"Academic" debate (vs. what we get with Kerry and Bush…)

I was listening to NPR’s “Fresh Air” the other day, and they had on a roundtable discussion with Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw, and Dan “crazy sources” Rather. Frankly, it was a pretty self-serving kind of discussion, one where they “expressed concern” about the accuracy of other news outlets like cable and the Internet that are eating away at their ratings. One thing that struck me then as it did last night though was the talk of presidential debates during this discussion. All of them were for more of them, and Rather said that these debates ought to be more like “academic” debates, where there was judging, scoring, etc.

Well, long long ago, I was quite involved in academic debate. I was on my high school debate team, I was on the University of Iowa debate team for about a year and a half, I coached and judged high school debate when I was in college, and I even judged at a few college tournaments when I was in grad school (well, in my MFA program). I haven’t had much to do with debate for 12 or so years, but unless things have changed dramatically, the last thing this country needs is an “academic debate.”

Debate of the sort I participated in involved some fairly strict and complicated rules about a pre-determined topic, it required a lot of evidence and reading of evidence, it frequently involved some pretty crazy claims (such-and-such school lunch program will lead us to a nuclear war), and (oddly) it often involved people talking fast. Really REALLY fast, I mean like an auctioneer fast, because the more “stuff” your team could get out there, the better the chance you had at winning. In short, academic debate wasn’t (and I presume still isn’t) a simple discussion between smart people; it was more like a game wherein one team beat another not necessarily because they had the “best” ideas, but they had the best strategy.

As a side note: I can say that without question, academic debate taught me more about academic writing, reading, and critical thinking than any class I ever took in high school or college. I was going to say ever, but there were a few grad classes that pushed me a bit more….

Anyway, one thing I would like to see more of in these so-called debates between Kerry and Bush is what we used to call “clash” on the issues. I suppose this is part of the “game” that is politics, but I thought there were several exchanges during last night’s “town hall” whatever you want to call it (but not debate, really) where neither candidate addressed the issue or each other’s claim. They returned to their own “talking points” rather than “clash.”

If you were judging an academic debate with “no clash,” you would end up giving some low marks in one way or another. Maybe these presidential debates need some kind of judging system– maybe the moderator would be the judge, or a panel of experts or something. Maybe the judge(s) could score the proceedings and truly pronounce a winner at the end, or maybe they could interrupt the candidates and say something like “You didn’t answer the question. Try again.”

Of course, given the strict rules for these debates that seem designed to make sure nothing unexpected happens, I somehow think my judging panel idea ain’t gonna fly anytime soon.

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