You didn’t break. Or you were eliminated in a crucial outround. Or you barely lost in finals. You charge to ballot retrieval, seize your manila envelope, and frantically rifle through until you find the ballot you were dreading. The speaker points appear randomly assigned. The RFD looks borderline incoherent, rhapsodizes about your opponent’s speaking style, and displays an appalling amount of bias. In one moment, it all coalesces — you remember their light blue nametag, their garbled attempts at articulating their judging experience, and their glazed expression during your final speech. You glance at their signature. Suspicions confirmed. The circled “C” — signifying “community judge” — leers smugly back at you.
What are you going to do? Commiserate with those who experienced defeat at the hands of the same judge? (That’s what I typically did.) Lambast them in front of your friends for their apparent failure to “grasp” debate constructs and the speaker points rubric? (I did that too sometimes…) Deride your homeschool league to your club for poor community judge orientation? (Yeah, I’ve done that as well…)
I can recall vividly one time where, pacing furiously back and forth, I opined to anyone listening to my tirade, “What if we could just eliminate community judges altogether? Couldn’t all debate rounds just be judged by ‘qualified’ parents, alumni, and coaches? In fact, how about we stipulate that judges must pass an aptitude test before adjudicating rounds? Wouldn’t NCFCA be so much better?”
Fast forward to September. At one of my college’s first parliamentary debate practices, an NPDA (National Parliamentary Debate Association) nationally-ranked teammate (our student coach) beckoned us to her laptop. Elated by her and her partner’s second-place finish at a recent high-caliber tournament, she proceeded to show us footage of the round, attempting to assuage the intimidation factor with these words:
“Oh don’t worry; we don’t expect you to be this good yet.”
What’s “good”? See for yourself.
Dumbfounded, I watched the video, desperately trying to comprehend how abandoning rhetoric, speaking unintelligibly fast, and encoding argumentation in impenetrable debate jargon make a debater “good.” As the other novices watched with horrified fascination, our student coach explained (speaking almost as fast as she was in the video) that she and her partner ensnared their opposition in several theoretical technicalities, ultimately delivering the death knell to their opponents’ case with a full-fledged Hegelian kritik about national borders.
What’s wrong with NPDA? Yes, the league adopted a postmodern frame of reference. Sure, it is a direct product of the philosophical disintegration the twentieth century. But more accurately, they have deprived themselves of community judges. Every judge must be somehow affiliated with the debate community. The league prefers coaches and alumni–the more entrenched in NPDA parliamentary debate, the better.
In other words, I entered the world I had always desired.
As a result, debaters created a language, formulated arguments, and achieved a speed only they could comprehend. Debate morphed into an elite culture, where prowess is measured by tempo and acumen by impacts to nuclear war. Debate degenerated in a race to spew out as many arguments as possible and devolved into quantity over quality, where the most abstruse, bizarre argument one can contrive to obliterate the opposition and impress the judge wins. Far from being the “culmination of the liberal arts” (in the words of my NPDA debate coach) or a synthesis of the best components of all debate styles (the impression I developed via my friends in Stoa parli), collegiate debate is anathema to the ideal of education, primarily because it lacks an outsider perspective.
Community judges save our communication-oriented homeschool leagues for two primary reasons.
Community Judges Preserve the Pursuit of Truth
Halfway through the video, I asked our student coach if she actually believed Hegel’s philosophy about national borders. The response? A blank stare and a noncommittal shrug, followed by an uncertain “yes.” The exchange perfectly encapsulates the sophistry of debate without community judges: Run whatever wins. It doesn’t matter if you believe it. If it works, use it.
Yet, debate is fundamentally concerned about the pursuit of truth. Ethos is committed to debate as a conduit for the Beautiful, the Good, and the True. The judge is not an instrument for the debater to garner a win; the debater is an instrument for the judge to apprehend the truth.
Community judges are sensitive to authenticity. Unlike many coaches and alumni inculcated in the debate world, they typically discern whether or not debaters believe their own arguments. The practical benefits of pursuing truth and learning to communicate it are immeasurable. Community judges keep us genuine communicators, concerned about the transcendent rather than the temporal.
Community Judges Facilitate Practicing Persuasion
Collegiate debate cultivates an elitist realm of “special words” that many debaters use to enhance their own egos. (This arrogance is not exclusive to NPDA… from personal experience, I remember flaunting my knowledge of the four stock issues when I was a novice. Even though I was an LDer, using those four words afforded a type of “special knowledge.”)
The real world does not employ specialized terminology like “permutation,” “trichotomy,” and “specification” (all NPDA theory tactics) to communicate. Congress does not want policy proposals to include advantages with definite “uniqueness,” “brinks,” “links,” and “impacts.” You will not persuade anyone of anything if you communicate in terms that they do not understand. (Check out Ethos’s glossary of normalized debate terms for help on converting “debatespeak” into accessible language.)
