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Thursday, October 09, 2008

Were You a High School Debater Too?

Rocket_scienceI’ve been curious about this for quite a while: How many of you law professors out there are former high school debaters?

Being a law professor, it has always seemed to me, is the ultimate career destination for a high school debater. It’s almost like never quitting debate! (Not that I hold that up as the profession's most winsome feature.)

I feel kind of funny outing myself as a high school debater, but, as I’ve tried for years to convince my wife, being a debater actually was cool at my high school. Now, we weren’t as cool as the cheerleaders and football players, but we often hung out with them. (When I try to explain this to my wife, I can tell she doesn’t want to harsh on my reality, but her mouth just involuntarily screws up into an uneven grimace of dubiety. Hey, it’s not like we were mathletes.)

Honestly, I give credit to high school debate as being the single-most important intellectual training I’ve received. Not that the $100,000 I spent on law school didn’t come in a close second, of course. But in all seriousness, I think if I had Warren Buffet’s problem of having billions of dollars that I needed to give away, I’d cleave off a healthy chunk to seed high school debate programs, especially in disadvantaged school districts.

So, in the comments to this post, please out yourself as a high school debater. (Or, take the occasion, if you feel an overwhelming pressure to do so, to let everyone know you were a high school football player or cheerleader – in which case, let me say, good for you. Just please don’t tell my wife that you don’t remember hanging out with me.)

Photo from Rocket Science (Picturehouse/HBO 2007)

Posted by Eric E. Johnson on October 9, 2008 at 05:22 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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Tracked on Oct 10, 2008 4:34:47 PM


Brian Mulroney was a CUSID debater and former Prime Minister of Canada, and Leonard Cohen was a President of the McGill Debating Union...

Also, two of the more prominent members of the Liberal party - Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae - debated for the University of Toronto... in a show debate in front of a young Senator with the initials of JFK.

Many other Canadian debaters have slid into government posts - I can name two who are currently working in the Prime Minister's office, and three others who will soon be clerking for the Supreme Court.

Posted by: alex | Oct 14, 2008 1:01:59 AM

Lots of people debated. But how many were successful at both debate and academics? My favorite game is which successful NDT-style debaters turned into famous academics and public officials (not necessarily lawprofs). Here are some examples: James Q. Wilson, Laurence Tribe (as noted above), Lawrence Summers, Erwin Chemerinsky, Frank B. Cross. Larry Summers (former Sec. Treasury, former president of Harvard) is my candidate for most succesful ex-debater (I believe he debated for MIT).

Posted by: Stephen M. Griffin | Oct 13, 2008 11:27:05 PM

Debate? Whatever. I was on my high school's Latin Bowl team. (That's a quiz competition like It's Academic, but not televised, and all the questions are about the Latin language and Roman history. And yes, I was on the It's Academic team too. How ya like me now?)

Posted by: Sarah Lawsky | Oct 10, 2008 10:18:08 PM

I'm a former HS debater who wants to be a law professor, so that works I guess. The linkage is part because I felt like it seemed a natural extension of something I really loved doing, and partially because one my teammates' father (and thus, sometimes judge for us) teaches at Georgetown Law (Richard Lazarus) and it became quickly apparent he had the coolest job ever.

Posted by: David Schraub | Oct 10, 2008 9:43:34 PM

I was a high school debater, and on the New Jersey circuit I often debated against Jeff Blitz, who wrote & directed Rocket Science (and the great Spellbound).

Posted by: Sam Bagenstos | Oct 10, 2008 4:40:00 PM

I was a high-school debater, but I'm not sure being a professor is quite the same thing. For sheer competitiveness, clash of arguments, and so on, being an appellate litigator is a lot more like debate than is being a professor. Nice long threads like this have the feel of high-school debate, though. Maybe it'll start feeling more like debate once I get someone to attack my articles.

Posted by: Chris | Oct 10, 2008 1:47:13 PM

1. It is impossible to tell how many professors were once high school debaters; under-reporting is endemic. But this very blog retrieved info on ex-college debaters before (http://prawfsblawg.blogs.com/prawfsblawg/2005/10/college_debate_.html), which must be just the tip of the iceberg. One would almost think they were breeding, if that weren't so improbable.

Of course, whether a lot of professors did the activity is different from whether it's really good training for that profession. Either seems vastly less important than the question of whether it's good preparation for college and postgraduate work. The UDL initiative mentioned above claims that participation in its programs has been proven "to increase literacy scores by 25%, to improve grade-point averages by 8 to 10%, to achieve high school graduation rates of nearly 100%, and to produce college matriculation rates of 71 to 91%." If even close to accurate, that's not too shabby, and worth supporting.

2. To Paul Gowder's point, I don't think whether it is "unrealistic" has anything to do with it. Indeed, my own guess is that the training value may vary inversely with how "realistic" the debating activity is. (This invites an on-topic/parliamentary feud, kind of like Crips-Bloods but with index cards instead of blades.) Incoherence is a problem internal to the activity that doesn't seriously erode its value later on, and memorization plays almost no role. Or so I have heard.

