While there is wide agreement that the cost of college education has risen far faster than the incomes of most Americans, there is some debate as to whether the quality of the product has kept pace with the price. Not surprisingly, almost all who argue that it has (college administrators, professors, and populist politicians) are deeply invested either ideologically or financially in the system itself. More objective observers see a bureaucratic, inefficient, and hopelessly out of touch ivory tower that is bleeding the country of its savings, and more tragically, its intellectual acuity.
Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than in the demise of collegiate debate. This once courtly rhetorical sparring ground for class presidents and lawyers-in-training is supposed to be forum for ideas, proofs, and conclusions. And while traditional debates did not typically offer high drama, they did teach students how to produce objectively superior arguments, a skill that many types of potential employers would value. But more recently, debate has succumbed to the worst aspects of moral relativism, academic sloth and politically correct dogma that have transformed it into an unintelligible mix of performance art and petty politics. It’s not a debate, but we pretend it is.
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The 2014 National Championship of the Cross Examination Debate Association (CEDA), one of collegiate debate’s governing bodies, made headlines as the first to include two all-African-American finalist teams. The winning team, from Towson University in Maryland, was the first ever comprised solely of African-American women. The results were heralded as a triumph for minority achievement in a field traditionally dominated by white “elites.” But this success has come at a great cost: A dramatic change in the rules of the game. The championships, as well as dozens of the CEDA sanctioned debates and championships, are easily found on YouTube. I challenge anyone to watch any of those “debates” and describe the ideas and arguments that participants are supposedly addressing.
At this year’s championship, the actual debate question concerned the wisdom of restricting the war powers of the U.S. president. But instead of addressing one of the most important U.S. foreign policy questions of the past half century, the two teams focused exclusively on how the U.S. was supposedly “at war” with poor black people. Although these arguments were clearly off-subject, it seems that the topic did not matter. The “debate” came off as a mix of rap, personal invective, speed talking, soapbox harangue, and explicative filled rants. When one contestant’s time expired, he “brilliantly” yelled “F-ck the time!” As was the case in 2013, when another African American team took the championship, the arguments of the winners completely ignored the stated resolution, and instead used personal experience to challenge the “injustice” of the very notion of debate itself. But subjective arguments have been traditionally dismissed as poor rhetoric. “I won the lottery” is not a good argument in favor of the lottery system.
But in recent years, logic and objective analysis have come to be considered “white” concepts. In an Atlantic Monthly article (Apr. 16), Osagie Obasogie, a liberal law professor from University of California, is quoted as saying “Various procedures – regardless of whether we’re talking about debate formats or law- have the ability to hide the subjective experiences that shape these seemingly ‘objective’ and ‘rational’ rules. …This is the power of racial subordination: making the viewpoint of the dominant group seem like the only true reality.” In other words debates, like much in society, was devised by white people to favor white people. This idea, which is the essence of affirmative action, may make professors and students feel good about themselves, but it simply means that minorities have license to underachieve.
Creating an alternate set of rules for people of different backgrounds creates huge problems. What would have happened to Venus and Serena Williams had tennis officials drew up a special set of rules for them to compensate for their background? While they may have won more tournaments, they would not have been pushed to achieve their true potential and their victories would have been empty achievements. While it’s true that they faced more obstacles than privileged players from the suburbs, changing the rules to allow for their subjective experiences would have prevented their ultimate success.
That is exactly what is happening today, not just in debate tournaments, but across universities in general. Excuses are being made and rules are being bent in order to account for our personal differences, race, gender and sexual orientation in particular. This trend is producing a generation of marginally skilled, professionally unprepared graduates. The poor quality of our higher education means that we can’t compete with other nations who insist on educating their young people through “objective” and “oppressive” systems. This can also be said of our economy. Dumbed down and subjective criteria allow us to pretend that our economy is growing even as living standards are falling, the labor force is shrinking, savings are evaporating, and opportunity is more and more elusive. Rather than admit the obvious, that we have a remedial economy, we have consistently redefined success downward with revisions to tools we use to measure our economy like GDP, inflation and unemployment. See a deeper analysis of this trend in may latest special report, Taxed By Debt.
Like with our deteriorating educational system, our economy no longer measures up to previous standards of performance. In education, you can see the difference through comparison to a century old Jr. High School test that I believe would stymie most of today’s college graduates. Our economic deterioration can be seen in our high trade deficits, big budget deficits, high public and private debt levels and the explosion in the number of people who rely on government assistance be it in the form of welfare, food stamps, or disability.
However, according to many economists, none of this is cause for concern as it is simply the way things work in our new “consumer-based,” “service-sector,” economy. Instead of growth through savings, capital investment, and production, we now rely on money printing, asset bubbles, leverage, and consumer credit. Inflation, which was once acknowledged as being bad, is now considered good. Persistent trade deficits, once a sign of economic distress, are now considered signs of strong domestic demand. Instead of dealing painfully with intractable problems, we have redefined our liabilities as assets and declared victory.
In the end, will awarding debate championships to undisciplined, barely comprehensible minority students really help these individuals succeed in life? No law firm or corporation will look to hire debate winners as the competitions have now lost all relevance. Similarly, dumbing down standards to whitewash our poor economy performance will only worsen our problems. Fortunately the Supreme Court last week, with its decision to support Michigan’s campaign to end race-based selection practices at state universities, took a tiny step in dismantling this lunacy. But we must be on the lookout for much lower profile aspects of the same confrontation. The front lines are everywhere.
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