Many people have asked me about speech and debate and whether it helped me with my communication and critical thinking skills. Now that a decade has passed, I can say with certainty that it did not. Years of frustration with speech and debate eventually led to some relative competitive success, but I had to sacrifice all other education for it in the end. I had no time left for trying to drag myself through basic pre-algebra. I took a “super senior” year, meaning that while most of my friends graduated high school at age 18, I kept competing until I was almost 19. Altogether, I would spend seven years competing in Christian homeschool speech and debate, from 2004 to 2011.
I’ve talked before about some of the indoctrination, like in my posts “My Patriotic Education” and “I’m not saying religion sucks, but it hurt me, okay”. I haven’t, however, previously unpacked this massive suitcase called debate and speech competition. For those who knew who I was before my blog was really known, you know that this is deeply intertwined with…well, every aspect of the identity that was projected onto me. For those of you who’ve been following me since my major pieces in 2014 and 2019, this may be difficult to explain to you.
My limited study time was almost entirely dedicated to preparing for speech and debate. When it came to general subjects like math and science, geography and history, I was taught practically nothing. I had an elementary understanding of these, and by the time I was a teenager, I was expected to spend “school time” teaching or reading aloud to my younger siblings. This was frustrating for all parties involved, and I regret being short-tempered.
The two leagues I competed in were called NCFCA and Stoa. The intention is to prepare children for public speaking and defending their positions with logic and evidence. The problem is that the parameters of the competition were limited to the confines of conservative Christianity. We could not discuss any matters of real controversy.
I knew a lot of other homeschooled kids from speech and debate, and some of them were getting thorough educations. For every 20 or so students that I interacted with, I’d say one of them was really hitting the books because of rigorous parents. This does not mean that they were having a superior experience of home life whatsoever – sometimes the more intelligent parents were more cruel. I’m not making a statistical claim without data, this is just my estimate based on interacting with hundreds of other competitors.
A Christian homeschool debate competition has a distinct atmosphere. It’s full of teenagers who are dressed in professional attire, in many cases deprived of socialization with children in other families except for these events. The competitive age range was 12 to 18, and we were not separated into smaller age brackets. I never learned how to count by grades because I didn’t take placement tests, or any tests at all. I didn’t have to, because my parents exploited a legal loophole that said they technically didn’t have to report any progress on the education they were providing to my siblings and me. As a result, I never knew whether I was doing well or not. I didn’t get grades or feedback very often, except for the results of the competitions.
Tournaments often lasted three or four days. The advantage of being homeschooled is we had the time to block out this much time in a week once a month or so. We weren’t missing school for it. It was considered an educational activity. The schedule was tightly packed and demanding: In a day I would have three or four debate rounds in addition to two or three speech rounds, each of which lasted between 90 minutes and two hours. We debated each other in organized formats with timed speeches and cross-examinations, finishing with final rebuttals.
One of the apparent advantages of debate was that we “learned to argue both sides” of an issue. This claim was technically true because every round had an affirmative and negative team. The administrators worked it out so everyone debated both sides the same number of times. The topic of debate was called a resolution. If we were assigned the affirmative side, we were supposed to defend the resolution, detailing how we planned to do so, and how the harms we presented would be solved by our proposed plan, and what advantages might be produced. If we were assigned the negative side, we were tasked with proving why the affirmative’s plan for change had flaws or would lead to disadvantages.
The topics we debated are notable because they were always carefully chosen from among subjects we conservative Christians could all agree on. The idea was that we shouldn’t force our opponents to take a stance that wasn’t morally defensible. For example, because we all agreed that abortion is evil, making the argument “abortion is evil” would be an inappropriate, underhanded move competitively. The opposing team couldn’t disagree and still hope to win the favor of the judge, who was almost always another conservative Christian homeschool parent, whose children were rival competitors. We did our best to recruit “community judges” to come and watch our tournaments, but it was difficult to convince people to volunteer. As a result, we were stuck in the frustrating position of crafting speeches and debate points catered to the biases of a specific group of people.
My first year, we debated US dependence on foreign oil. While we regularly made arguments about how it would be bad to rely on Saudi Arabian oil, it was frowned upon to run any environmental advantages. So for instance, drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was a very difficult case to beat because no judge would vote for a team arguing for the livelihood of the wildlife. My second year, we debated medical malpractice law. Instead of learning about how broken the American healthcare system is and discussing ways to fix it, our cases promoted plans like forcing traumatized patients into mandatory mediation with their negligent providers. This provided economic advantages for the legal system. My third year, we debated illegal immigration. Rather than learning about the human rights abuses under US immigration policy, we had cases promoting ways to crack down on employment verification. The year we debated about Russia, I learned practically nothing about the complexity of the large country.
Overall, we learned to discuss political and philosophical topics in a heartless way. We debated issues without considering the real-world implications of the policies we were promoting. The tone of each debate round was one of detached discussion supporting conservative ideology. There was little consideration for human rights and injustice. In this way, the activity served as another form of indoctrination for conservative Christian homeschooling parents. This was subverted with co-opting free-thinking terminology like “arguing both sides,” “critical thinking skills,” and “learning how to think, not what to think.” However, it was merely a way to keep us from considering things that were too controversial, while thinking we were addressing the crux of these topics. I want to warn people of the danger in this activity because it desensitizes young people. We learned how to talk callously about human beings and their struggles, as matters of debate, not care. This is my first of two blog posts on the subject. In my second post about this, I’ll talk more about the culture of debate and its approach to emotional appeals.