01/08/2013 01:30 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2013

Qatar Conference on Scholastic Debate Examines Activity's Role in Empowerment

With the end of the Cold War and the globalization of civil society practices, scholastic competitive debate -- both high school and college -- has become increasingly internationalized. The British parliamentary style continues to spread in global participation, and American debate minds -- rhetoric scholars, coaches, and successful debaters -- have worked extensively to introduce debate practices and developed argumentation theory to other countries. An upcoming major conference January 11-13 at the Qatar National Convention Centre in Doha testifies to this international move.

Yet, meanwhile, debate in the United States has shifted dramatically and arguably stands in an existential crisis. In the early 20th century, nearly every high school in the country had a debate team, a "policy debate" squad, which abided by a core set of rules under a single national topic. A broad participation in debate aligned with widely-held views about citizen participation in politics. From the 1960s to the 1980s, however, innovations in argumentation theory and stylistic practices in college debate -- chiefly the introduction of fast-talking, or "spreading," and a growing expectation for researched, evidentiary support -- led a certain section of the debate community in high school to import these changes and build a debate culture (perhaps a subculture) characterized by speed, extensive jargon, complex argument, and an extremely high training and work threshold. While participants and admirers believe that this evolution was empowering by fostering turbo-charged critical thinking skills, current debate practices are often viewed with incomprehension by outsiders (as this recent segment with journalist Mo Rocca on CBS attests).

Not only do these changes make it difficult for this American style of debate to be an international model on its own, so long as other cultures do not possess whatever cultural peculiarities made this highly technical format of debate attractive, they have led to dramatic demographic changes in the American "policy debate" world. While a handful of elite and largely wealthy American high schools -- especially in Texas, Georgia, and suburban Chicago -- continued to support policy debate teams with funding and coaches as the format evolved, others drifted away into other, at least initially milder, formats (Lincoln-Douglas, traditional speech events, or "Public Forum") or abandoned debate completely (whether these forcings were primarily financial or tied to the nature of the activity is the subject of heated, yes, debate by figures in the community).

Meanwhile, the National Association of Urban Debate Leagues (NAUDL), a nonprofit headquartered in Chicago, has supported the expansion of this policy format into urban school districts across the country, with large nonprofit leagues in Atlanta, Chicago, Baltimore, Boston, and other cites. Because the sponsors are mostly college debaters, many of them now accomplished lawyers, who believe in the "policy debate" format and its transformative power as an intense, total experience, the association has largely focused on the establishment of leagues based exclusively on this policy format. These developments, combined, have created an inverse bell curve of wealth in the policy debate community, with a handful of elite schools and a growing cohort of extremely poor schools being all that remains. Middle class suburban schools and rural schools, overwhelmed by the rising costs of travel to far-away tournaments as the total numbers in policy debate dwindle, are hard to find at all.

This unusual socioeconomic makeup has prompted more than just a culture shock, but a highly-contested and ongoing ideological war in the debate rounds themselves. Poorer schools, largely black and other minority, now often argue that debate itself reflects the racism and inequalities of the broader society. The year-long national topics, which serve the highly-specific technical needs of the elite national circuit, are often "critiqued" as symptomatic of a training system that forms cynical technocrats who will tolerate injustice as part of a never-ending, brutal game where real consequences are always "debatable." As the American economy continues to flounder and urban schools face heavy challenges and criticisms, these violent communication collisions in debate rounds are causing some young participants to question the possibility of ever addressing racism or structural inequality in America. Yet, without some direct link between Urban Debate Leagues and activism itself, even these potent and uncomfortable challenges float without resolution and are reduced to a win/loss statement written by a judge on a ballot. In exasperation, many of the urban league debaters, and their coaches, now argue that policy debate can only have value as a fierce training ground for blacks to gain survival skills to engage a hopelessly irredeemable America.

A founder of the urban debate movement, Melissa Maxcy Wade of Emory University argued in the essay, "The Case for Urban Debate Leagues," that debate should be an empowering experience that promotes "experiential learning" for a "global society" and obviates the "need to resort to violence to get the attention of decision-makers." With the American debate world, even in its struggles, demonstrating the potency of debate as a field for critical thinking and intellectual experimentation, an internationalization of debate could be a grounding process that might help find a way out of this difficult impasse. Tuna Snider, Professor of Forensics at the University of Vermont, has played a key role in building connections between the policy debate minds of the United States and the parliamentary worlds of Europe, the so-called "Anglosphere," and -- increasingly -- Middle Eastern countries like Qatar.

In turn, as the debate thrust in Qatar advances, Qatar Foundation International, a U.S.-based member of the Qatar Foundation dedicated to encouraging cultural contact and global citizenship through education, has supported, since 2011, a debate exchange program at Washington Latin Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. (alongside its Arabic language curricula) and has facilitated experimental, mixed-team telepresence debates between Washington Latin and several Qatari schools. Further, through the Doha Debates and their own "Qatar Debate" academic program and curriculum (established in dialogue with several American and British debate experts), Qatar has consciously and affirmatively forwarded debate as a domestic vehicle to promote open discussion and increase academic achievement. It may now even be encouraged to share this experience with other Arab countries. If similarly filtered through national debate programs, the needs for reconciliation and open dialogue that other countries face might someday be able to inform the racial and economic chasms manifest in such a visceral way in American policy debate.

With all of the developments in the Middle East, this upcoming conference in Doha, "The Fourth International Conference on Argumentation, Rhetoric, Debate, and the Pedagogy of Empowerment," occurs at a fascinating time to think about the role of rhetoric and scholastic debate in empowerment and political change. Coordinated by the World Debate Institute and several academic associations, this weekend's conference will bring together leading international rhetoric scholars, along with a good number of American debate coaches, to discuss the current state of scholastic debate. Even with its idiosyncrasies and current stresses, American policy debate has offered the world valuable tools in argumentation theory and various frames and formats for thinking about rhetoric and argument. Hopefully, the internationalization of debate -- with the explicit focus on empowerment at this conference -- will now boomerang and support an American activity through a crisis that may require moving outside of a highly-ritualized rhetorical box and embracing new thinking.

Todd Fine coaches the debate team at Washington Latin Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. and is Vice President of the High School D.C. Urban Debate League.