Publisher: Brookings Institution Press
Publishing Date: October 6, 2020
Part 2: How Debate Could Make a Change
In the first half of our review of the book, we outlined some of the fundamental reasons why debate is suggested as a remedy for the political chaos in America. In this second half, we’ll be covering how exactly debate might achieve such ambitious goals.
The Solvency for Culture (Kuiper)
The opening paragraph of Chapter 4 (“Debate-Centered Instruction Can Help Revitalize Our Democracy”) quickly gets at the heart of what Litan hopes this book will do—creating a vision for a debate-centered culture that fosters understanding rather than promoting dissension. He asks the reader to imagine a future in which every single American has had some training in debate. He finishes this rhetorical thought for us by suggesting such a society would be much more harmonious and unified than what we have now. In debating there’s a term called “bright line,” which is a clearly delineated rule or standard that is basically…well, undebatable. It becomes evident quite quickly in this book that Litan is hoping to establish a debate-oriented culture as the solution to our polarized woes, and even though he doesn’t use “bright line” himself, it does become an assumed standard here and in other chapters.
Eventually he returns to the concept of Debate-Centered Instruction (DCI) to show how such a method could reduce tribalism, limited thinking, and improper rhetorical methods. In an interesting argument, he suggests that if and when schools implement DCI, “more data will exist for researchers to determine whether (my claims of its benefits) hold up,”1 which becomes a unique hypothetical self-proof that many debaters would avoid. Regardless, he mitigates the panacea level a bit when he says “DCI training is not going to remove the predispositions or biases of students,”2 even he firmly believes it will have a mostly positive and energizing effect. His ending argument in Chapter 4 is his strongest and clearest one, laying out several reasons why DCI would change the face of both grassroots and national politics. Compelling arguments for the implementation of DCI, and a good foundation to introduce the “everyman” concept in Chapter 5.
The Solvency for Individuals (Roth)
In Chapter 5, Litan argues that debating skills transfer well to employment beyond obvious application to attorneys. As a former lawyer, I can certainly endorse the value of debate for law, but I think Litan makes a good argument for other applications as well. Essentially, in any field where it’s important to make your case, Litan sees debate experience as an asset. This includes the pitch-oriented work of entrepreneurs and marketers, but debate is also a core competency of successful business cultures like Ray Dalio’s celebrated approach at the hedge fund Bridgewater. Litan emphasizes the critical role that communication skills and a healthy culture of debate play in workplace success. To be clear, he’s not arguing that workplaces stage competitive debates; he’s arguing that the skills learned in debate sharpen our ability to deliberate and innovate together in an adaptive environment. I think Litan is right about this.
“… the skills learned in debate sharpen our ability to deliberate and innovate together in an adaptive environment.”
No argument here! Litan’s continual defense of debating skills is admirable, and his passion almost makes me think a widespread implementation of DCI could work. Other evidence points toward many employers—especially in the wake of COVID—desiring to have such “soft skills” for their workers, sometimes even in preference to the advertised hard skills. Litan obviously touches on a growing sentiment of how clarity in communication is needed now more than ever.
The Rebuttal (Kuiper)
One aspect of debate that many competitors love is the give-and-take between the opponents on a particular issue. A hallmark of Western debate since the Greeks, being able to counter other arguments and defend one’s own is part of the fun. Litan gives us a taste of this facet in Chapter 6 (“Objections and Challenges”), where he outlines the major criticisms of DCI, and then in turn shows how such objections can be answered. For example, the first one raised is a pretty common concern of how we already have too much argument in today’s society, and thus any proposal like DCI to increase such argument should be disregarded.
