The Not So Great Debaters

My daughter is on her middle school debate team, and I am a certified middle school debate judge. After much thought, I think that I may have gone too far in judging a recent debate tournament, or did I?

The topic was, “Should the United States make voting mandatory?” Now admittedly this is a hard topic and I had to judge two teams consisting of three young adults. One side was the proposition side, while the other the opposition. There were two prop speakers and two op speakers, with each one getting five minutes to make their points. Then there were two rebuttal speakers for each side with three minutes to debate. The proposition side limited the topic’s focus to apply only to 18-to-22-year-olds and only for the presidential elections.

The first prop speaker stumbled through each of her points and I could not make heads or tails out of what she was saying. Her teammates even tried to help her out but she hissed at them to leave her be. The other two prop speakers, while more confident, did not make much sense either. All in all, they kept saying that this is a free country but that this group should be made to vote so that they could be part of the voting process. By forcing them to vote, it would educate them on whom to vote for. And, if they did not want to vote for anyone, they could just mark a “no” vote box on the ballot. Hmmmm?

The prop team also brought up the point that we need to have more voters, which didn’t make sense because they limited a whole pool of voters with the age requirement, right? And, they never addressed their mandatory requirement for only voting in presidential elections.

After a middle school debate, the judge is supposed to dismiss everyone from the room in order to render a decision. The judge is only supposed to evaluate teams on what they said, not what they meant to say. The judge is also supposed to give an explanation of why the winning team succeeded, give individual scores to each speaker and explain their scores.

I thought my job was easy for this debate – it is always easier when there is a clear winner in your mind. And, it was clear to me who the winner was hands down. So, when it came time to invite everyone in to deliver my decision, I didn’t think much of how the losing team would react to my comments. Surely, the prop side knew that they lost in bad way, right? Surely, the prop side knew that their argument was a mess and full of holes, and that the op team sailed away with the win several times over, right?

So, I delivered my decision that the opposition won! The prop team looked at me like they had heard a death sentence. I explained to the prop team that I did not understand why they limited the topic because that forced them to limit the argument. I told them that I did not understand any of their points and I felt that they were not prepared for the debate. I also reprimanded them for throwing out a bogus source because it was clear that they had made it up.

Then it came time to give each person their individual scores. After I had given the op team their scores, I gave the prop team their scores as a group by their request. The first girl, who stumbled over every word, was visibly shaken when I told her that clearly she knew why she received a fairly low score. The other two received higher scores because at least they attempted to state their confused points with confidence. At the end, I told them that I hoped that they would go on to the next two debates better prepared and I hoped that my comments would not affect those debates.

So, I happily, dropped off my scores to the director of the debate. A half-an-hour later the main judge approached me and told me that I was too harsh on the kids and that I need to really watch what I say. She went on to tell me that regardless of how bad I felt their arguments were that I should I have said something positive. She explained to me that they want the kids to remain in debate and not be turned off by a judge’s comments. She assured me that the kids listen to every word that a judge says.

I was floored that I had been reported by the team’s debate coach, but then I gathered myself and told the head judge that I would be more positive.

So, wouldn’t you know it, the last team I have to judge is another team coached by the judge who was offended by my earlier decision. He even had the nerve to come in and watch the new proceedings. Well, I was much nicer this time in rendering my final decision.

Should I have been reported to the head judge? Why didn’t the offended coach deal with his ill-prepared team on his own? Why were they debating a topic they knew nothing about (they did not have sources or a clear understanding of what they were debating)? Was the coach too sensitive? Were the kids too sensitive? Was I too critical?

After much thought (after the fact), I realized that I could have said something positive at the beginning and then launched into the team’s missteps. But, what are we teaching our kids? There is a time to be kind, but there is also a time to lay it on the line and not be so nice when it is clear that some haven’t done their homework, right?

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3 Responses to The Not So Great Debaters

  1. Colette Choates says:

    I think you handled your decision appropriately. My daughter is
    on the debate team at her highschool and I sometimes am a judge. I handle my judging in the same manner, but am fortunate because I deal with private schools who believe in
    telling it like it is. Candidly in order to not make the same mistake you must first know what your mistake was. Job well

  2. Harden says:

    I have worked with kids. You want them to feel confidence.
    Yes you could have started out postivie and ended up postitive with instructions in the middle. However, the instructions in the middle should include not only what they did wrong. But point for point how they could be better prepared.
    This works
    I have seen it.
    best wishes

  3. Zofia says:

    Our kids are product of a culture that praises all, regardless of its inherent value or quality, in an attempt at fairness and political correctness. I fall in the middle between the two answers. Instructions for improvement are needed for them to learn, as much as acknowledgment what was done right by them to keep their emotional gates open to hear the information they can use to improve. The critique part may work better as constructive suggestions and practical reasons behind them to use in their next attempt, rather than naming what was done as simply right and wrong – which brings it directly to their personal self-esteem systematically inflated by our culture, and thus ill prepared to handle criticism. Thinking of the other children growing up outside of the US, I am concerned that our well meant nurturing techniques and emphasis on self esteem does our own kids a real disservice in a global community. If they never toughen their skin and wilt at any criticism, they won’t be able to emotionally compete in the global economy. A little humility goes a long way.

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