul. “Grand Crossfire,” a free for all during which all of the debaters hurl questions at one another, now takes place seated, because during the first year of PF’s existence, an infuriated competitor stabbed his opponent in the hand with a pen. But, the kids at Harvard were a swift bunch—pantsuits and ties and real evidence, suggesting that PF is no longer simply the haven of the failures from other events. But, the resolutions have evolved little from the early days, when “The NBA should enforce a dress code” ravaged the brain cells of our youth. “Russia has become a threat to US interests” is better, but the Pros had a fairly easy time pointing to things that look a lot like threats, leaving the Con to hair split about the meaning of “threat,” “interest,” and “become.”
I voted pro five out of six times, and took Amtrak home.