Specifically: I knew old school debate fairly well; there is a new school of hit-or-miss debate in town; and not one person I met was as verbally inept as President Bush. Rejoice, rejoice, you have no choice.

I ventured out to Sprague last night and again this morning to help judge at the District Speech and Debate tournament. I’ve done some judging every few years as the need arises, and it is, for the most part, an enjoyable experience. This go-round I was bright enough to remember to ask Jane (the tourney director) for a student to time for me because I’ve always had great difficulty listening, writing comments, watching the clock, and giving time signals. Being able to slough off the time keeping chores onto a student was of great assistance. Matt and Ginger, both speech and debate coaches, were also very helpful in orienting me to the new world of debate because the powers that be went and spun the roulette wheel when I wasn’t looking. In other words, they don’t debate like they used to when I was a kid (with baseball bats and knives).

When I was debating, we had two styles: cross examination and value (also known as L-D or Lincoln-Douglas). Students were given a resolution like “Resolved, Oregon needs a sales tax” or “Resolved, political assassinations are a legitimate tool of foreign policy” or “Resolved, the president is a nincompoop.” Debaters would spend the year gathering evidence, writing affirmative and negative cases to support or deny the resolution, and present said cases and evidence at tournaments. It was a time-consuming, yet enjoyable experience. If the debate rounds themselves tended to bog down in a flood of evidence and fast talk that was just considered the perils of good research and writing. It is true, however, that sometimes, though certainly not always, the rounds became something that wasn’t so much debate as they were something akin to debate.

Today’s system, as I found out, is different. Oregon Public Debate, loosely based on a parliamentary style, allows no researched evidence whatsoever (other than a dictionary for defining terms). Teams are presented with three resolutions about 15 minutes before the round. The Proponents (formerly known as the Affirmative) strike one resolution, the Opponents (formerly known as the Negative) strike another, and the parties (formerly known as Prince) debate the third.

Based on my experience yesterday, I would say this makes for a good test of debating skills but by highly uninformed participants. While I’m not convinced that this is a step forward, I’m not convinced it’s a step backward either. Perhaps it’s a side gallop. Or maybe a pirouette. Whatever it is, it looks funny. They really need to add some more content to the process, because right now anyone who’s well-read and can deliver a forceful presentation can win. That’s something akin to debate as well.

So there is talk of debating a single resolution for a month, allowing evidence, then switching resolutions the next month. I can’t imagine that it would hurt to try that. Watching the uninformed debate an issue can be painful.

But it’s no more painful that watching the unprepared do an individual event, and I had a few of those this morning. Most students whose extemporaneous or impromptu presentations went into the crapper had the same problem: Organizational structure. To paraphrase Ginger, the right way to do this is to tell us what you’re going to tell us, tell us, and tell us what you told us. Have a road map (“I have three main points…”) and follow it. Students who did this today were in good shape. Those who didn’t meandered about and repeated themselves frequently, not unlike what some people do on a personal web site. Not that I’d know anything about that myself.

On the brighter side, not a single individual I saw in this tournament in either speech or debate offered a tautological argument the likes of which the American public is so commonly subjected to by our president. (A tautological argument: “A is A because A is A.”) That alone gives me hope, and it should give you hope too. Smarter people are on the way.