According to Aristotle, rhetoric is a “subjectless subject.” “It is, then,” he writes, “established that rhetoric is not concerned with any single delimited kind of subject but is like dialectic and that it is a useful art.” Collegiate debate transforms rhetoric into a subject in an of itself, laden with almost scientific terminology. Community judges facilitate real-world communication with a real-world audience, forcing us to convey our ideas in an understandable manner. Clearly, the pragmatic benefits of communicating in intelligible language are immense.
Reflecting on his experience, a former collegiate debater said,
“This really hit me hard this year, when working on things that I thought I was already pretty… knowledgeable about—nuclear weapons. I went into the year thinking I was going to be God’s gift to the [nonproliferation] department, because none of these people have had debate, so they won’t really understand all the [nonproliferation] issues as well as I do, no matter how much expertise they may have. Well, that’s not the way it worked at all, at least for me. No doubt in a collegiate debate judged by one of ya’ll I could have killed them all on the Pan K, probably even if we talked slow, but in the real world, I was kind of surprised to find that the knowledge generated by debate proved to be fairly… cursory and artificial. I could rattle off a list of most of the arguments for/against most of the general nonproliferation doctrines, but a lot of the empirical and factual basis for these arguments was completely missing in my brain. I could make the basic claim for almost anything in the field, but the technical issues that underlines a lot of them (the names and locations of the Russian CW destruction plants, an understanding of how the fine points of the budget process works, how a capital market sanction would actually be implemented, where did we get our intelligence that revealed Chinese serial proliferators selling bombs to AQ Khan, how does a centrifuge cascade work and why exactly would multilateral sanctions undermine Iran’s ability to get uranium gas piping technology, the names of the key players in the various foreign governments that make nonproliferation policy etc) was all missing. Maybe this stuff sounds pretty boring, and some of it is, but this is the type of stuff that really determines whether or not policies are successful and whether or not they are effectively promulgated. But the details pretty much get left out in debates, replaced by a simplistic and power-worded DA that culminates in ‘nuclear winter.’ To my surprise, when setting out in the nonproliferation world, you don’t get to make grand pronouncements about the impact of funding Nunn-Lugar on US soft power or whether funding it would cause a budget deficit which would collapse the global economy and cause multiple scenarios for nuclear war. Instead, most of the work that is done is deciding which and what type of Russian facilities to allocate the money to, knowing the specific people within the Russian government we can trust, which types of nuclear disposition is safest and what types of transportation we should use when moving spent fuel back to storage, etc. When dealing with these discussions repeatedly, I found that debate had provided me a very sound abstract conceptual frame through which to analyze the general issues being raised, but little in a way of meaningfully engaging the policy process.”
At my second NPDA tournament, the tournament administration exercised more latitude than most in selecting judges. A senior debater, however, warned us to be wary. “The judges are very particular. They want you to be courteous and respectful and adamantly insist that you stand to speak. They don’t tolerate speed-and-spread. My partner and I have to make a conscious effort to slow down. I haven’t won a speaker award at this tournament since my freshman year. And I’m very proud of that.” Incidentally, my partner (also a former NCFCAer) and I both won speaker awards, and also the novice championship.
In the words of my good friend (and my club’s TP coach) Louis Kolssak, who remarked after his experience judging an elimination round at an NPDA tournament, “If you want to learn how to become an auctioneer or someone who reads disclaimers in drug commercials, NPDA is for you.”
Instead of reviling community judges to your friends, express your appreciation for them. As Ethos blogger Drew Magness does, write community judges thank-you notes for devoting their time. Tell a community judge how thankful you are for his or her presence at your tournament. They perform the invaluable service of equipping us to be winsome advocates for Christ in a world oblivious to the truth.
Disclaimer: I have depicted both NPDA and senior members of my college’s debate team negatively. Note that there are redeeming elements to NPDA (such as challenging core beliefs, communicating in alternative context, argument analysis, etc.) Additionally, to be equitable, that senior debater did go on to win a speaker award at the tournament. Even if she wasn’t proud of it, she was able to adapt to different judges.
Joel Erickson is a Coach in Training and Blogger for Ethos Debate. In his two years competing in NCFCA, he consistently advanced to finals and semifinals in Lincoln-Douglas and qualified to elimination rounds at Nationals in several speech and debate events. Currently, he is enrolled Wheaton College (IL), pursuing a double major in Philosophy and English with the aim of teaching at the collegiate level or attending seminary or law school. Education is his primary passion, and after coaching his local club’s apologetics program for two years, he is serving this year as their assistant coach for LD.