What Hath Athens to Do with This Cafeteria? Debate, Rhetoric, and Psychagogia

Stephan Tye demonstrates how participation in a competitive debate team offers unique training in rhetoric.
Reading Time: 9 minutes

You’re sitting on an uncomfortable plastic bench. You rest “spreading” (speed reading) and technical debate jargon. your arms on an equally uncomfortable plastic table. You The bad habits acquired through participation in these note the marbled linoleum tiles under your feet. Everything events would more likely undo a classroom training in around you is illuminated in a pale greenish-hue from the rhetoric, rather than supplement one. Events of this na- fluorescent lights overhead. Shuffling all around you, like ture and their styles will likely vary from region to region.

Extras in an episode of The Walking Dead, are tired adoles- cents. Some lean with their backs against stainless steel industrial-grade kitchen appliances, faces aglow from the tablet computer screens in front of them. While others stand mere inches from the walls, passionately addressing their stucco audiences. You’re a high school debate coach, and this is a typical speech and debate tournament.

By now you might have guessed that the setting I’m describing is a school cafeteria. The cafeteria, so depicted, is an odd scene to be sure. Even more odd, is that on most weekends, these places are transformed into the proving grounds for a training in classical rhetoric. Now, at first glance, public high schools and rhetoric are two things not often associated. Government funded educational institu- tions seem an unlikely arena for rhetorical training; but I assure you, it is happening all across our nation, on almost any given weekend.

For a little over four years, I’ve coached debate at Geneva School of Boerne, a few miles north of San Antonio. For almost as many years, I’ve also taught a sophomore course in classical rhetoric. In many ways, these two roles are effectively the two sides of the same coin; rhetors can be trained well in both the classroom and the cafeteria. Yet, just as Washington’s profile looks nothing like an eagle, these two types of training are distinct. Participation in a competi- tive debate team, in particular, offers a unique training in rhetoric. A classical and Christian school seeking to provide the best training in rhetoric to her students would be wise to consider doing so through a competitive debate team.

Now, before explaining the benefits, I should warn the reader that not all debate events are created equal. Most modern competitive events emphasize rapid speed and quantity of content over eloquence and analysis. Any school considering participation in competitive debate should avoid events where persuasive delivery takes a backseat to “spreading” (speed reading) and technical debate jargon. the bad habits acquired through participation in these events would more likely undo a classroom training in rhetoric, rather than supplement one. events of this nature and their styles will likely vary from region to region. Prospective coaches would be wise to attend a few local tournaments, observing several different speech and debate events, noting counter formative tendencies.

Public Forum Debate is one event that is a relatively safe bet for classical and Christian schools, regardless of the region. Unlike most competitive debate events, Public Fo- rum Debate is tailored to the persuasion of a non-specialist, citizen judge. Debating on topics of national significance, Public Forum debaters must be prepared to convey compli- cated arguments to a judge, who until that moment might have no prior knowledge of the topic. Students, working in pairs, must be prepared to take up either side in the debate, as determined by the flip of a coin prior to every debate round. Students take turns setting out their cases, refuting opposing cases, summarizing the debate round, providing final appeals, and periodically engaging in questioning, all in the hope of convincing the judge to vote for their team.

Just imagine yourself as one of the student debat- ers. Your judge is an elderly woman, who just set down her needlework. Your task is to convince her that development assistance should be prioritized over humanitarian aid in the Sahel Region of Africa. Or perhaps sitting in front of you is a college student, wearing a T-Shirt that reads, “No, I’m pretty sure guns kill people,” and you have the insurmount- able task of convincing him that Congress should not renew the Federal Assault Weapons Ban. Complicating matters further, is the other team seated next to you. They take up the opposite position, waiting for you to make a mistake so they can use it against you. This isn’t an MLA-formatted es- say on white paper. This isn’t an in-class oral address to an audience of familiar faces. This is real-life discourse to real- life people. It is at this moment that a training in classical rhetoric becomes tangible. Here, rhetoric is alive in the eyes and ears of the audience, in the increased heartbeat and sweat of an anxious adolescent, and in the secret script of the judge’s written verdict. Debate truly offers to the student an embodied training in rhetoric that sets it apart from the classroom.

