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A reflection on the future of the NDT.

What will the National Debate Tournament look like in the next fifty years? The answer to this question requires an examination of projections about the educational system in which the NDT is housed. Demographic changes affecting secondary education in the 21st century inevitably influence the pedagogical and financial future of post-secondary education. The most casual observer would note that our current system of education at all levels operates on an industrial model where bells ring every fifty minutes to signal the end of a "shift" to prepare individuals for jobs on assembly lines which no longer exist. Educational studies professor Jacqueline Irvine evaluated the implications of demographic changes and the inertia of pedagogical orthodoxy and projected the future educational reality:

As the twenty-first century rapidly approaches, education is facing a serious dilemma. The 'typical' student that pedagogy and educational prescriptions are designed for is an endangered species. Highly motivated, achievement-oriented, white middle-class students from two-parent families are becoming scarce in most school systems-rural, suburban, and urban. In ten years. . .data confirm that. . .[increasingly poor minority populations] will completely alter the way educators will administer schools and instruct students. Unless the education profession makes reforms to accommodate these students, then the year 2000 will not bode well for education and society at large. There will be a large pool of middle-class white aged who will be asked to support financially the poor, nonwhite public-school children who are being taught by middle-class white female teachers trained in the pedagogy of the 1960's and who work in schools with administrative structures and hierarchies designed for schools in the 1900's. . . .When teachers feel alienated. . .they "tend to disparage students, consider them unteachable, [and] hold them personally responsible for failure. . ."(1)

The coming century will require radical pedagogical reform in order to promote a healthy society; one in which citizens have the advocacy skills needed to communicate across the chasms of difference.

The NDT is currently located in the midst of the demographic transition. I would suggest that the future of the NDT is based on its capacity to redefine itself in the pedagogical debate; that significant attention needs to be directed to issues of institutional exclusion; that a new mission needs to be developed for the twenty-first century if the NDT is to remain a viable institution.

The NDT has traditionally represented the fruits of a year's sustained participation in intellectual rigor, a powerful work ethic, and the dynamism of the laboratory-like tournament setting. Participants tackle the most provocative issues in the academy and the larger society. The NDT is defined, in part, by the power it wields as a pedagogical structure. Using competition to motivate the most advanced levels of academic achievement, the tournament setting hones the skills of one of the brightest groups of college students in the United States. NDT alumni operate at the highest levels of professional competence and fully credit their debate skills for their ability to make responsible contributions to society. The NDT is populated with individuals who have the potential to be some of the nation's most influential leaders; true role models during a troubled transition to a new century.

Why should the NDT redefine itself? The answer to this question is that the NDT has remained a predominantly affluent, white, male activity in pedagogical service to Irvine's "endangered species." Harvard education professor Jonathan Kozol(2) has consistently identified those served by the status quo of institutional exclusion as winners in a "rigged" game which is justified on the basis of meritocracy and a historical pattern of white, male affirmative action. How can merit be assessed in the NDT when the entry barriers are high for those who cannot afford to attend a high school debate institute; for those who participate in public education mandated by law as "equal" which is, in reality, truly unequal in every inner city in the United States; for those marginalized on the basis of gender stereotypes which require the imitation of white, male communication role models? The 1974 Sedalia Conference recognized this concern when it identified the need for wider participation in the NDT by women and people of color. The 1996 NDT statistics reflect the lack of progress during the twenty-two years since the Sedalia Conference: while a woman won the tournament, she was the first in ten years, the third in the fifty year history of the tournament; of the thirty-two debaters in the "First Round" bids to the NDT, only three were women, only one a person of color; only one woman and one person of color were represented in the top twenty speakers. This is not to suggest that the NDT did not represent those who were most successful over the course of the year's competition. These statistics, rather, reflect an institutional system which is overwhelmingly populated with one type of student, the affluent, white male, in an educational system which urgently needs role models from different groups to meet the demographic and pedagogical requirements of the future. Where is the change requested by the Sedalia Conference over two decades ago? How can an activity which has worried about declining participation continue to allow entry and retention barriers to exist for women, people of color, and socio-economically disadvantaged populations?