There’s a hint of a straw man argument in some of his lines of reasoning in this chapter, but in general the issues raised are legitimate, and the solutions plausible. One area that should have been given more attention was how to publicize the plan or, in other words, how to broaden the audience for the book’s ideas. It’s all well and good to have a great plan in place to revolutionize American education (and subsequently American culture) but that first step of getting beyond a debate-centric audience is a major challenge, to put it mildly. Early on in the book, he makes the claim that understanding “how to identify and articulate the merits and drawbacks of multiple sides of almost any subject or issue is important in all phases of life and is key to a healthy democracy.”3 Such thinking is echoed here in the penultimate chapter, and once again it would be difficult to imagine someone arguing against it. However, equally difficult would imagining people outside of the debate world caring about it, and as valid as his arguments are, ultimately the impetus for the plan seems unclear.
The Roadmap (Roth)
When I coached debate, the winners and losers of a policy-based round were often determined by the raw practicalities of whether a proposed plan could actually work. In good style, Litan closes his book by offering his policy prescription for implementing the sorts of initiatives that he has been arguing for throughout the book. He does this drawing on Leslie Crutchfield’s substantial work studying successful policy reform initiatives, which is as good a model as any to adopt.
Crutchfied argues that most successful social movements share a number of features: they start at state and local levels, build a grassroots support network, slowly shift the perspective of a large chunk of the populace, and then spur a change from business as usual. Along the way, these movements garner the support of philanthropists while building a coalition of varied allies. All of this percolates and builds until the right confluence of timing and leadership spurs the tide of change.
This model for change is ambitious and hardly something accomplished overnight or without substantial investment. Litan notes that, at 70, he is too late in the game to be the champion for the reforms he proposes, but he thinks that a reform movement that prioritizes debate pedagogy can be built. Personally, I hope he’s right. When I look at collegiate programs, it seems to me that many places are instead deemphasizing or cutting their programs. Other schools champion debate, but the posture is more of an “own the (insert your enemies here)” approach that I’m not sure cultivates the virtues that Litan extols.
In the end, I’m highly sympathetic to Litan’s book. I think we all benefit from learning to reason together well. Debate can be fun, invigorating, and enlightening when done well. It can also reinforce sophistry based in bleak relativism or build the tools of emotional manipulation that make debaters ever more adept at playing the victim card. In the classroom, I’ve seen it help all of us think more carefully about important issues, but I’ve also seen students come to agree with whatever position they were randomly assigned to represent. Debate is a powerful pedagogy, but it needs to be done well, or I doubt it will have most of the effects that Litan argues for. Sadly, many large-scale policy initiatives that get forced through also get implemented badly.
“Debate is a powerful pedagogy, but it needs to be done well…”
Perhaps that’s ground for optimism, though. If you read this exchange between Bruce and myself and wonder about checking out debate for yourself, then I think small-scale adoption and micro-level implementation is where this is most likely to be done well, and, happily, that’s something that’s within all of our power to embrace.
As mentioned in several other places here, Litan’s core ideas make sense and have little to argue against. Yes, debate is useful for helping foster understanding. Yes, debate has clear verified positive effects, both individually and corporately. Yes, the fractious world we live in would be better served through rationale dialog. Yes, a comprehensive program like Debate-Centered Instruction probably would have amazing effects across the board in our schools. Yes, debate is a time-honored, fun, challenging, rewarding, thought-provoking, issue-raising skill that more people should be involved in.
All these are great ideas, but the reality is pretty stark, not to be overly pessimistic. Debate participation has declined significantly over the past number of years, precipitously during and since the COVID-19 outbreak. High schools and colleges across the country have cut funding or entire programs (in fact, there are only four colleges in Iowa offering debate as a program; Dordt University being one of them). Newer styles of debate are turning off potential participants and supporters, despite providing a new kind of platform. The reality is that formal competitive debate is a hard sell just in itself. To propose a complete overall of the American education system that features debate as its core feature is even more difficult.
In short, Litan makes a great case for involving debate in a wider context, and those who know debate, those who teach debate, and those who love debate will probably agree wholeheartedly. The tricky next step of convincing others outside that circle is frankly overwhelming, and readers most likely will not be able to or want to take on a seemingly quixotic task like that. Litan has done a great job here of outlining the need for debate as a possible cure for party politics in America; following up with a clearer plan on how to reach the masses with the message would be even better.