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Over five thousand kids wake up early morning on nearly every other weekend in a hotel room, quickly cramming to shower, eventually dressing in full suited attire, and heading out of the door, still bleary eyed from last night’s late flight. They often take a shuttle bus or a rental car, driven by a cohort of coaches or parents as they head to a central location, either a large high school, a college, or an assortment of places to enter and compete in a national debate tournament. But the intensity of national debate is a peculiar consequence of what debate has become; unlike other national forums, national debate is the base level of competition, requiring no other qualifier or preliminary tournament to reach the national stage. The national circuit which is composed of dozens of tournaments across the United States year round has become the average competition for debaters.
Or rather a select group of debaters. But in order to understand the unfortunate consequences of national debate, it is critical to understand how large debate has become. As a former debater myself, I can attest I learned more from the long and consecutive tournaments across the semesters than from four years of education from high school. Debate, which is the compliment of national speech, is a forum where young high school students go head to head on a topic and write out a story for the judge to vote on. But the basic assumption that debate is this pristine, elegant, dressed-up, and grandiose event is misleading. Certain events (and there remain other events that count as exceptions) are exceptionally fast and admirably complex. Below is a video of a normal round in the event of Lincoln Douglas. For those outside the debate community, the speed may be shocking.
But the speed of debate is a separate question of the mechanics of debate itself. Speed, as I have learned, isn’t the direct inhibition for most debaters to enter the activity. It may be daunting, but it has its merits as it provides the ability to engage in the most complex and decisive commentary that even real politicians couldn’t achieve. It is powerful, it is intricate, and it is an act of student discourse that challenges the norms that our society indoctrinates in us.
In the ending, the speed of debate is no more different from the complexity of something like Java programming: it may turn some people away, but for those who are committed, many ease into the world of fast debate. The reason debate is selective is at no fault of the debaters themselves, and potentially not even at the failings of certain educators. Debate isn’t bad in any direct way; the benefits of the skills it provides you are enough to merit participating in it if it is accessible. And it is just that: accessibility. National debate is expensive. If you compound the flight costs, hotel costs, tournament entrance fees, and vehicle costs (be it rental cars or buses), debate trips by schools can amount to multi-thousands of dollars. Certain schools may be privileged in footing the bill, and others force it onto the debaters where only the ones who can afford such cost can attend.
And there is perfect merit to attend these tournaments – the culture of debate often becomes integral to a debater’s life, an emotional quarry found deep in their mind evidenced by the emotional departures of many debaters from the activity post-graduation. The obvious optimistic answer to this financial barrier is for smaller or less affluent schools to enter at the local level – and in many cases (though not all as I will visit below), this is the solution. But this is hardly a solution to a problem; it just attempts to cover an issue with another alternative. The difference remains: debaters at some schools can choose to travel nationally or debate locally, while others are forced to conform to the latter.
Ruchi Kirtikar was a participant in Lincoln Douglas debate and a partner debate event, Public Forum. She attended Desert Mountain High School in Arizona, a school that had a very small debate program, only attending two local tournaments each year. For her, the early mornings in a three star hotel across the nation was a distant goal; one treated as almost unattainable given the condition of the debate program at her school. Noting her difficulty in finding a partner, she eventually discovered Lincoln Douglas, where she succeeded in her first local tournament by reaching semi-finals. But in an interview, she said that “the reason we didn’t try for nationals was because I was expanding the club at my school and trying to make sure we could attend more local tournaments throughout the school year.”
But tournaments are also just a single facet of debate’s exclusivity. Debate in The National Speech and Debate Association is split into a few categories, some of the more popular being Policy Debate (which is the oldest), Lincoln-Douglas Debate, Public Forum Debate, and Congressional Debate. And for all four, debate institutes or camps are becoming a summer necessity to remain competitive and prepared for success on the national circuit. Camp fees can cost over $3-4K a summer, a fee that is far inaccessible to a majority of students in the United States. Compound that four digit figure with travel costs, and summer institutes are straight up out of the question for many aspiring debaters. The cost to a debater’s career of not going to camp is clearly visible: at least 90% of Lincoln Douglas’s debaters at the most prestigious national qualifying tournament, The Tournament of Champions, had attended at least one camp.