Because debate provides a real-world application of rhetorical skills, antagonists to challenge and overcome (or learn from!), and raises the stakes for the continued study of rhetoric, students’ rhetorical skills are sharpened. In making this case, I’ll allow the Five Canons of Classical Rhetoric to serve as my guide, those categorized rhetorical principles established by ancient rhetoricians: Invention, Arrange- ment, Style, Memory, and Delivery.

Like many debate events, Public Forum Debate centers around resolutions: declarative statements on a given topic for debaters to affirm or negate. Public Forum Debate resolutions change every month. One month before the start of a new debate topic, the National Speech and Debate Association, the organization that sets the rules
and oversees much of American speech and debate tourna- ments, announces the new resolution. This is when debaters engage in the practice of skills related to the first of the Five Canons: Invention.

There is no more exciting time to coach a debate team than when a new resolution is announced. Debaters chomp at the bit to discover what arguments can be made on any given topic. Indeed, discovery is what the the Canon of Invention is all about. For several weeks following the release of a new topic, the team engages in energetic, but systematic, round-table discussions about available argu- ments. As the team’s Harkness-table heuristic continues, the list of possible arguments grows, and research begins. Each student unearths authoritative support for his claims. These findings are presented, scrutinized, and, finally, debaters draft their cases.

In all the frenzied excitement of topic preparation, it’s easy to lose sight of the rhetorical skills being developed. While these skills are too numerous to list, one of the most important is lexical discernment. Students pay particular attention to the definitions of key terms in the resolution. I recall, for example, a few months ago, when no less than two full debate class periods were devoted to discussion of the definition of the word “ought.” These students rightly recognized that alternative definitions of that word would allow the debater to “frame” the argument in a way that benefited one side of the debate or another. One seemingly insignificant verb in the resolution would prevent or allow access to certain lines of reasoning. Successful debaters rec- ognize the importance of owning a good dictionary. In this, debaters are apprentice wordsmiths; attentive to their own words and the words of their opponents. Given enough practice they become masters of their craft.

Skills related to Invention are honed beyond the initial preparation stage. Once the students find themselves at a competitive tournament, there is much related to the rhetorical situation left to discover. Take our biased, tee- shirt wearing college student from earlier. As a student of rhetoric, a debater will instinctively glean as much informa- tion from his audience prior to the round. In this situation, recognizing potential for bias, judicious debaters might modify their case in response to perceived partisanship. They might choose a different side (assuming they win the coin toss), modify their lexicon, or use different arguments to best appeal to the individual. When rhetors look to the opportunity of the moment, they are practicing kairos, an ancient means of Invention that looks to the role of timing or opportunity in persuasion. Debaters must not only be masters of the words they use, but they must recognize where and when to use (or not use) them. Students who participate in debate develop the ability to assess and re- spond to the rhetorical situation because they are presented with new and varied audiences.

Arrangement, the second Canon of Classical Rhetoric, also has applications before, during, and after a competitive tournament. Once debaters have invented their arguments, they must decide in what order to struc- ture their cases, and how much background information
to provide. Generally the pre-tournament arrangement
of a debate argument is a given by convention. Debaters will typically begin with a short verbal hook to grab their audience’s attention. Then, they will provide background information necessary for the audience to weigh in on the issue. They will then state their claim; that is, whether they are affirming or negating the resolution, and why. Then, for each of their subordinate claims, the reasons why the judge should vote for them, support is provided, and the impact, or importance, of that claim is stated. If time allows, debat- ers will attempt to refute the most commonly used oppos- ing claims. They will end with a brief conclusion, summa- rizing and urging the judge to vote for them. This format might sound familiar to many classical educators, because it is very similar to the Six Part Classical Oration Arrangement taught at many classical schools. Drafting debate argu- ments enables debate students to frequently practice their writing in a way that reinforces what they are taught in the classroom. Unlike a standard classroom essay and oration, however, debaters encounter feedback that is immediate and often harsh. Opponents and angry judges don’t mince words. This, coupled with the next round looming, exhorts the student to revision in a way that the assign-grade-return format of classroom writing can’t match.

