My four years on a high school debate team in Broward County, Florida, taught me to challenge ideas, question assumptions, and think outside the box. It also helped me overcome a terrible childhood stutter. And I wasn’t half-bad: I placed ninth my first time at the National Speech & Debate Association (NSDA) nationals, sixth at the Harvard national, and was runner-up at the Emory national.
After college, between 2017 and 2019, I coached a debate team at an underprivileged high school in Miami. There, I witnessed the pillars of high school debate start to crumble. Since then, the decline has continued, from a competition that rewards evidence and reasoning to one that punishes students for what they say and how they say it.
First, some background. Imagine a high school sophomore on the debate team. She’s been given her topic about a month in advance, but she won’t know who her judge is until hours before her debate round. During that time squeeze—perhaps she’ll pace the halls as I did at the 2012 national tournament in Indianapolis—she’ll scroll on her phone to look up her judge’s name on Tabroom, a public database maintained by the NSDA. That’s where judges post “paradigms,” which explain what they look for during a debate. If a judge prefers competitors not “spread”—speak a mile a minute—debaters will moderate their pace. If a judge emphasizes “impacts”—the reasons why an argument matters—debaters adjust accordingly.
But let’s say when the high school sophomore clicks Tabroom she sees that her judge is Lila Lavender, the 2019 national debate champion, whose paradigm reads, “Before anything else, including being a debate judge, I am a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist. . . . I cannot check the revolutionary proletarian science at the door when I’m judging. . . . I will no longer evaluate and thus never vote for rightest capitalist-imperialist positions/arguments. . . . Examples of arguments of this nature are as follows: fascism good, capitalism good, imperialist war good, neoliberalism good, defenses of US or otherwise bourgeois nationalism, Zionism or normalizing Israel, colonialism good, US white fascist policing good, etc.”