Recurring Elitism in Debate

Eshaam Bhattad | 3/18/22

The environment of debate is changing. Its intent has shifted: from once promoting proper argumentation amongst the youth of our world, to now promoting spurious arguments that are based off of (and researched) without true and genuine connotations behind them. In Congress, people champion the words “low-income,” “constituency,” “bottom line,” trying to win a fruitless tug of war between the affirmative and negation, using those terms as chips on the table as they try to win brownie points from judges who could care less. In Lincoln Douglas, you see people arguing on the merits of democracy, a system invented to give power to those without wealth or might, without ever being in that situation. In Public Forum and Policy, the resolutions are solutions that are meant to predominately help those that don’t have the financial access to fix it themselves. Throughout debate, watering down people into statistics becomes a common trend; as students vie to win, they search for studies that will give them the biggest impacts, the biggest economic downturn, and the most lives lost.

No matter which line of debate it is, students will always use the low income as the a priori for all of their arguments. But once everything is said and done, after the prep has all been written, and the tournament has finished, they’ll close their thousand dollar MacBooks, move to their luxurious living rooms, watch Disney+ on their ninety-nine inch TV’s and go back to living their lavish lifestyles. This is what elitism looks like within debate.

A school’s primary focus is never on debate. It’ll go to the core curriculum, then to paychecks, and to every event that happens within the school before it finds its way to after school programs. After that, it will go to the sports teams, followed by the academic clubs, and then finds its way to the small speech and debate programs. The problem with that is when the average amount that students in clubs spend are $126 on average, and the cost of going to a national tournament is at minimum $130, it means an average debater can’t attend there tournaments. Which means, if a debate program is getting any funding, it’s the last drops that are being drained from the ocean that is school funding.

However, some schools have figured out a loophole. They simply make the drops bigger. Coincidentally, the schools that found this loophole are rolling in (Beverly) hills of money. Despite some programs scraping the bottom of the barrel for funding, for wealthier schools, the bits they scrape off equate to a huge amount of money. Here’s where all this funding works into the idea of elitism. Schools that have more money, are quite simply miles ahead in debate.

It starts at the very basics: learning. Schools that have immense amounts of funding for their programs also pour thousands of dollars into ensuring their students have proper access to any resources that can make them better. This means hiring fresh off the circuit debaters, the champions of NSDA and TOC rounds, to teach students the tips and tricks of how to win rounds, and instilling those lessons in their newbie debaters, to create some of the best debaters in the nation. Going back to a pre-COVID era and entering into a post-COVID era, it means having access to thousands of dollars to transport kids across the nation for three or four day tournaments, and doing that dozens of times a year. But most importantly, it means having access to more quality practices, engaging material, personalized plans of learning, and focus training kids individually. To put it in simple terms, it allows kids to learn in the best way possible, surrounded by national champions, spending thousands of dollars for each of them and personalizing their learning.

What this does is create a constant cycle of the best debaters continually producing the best debaters, and the rest of the country powerless to disrupt the cycle, because despite how good they may be, their schools aren’t rich enough to help them advance. When a school lacks funding, the money that clubs and sports get is already limited. A club like debate usually gets little to no  amounts of funding, simply because schools seem to favor athletics over academics when it comes to extra-curricular activities. Therefore, schools don’t have enough funds for students from programs like debate to fly to the biggest tournaments in the country. When these schools can’t fly across the country to attend  tournaments, they lose the ability to compete on a national scale. The harm in that is when it comes to showing the entire circuit the capabilities that they hold, their inexperience prohibits them from having the potential to win it all.

But even if the improbable happens, and one of these kids is able to go to one of these tournaments. The saddest part is they likely won’t break to the next rounds, simply because the “better” debaters will be the ones that advance to outrounds, not them. When a low-income student has little to no experience in a chamber, versus a debater that has been to every tournament on the circuit, the chances of breaking are next to nothing. The problem with this, especially in the context of LD and PF, is that when breaking is contingent on your round record, the schools with the lowest records(consequently, schools with worsened education) end up facing off against each other after a few rounds. So all it does is pit small schools against themselves, letting rich schools dominate the circuits, and make a speech and debate a “pay-to-win” event.

This creates a monopoly on earning bids for the most prestigious tournaments like NIETOC, and TOC as it becomes all the more harder, and qualifying for NCFL and NSDA becomes almost unachievable for students in impoverished schools with less funding and resources. This leads to the unique experience of competing at the highest stage in the country, to be an experience that is never felt by the students from the poorest schools. Which means the best debaters compete at the best tournaments, while the low income stay within their small circuits, minimizing their potential. The byproduct of all of this is simple: the best debaters continue to get better and better while less advantaged debaters are stuck in the same vicious cycle.

When a student joins speech and debate, their initial impression isn’t that their school’s finances will play into their ability to become the best. They believe it’s based on their own skills, the quality of their arguments, the passion in their rhetoric, the content in their contentions, or the philosophical knowledge in their kritiks. But it doesn’t take long before a person realizes that they can’t ascend to their maximum ability as a debater because they have pennies in funding against the stacks of dollars that rich schools possess. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but it’s one that every single underprivileged kid has to digest.

A commonality amongst all debaters is that they have been accustomed to one idea: the status quo. And today’s status quo has reflected the idea that the best debaters come from the highest section of the capitalist hierarchy. So how does that change? How do we make the status quo more equitable, and make debate a better activity.

You break the cycle. You have the best debaters teach the ones who don’t have the most resources to become them. You make expensive four thousand dollar debate camps, meant to lure in the rich, more accessible to the people who don’t have the entire Apple ecosystem at their disposal. You make huge tournaments, give out sponsorships, grants and anything they can, to give low income schools a fighting chance. In simple terms that means, you make debate affordable. Use the thousands of dollars in budget that these schools and tournaments have, and give them for those who need aid assistance as opposed to adding more shine to their trophies. Go as far as to make online divisions for tournaments, such that out-of-state kids would not have to travel, but if they had the financial capacity to do so, they could.  You wouldn’t jeopardize the feeling of in-person debate, but you would amend it to make it more accessible for other people. Online debate has it’s drawbacks, but it allows those to still have the chance to compete, which is a step in the right direction. 

At the end of the day, debate is meant to be a club. An activity that’s done with passion for current events, having meaningful discussions, and arguing about the world around us. Allowing the rich to shut out hundreds of schools from seeing this mission hold true is something that should have been done long ago, but with a few changes to the status quo, there is a chance to finally make that mission statement into a reality.