It’s not enough to just include the requisite parts of the Classical Arrangement. Students must also consider the appropriate length of each of the parts. Consider again our elderly crocheter. Remembering their own ignorance of the Sahel Region in Africa prior to their research, and the unlike- lihood that their non-specialist citizen judge knows much about it either, the debaters deem it necessary to expand on the background information in their case. They quickly con- fer, deciding to cut some support from their cases to spend more time establishing background information necessary for their judge’s understanding. Judging the appropriate- ness of the length of the arranged parts is yet another skill frequently practiced by debaters.

The third of the Five Canons of Classical Rhetoric is Style. The Canon of Style is concerned with choosing words suitable to a rhetorical occasion. The ticking clock looming over every speech forces debaters to wrestle with word econ- omy. Speeches in Public Forum Debate vary in length from two to four minutes. Faced with this scarcity of time, debat- ers must make use of every second of the speech to inform their audience, refute their opponent’s claims, and expand their own case. Every filler word is a missed opportunity. Whether drafting their case or speaking extemporaneously in round, a debater’s language becomes clear and simple. They instinctively learn to say only what is necessary with as few words as possible.

Memory is the fourth Canon. Memory deals not only with familiarity of a speech, but also having a stock of support available and knowing how to recall it quickly. It is not uncommon for debaters to compile hundreds of pieces of evidence for each resolution. With little time to prepare during a round, debaters must quickly bring to mind a
fact or retrieve a lengthier quote. I’ve seen debate rounds lost because an unorganized debater spent the lion’s share of his speech rifling through unorganized piles of printed evidence. To combat this, debaters develop organizational systems to assist in retrieval. It is not uncommon, however, for the most used facts, figures, and quotes to be memorized verbatim by the end of a month on a specific topic. The memory of a debater is continually exercised.

The more familiar with the speech and its support, the more comfortable the student will be in presenting it. Delivery, the final Canon of Classical Rhetoric, deals with the presentation of the speech. Here is where all those carefully selected and arranged words might fall upon deaf ears. For if debaters speak too quietly, or in a monotone voice, or rattle off their case too rapidly, their words will likely not be heard at all. Debaters learn to speak audibly, at a restrained rate, and with varied intonation. For the work of Invention, Ar- rangement, and Style to matter, a debater must be skillful in vocal delivery.

While debate is certainly a competition of words, it does offer to the participant the exercise of other persuasive skills related to Delivery. Consider, for example, debaters who look down toward their printed speech or computer screen. Debaters recognize the importance of eye contact in a speech. Eye contact signals confidence and holds the attention of the audience. Hand gestures are also important. Debaters use hand gestures to reinforce their vocal deliv- ery. Wild, frenzied gestures detract from their case, while smooth, purposeful gestures provide a visual underscore
to their words. Through practice and feedback, debaters acquire the skills that unite speech and body.

Debate offers to the student of rhetoric a unique opportunity to expand on those skills acquired in the class- room. They learn to discover arguments. They understand, arrange, and use words well and at the right time. They in- crease their capacity for and organization of support. Finally, the debater learns to take those words and present them in an engaging way. With this in mind, let’s take a closer look at the cafeteria we began in. You note that the linoleum tiles look more like marbled rock. The pale greenish-hue gives way to a warm, yellow glow, like that of the midday Mediterranean sun. The tired adolescents begin to resemble Ancient Athenian citizens. The speeches your students are practicing begin to sound more like the words of the Apostle Paul. You’re atop Mars Hill. For the reason we are at this tournament is for far more than the practical benefits of linguistic development, or the cheap plastic trophies re- ceived in victory, or the bolstering of college transcripts. We are training our students to discern and defend truth and to winsomely persuade others to it. We are training them for a rhetoric that Plato describes as psychagogia (“soul leading”). We are training them in the footsteps of Paul the Apostle, for their own Mars Hill moments. We are preparing them to be psychagogues: leaders of souls by words to the truth found in Christ Jesus. And debate is a fantastic way to do this.