How can the NDT redefine itself?. There are a number of answers to this question which start with the assumption that the NDT is a superior pedagogical model for educational reform for several reasons. First, actively teaching people to advocate on their own behalf is the relevant praxis of argumentation and communication theory. The solution to the problems in our inner cities might depend on our continuing research and application of knowledge which affirms the trade-off between verbal and physical aggression; the notion that if one can command the listener's attention with words, one does not have to resort to violence to get attention.

Second, competition motivates active learning. Critics might argue that winning and losing are hierarchical notions that perpetuate inequity. It would seem, however, that competition encourages involvement and participation by offering incentives to learning. In a society increasingly characterized by alienation, isolation and depression, competition invites engagement and fosters community through mentoring, camaraderie, and team development; through focus on common tasks.

Third, competition can encourage experiential education. We purport to teach students in team competition how to be good "winners" and "losers," how to cope with success and failure. In a post-modern era this probably means redefining winning and losing as success and failure in order to stress the experience that motivates one to excellence in both work ethic and achievement; to stress that "losing" is experiential education that motivates one towards identifying barriers to "winning" in order to advance one's competitive competence; to encourage increased access to information technology for greater scholarship, and, along the way, to greater motivation to access the current information age which has replaced the industrial age. Academic competition offers the potential of making structure and pedagogy more relevant to the realities of the coming century.

Finally, re-visioning the ways in which we understand competition, success and failure, winning and losing, and experiential education has the potential to increase the types of populations participating in the NDT. The resultant increase in skilled role models for the groups that will increasingly characterize the education system will help to meet a profound societal need.

The NDT community needs actively to recruit women, people of color, and those from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, a process that begins with the support of junior high and high school debate programs. The National Forensic League has taken beginning steps to support recruitment and retention of traditionally disenfranchised populations. The NDT community needs to support and supplement those efforts through proactive leadership. All college debate programs can support community outreach to teach the skills of advocacy to junior high and high school students in socio-economically challenged areas. Many educational grants are available to provide support funds for augmenting skill development in at-risk student populations. High school debate institutes are excellent potential candidates for such support funding. A national evaluation, however, to secure institutional inclusion into the curriculum, staffing, and structure of debate institutes would be a desirable precursor to a concerted effort to pursue funding for a united outreach effort.

The NDT community needs to engage in rigorous conversation with other debate communities. Pooling resources for grant writing, establishing low cost access to information technology such as specialized computer data bases, and developing ways to reduce the personal and financial costs of participation are just a few examples of ways in which proactive leadership can be discharged to increase access to the NDT. The NDT and CEDA communities, for example, have a great deal to learn from one another as we begin an initial dialogue this year through the medium of a common topic. As an active coach in both communities I would particularly commend the results of on-going research at the national CEDA tournament on (among other items) the demographic composition of participant students, directors, and graduate assistant coaches with respect to race and gender, in the form of an excellent "Vision" statement by the current CEDA officers.(3)

As the educational system in the United States undergoes transition, as we individually and collectively struggle with the ways in which our culture's past prejudices have institutionalized exclusion, the NDT stands poised on the brink of true educational praxis. The NDT is, in many ways, the nation's most unique tournament; a powerful model of experiential education in critical thinking and appropriate use of responsible research; in building cooperation, engagement, and dialogue between teacher and student. Increasing access to the experience is not necessarily a function of increasing the size of the tournament, but rather generating opportunities for role models who can inspire teachers and students who reflect changing demographic composition of the United States to educational heights that will promote the reform necessary for a healthy society in the 21 st century.


1 Irvine, Jacqueline Jordan, Black Students and School Failure: Policies, Practices, and Prescriptions (New York: Greenwood Press, 1990) 126-27.

2 Kozol has most fully developed this idea in Savage Inequalities (New York: Harper Collins, 1991) and Amazing Grace (New York: Crown, 1995).

3 This statement was authored by Dr. Pamela Stepp, Cornell University, Dr. A.C. Snider, University of Vermont, and Dr. Carrie Crenshaw, University of Alabama. It was sent to the membership of CEDA in a May 1996 mailing.
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Title Annotation:National Debate Tournament
Author:Wade, Melissa Maxcy
Publication:Argumentation and Advocacy
Date:Jun 22, 1996
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