When was the last time you thought about Pittsburgh? Unless you’re from there or have had any interactions with a middle-aged Steelers fan intent on telling you about the good-old-steel-curtain-days after their fourth Iron City Beer, it’s probably been a while. And I don’t blame you, mostly because after years of meeting new people and telling them that I’m from Pittsburgh, I’ve become accustomed to their raised eyebrows and tilted heads and the almost universally scripted, “Wait, is that near Philly?” But for the next few minutes, I invite you to think about my hometown and a smaller world within it that even fewer people think about: policy debate.
I would bet that a good number of Yalies know about policy debate, and if you do, I also wouldn’t be surprised if you’re rolling your eyes or wincing a little reading this. As a species, policy debaters are…eccentric. At the biggest and most important debate tournaments in the U.S.—Glenbrooks, Michigan, Emory, the Tournament of Champions—these kids read 40-to-50-page Word documents at around 350 words per minute (that’s like reciting the entire Pledge of Allegiance in about five seconds). The best have trained for these competitions by paying to go to weeks-long summer programs at universities like Michigan, Georgetown, Gonzaga, and Michigan State where all they do is policy debate: nothing but lectures, speaking drills, practice debates, and built-in research time, day in, day out. It’s almost religious, and always all-consuming.
The best of the best kids have a coaching staff, not just teachers who coach debate on the side after a normal seven-hour school day. These coaches are usually former high school policy debaters who majored in communications and remained locked in academia for a while, only to venture out and help some high schoolers find evidence about possible nuclear war scenarios or other extinction-level events. And good Lord. The best of the best of the best have been doing this since the sixth grade so that by the time they get to high school—when most people are just starting—they’ve already racked up years of experience. And none of this would even be possible without extensive travel budgets—something most Pittsburgh policy kids don’t have. So if this sounds exclusionary, it’s because it is. The kids I’m talking about—the ones primed to dominate national tournaments every year, the ones getting recruited by Harvard and Georgetown—usually come from a few policy debate powerhouses, like Montgomery Bell Academy, Peninsula, and Berkeley Prep.
Pittsburgh is a policy debate dead zone at the high school level, which some might find surprising, given the historic success of the University of Pittsburgh team. But high school isn’t like higher education. One part of the problem is funding: most policy kids in my hometown don’t get to travel across the country for tournaments. Another part is finding judges skilled enough to understand the particular jargon of policy debate. But a huge portion lies in a recent conservative wave led by two former debaters, James Fishback and Matthew Adelstein. They think debate has become overly sensitive and unsurprisingly, they’ve conjured a false image of policy debate as the ultimate site of leftist brainwashing. In his article “At High School Debates, Watch What You Say,” Fishback defends a so-called objective debate space, one that shouldn’t interrogate the assumptions or ideologies of the debater—a separation of art and artist. But thinking that one can somehow separate someone who makes arguments from the arguments they make is about as naïve as thinking that the result of a debate round in a random high school in the midwest will actually cause the US federal government to enact policy change. We are all composed of particular, subconscious biases that affect our decisions, and there is no such thing as an “objective” human.
What, then, is the point? The point is to question the reasons why we might prefer to run certain arguments over others, to use debate as an educational tool through which one may actually unearth and unravel their subconscious biases and assumptions. That is the true purpose of policy debate, but it’s obfuscated by this conservative sect that’s too scared to see the transformative part of the activity yet so powerful that really good Pittsburgh judges—who will remain anonymous—are getting banned in light of it for the entirety of the 2023-2024 season. So yes, Pittsburgh’s policy world certainly needs more money, more educators, more everything. But it also needs a serious reconsideration of its telos: a reorientation to a vision of debate that seeks to undo our hidden biases. And if Fishback is so intent on making debate as objective as possible, is this not the best way to do so?