Wednesday, November 5, 2008


"It used to be that high-school and college debates mirrored, in a salutary way, political debates. In school, young men and women learned to research topics and then debate their rivals, using all the tools of oratory, including sound reasoning, and witty flourishes. But scholastic debate today is very different, and its sorry state has consequences for the health of the republic. ... Scholastic debaters no longer aspire to combine erudition and inspiration. And neither do presidential candidates, nowadays. Debate in schools has been undermined from within and without. The attack from within is the sadder story. As the Chronicle of Higher Education and others have reported, some college debaters now practice 'postmodern debate,' in which they argue theoretical questions about the process of debate rather than the topic at hand. In a match this year between New York University and Towson State University ... an African-American Towson State debater ... read diary entries about having experienced racism on the debate circuit. She and her teamate won. Predictably, debate traditionalists (like me) are upset about this postmodern turn. ... When debate was about majestic oratory, the naturally charming golden boys, or those polished by prep schools, had a distinct advantage; but when debate rounds could be won with technicalities and sheer quantity of argumentation, then industry could carry the day. ... Compared with, say, the Kennedy-Nixon debates, today's presidential debates are a travesty. ... It is unlikely that debate will fully recover. Oratory is too battered--in the schools by a misplaced egalitarianism, in national politics by an anti-intellectual populism", my emphasis, Mark Oppenheimer (MO) at the WSJ, 17 October 2008.

MO edits the New Haven Review and is a Wellesley writing Visiting Fellow. "Learned to research topics", how old school. Argue "about the process"? Sounds like CPAs writing about auditing and "the control environment" as opposed to testing things. I agree, compared to the 1960 presidential debates, today's "are a travesty". This does not bode well for the USA.

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