3. I wouldn't read anything into the fact that Orin's wedgie comment was followed immediately by Neil's confession. Indeed, I would be wary of assisting Orin in his long search for his tormentor; really, it's time to move on. And the follow-up to that follow-up post would be "This one time at band camp . . .", and you don't want to head off in that direction.

Posted by: Edward Swaine | Oct 10, 2008 11:57:42 AM

You are definitely not alone. A nonprofit called the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues maintains a list of law professors and deans who support debate as a training tool for students in disadvantaged schools to become lawyers.

Check out the list here.

I work for this nonprofit and we are doing the exact work you mentioned: building policy debate leagues in disadvantaged urban schools. I was a high school debater in Milwaukee, WI. It didn't make me cool but it was one of the most important things I've ever done as far as my intellectual growth. I just graduated from Brown and I'm giving back to other activity through my work here.

A previous post mentioned George Soros and the original Urban Debate Network. Our organization is in many ways a successor to those efforts. We now work with the original UDLs that are still around and build new UDLs in cities that don't have them. In urban schools where students are often left unrecognized and unmotivated, debate is a way to light a competitive fire for students around intense academic work. We're finding that debate raises grades and achievement in a way that few other programs can match. I'm sure we're all familiar with how this all works.

Check out urbandebate.org to learn a bit about how it all works. If you want to see the 60 Minutes video the previous poster mentioned, it's on the site.


Posted by: Shiyin Wang | Oct 10, 2008 11:27:27 AM

I've already outed myself here: http://michaeldorf.org/2008/10/debate-as-debate-when-your-opponent.html. I agree that the activity can be incredibly educational for some yet for others merely a way to be abusive. (Kind of like the blogosphere, I guess.) I know that I'm only supposed to be outing myself, but I know quite a few law professors who debated in high school, including Ed McCaffery, Jim Hines, Brian Galle, and Louis Kaplow. And of course, Larry Tribe was a two-time national champion in on-topic college debate.

Posted by: Neil H. Buchanan | Oct 10, 2008 9:41:49 AM

You need a follow up post, "When You Were I High School, Did You Ever Give A Wedgie To A Debater?"

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Oct 10, 2008 1:46:56 AM

Great post. But I have to say, Eric, you're painting an interesting portrait of yourself in the blogosphere....

A high school debater, who was "way too smart" as a law student, and who, as a Professor, gets a kick of out being unconstitutional in daily life, wear konomark t-shirts, specializes in Navajo law, enjoys getting "flamed" for his PrawfsBlawg posts, and worships Elizabeth Vargas and Shakira (or at least thinks she's incredibly smart)!

Posted by: ap | Oct 9, 2008 7:02:56 PM

I was a high school debater. Even worse, I was a college debater. And worst of all, I coached college teams while I attended law school. I am quite sure being a debater has never been "cool" anywhere in the United States. Like many debaters, I credit the activity with a majority of my analytical, research, speaking, and argumentation skills. I learned far more through debate than I did in all of my college and law school courses combined.

As for your Buffet idea, it has already been done by George Soros. Soros provided seed money through the Open Society Institute to Urban Debate Leagues (UDL's) across the U.S. There was a 60 Minutes episode a couple of years ago about the Baltimore UDL that did a great job of showing the value of the activity in urban schools.

Corey Rayburn Yung

Posted by: Corey Rayburn Yung | Oct 9, 2008 6:14:44 PM

For reasons that those who know me personally know, I was not a high-school debater (or anything else). But Eric, do you really think it's good training? Observing it, debating has always struck me as perversely unrealistic -- people spitting out memorized arguments at incoherent speeds. And I definitely noticed a correlation, when we were in law school, between people who were debaters and people who behaved like dicks... (present company excepted, of course)

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Oct 9, 2008 6:13:42 PM

We might want also to think (after the work of Douglas Walton, among others) about the particular methods and goals of a debate as distinguished, say, from a quarrel, negotiation, conversation, deliberation, and other forms of dialogue: information-seeking, action-seeking, pedadogical, etc. From the vantage points of both formal and informal logic, agonistic debates leave much to be desired (while loosely governed by rules, these rules typically are of a sort that don't encourage a reliance on or respect for norms of rationality), hence they can easily descend into abusive forms of ad hominem or overly emotional argumentation that border on a "quarrel" characterized by highly aggressive adversarialism and prizing verbal pyrotechnics over sound argumentation (the rhetorical setting is in fact conducive to this, as is the goal of 'victory' over one's 'opponent'). Admittedly, debates can vary widely in quality, and some institutional settings and rules that govern them are closer to critical discussion and the arts of reasoning than others. Nonetheless, I think the wider topic is worthy of discussion. [I can't recall much from my high school years, which alone perhaps says too much.]

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Oct 9, 2008 6:07:15 PM

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