“A Brief Sketch of Debate in America” (Or “My thesis outtakes”)

Aaron J. Alford
15 min readAug 5, 2019

A Brief Sketch of American Debate.

This section will give an outline for how debate developed in America, to offer context for what came before the O’Neill/Davis/Wells debate to inform it, as well as how those rhetorical concepts have unfolded over the course of the 20th century up to the present. The first part will look at the 1830’s to 1890’s antecedents to intercollegiate debate. Then I will look at the early development of intercollegiate debate from 1890 to 1915 that frame the texts this thesis focuses on. Thirdly, I examine the fallout from the 1915–1918 academic discussion about debate from 1915–1958, and the pedagogical shifts that occurred that contributed to the basic communication course’s consensus based methods. Then I examine 1958–1965 renaissance of argumentation and how that influenced the practice of intercollegiate debate. Finally, I look at debate’s modern mission, and points to how the tensions first discussed in 1915 by debate academics coexist in today’s leagues, bother practically and rhetorically.

1830–1890: Early Civic Pedagogy.

There were several notable antecedents to modern debate and discussion. The Lyceum was a type of school which provided community education, somewhat similar in conception to the modern community college, and were founded in part to support normal schools (Katz, 1989). They were popular throughout the Jacksonian Democratic era, from 1825 to around the end of the Civil War (Katz, 1989). The Lyceum was named after Aristotle’s school in Athens, and functioned as a space of public discourse within an academic context. These schools provided education for pastors, supported academies, and sought to improve the quality of conversation (Keith, 2007). The goal for these institutions was the cultivation of liberal learning and positive, moral, and intellectual capacities in community members (Keith, 2007). The Lyceum used a variety of formats including lecture, debate, discussion and demonstration. Debate was a commonly featured activity in the early Lyceum, but by the 1840’s these schools were dominated by lecture and demonstration, and with the onset of the Civil War, the lecture circuit for these schools waned and they were eventually absorbed into other institutions (Keith, 2007).

Intramural debate societies developed out of literary societies (Nichols, 1936). Debating was a common extracurricular and classroom activity from the late 1700’s onward (Keith, 2007). Rhetoric at the time was housed in English courses, and focused little on public speaking or public presentation. Intramural debating offered students the opportunity to sharpen their oratorical skills, and large crowds would often attend. Emerson (1931) reflected on his experience of these older debate societies. He describes a program that included a number of activities not specific to debate followed by a public debate. The debates were three versus three, and concluded with comments from an adjudicator that were usually whimsical and comedic, rather than serious and technical. Emerson (1931) in his article “The old debate society” seems to long for the days before these events were transplanted into the serious and technical format favored by intercollegiate competition.

1890–1915: The first intercollegiate debates.

The first argumentation and debate textbook was written by Baker (1890). It was called Specimens of Argument, and it relied heavily on the work of Richard Whatley. Richard Whatley taught at Oxford in the mid-19th century, and developed the concept of presumption and burden of proof (Benoit, 1992). Presumption is the idea that things will remain as they are until sufficient reason is produce to justify a change. Presumption functionally means that a judge will vote for the status quo, unless sufficient reason has been offered to change it. A related concept in debate is the burden of proof, which is the idea that the side seeking to change the state of affairs has the burden of proving grounds for the change. This is implemented into debate through stock issues based on Cicero’s theory of stasis.

Cicero’s concept of stasis says the same basic questions come up within arguments over and over, was also important to the creation of the stock issues by which debate would be judged (Benoit, 1992). In policy debate there are four stock issues which come up every round. Topicality asks whether the argument is actually addressing the question posed in the debate. Inherency asks whether the problem is being addressed now by a different plan. Solvency asks whether the affirmative team can solve the problem they presented. Significance asks whether the change itself is significant enough to justify the debate over the plan

During its first decade, debate had no departmental status as there were few to no speech departments at the time. Debate operated purely as an extracurricular academic activity (Keith 2007). Early intercollegiate debate operated as under the metaphor of a game from the start. Baker (1900) said in a speech, “I believe that intercollegiate debating should be placed on the footing of an intellectual sport” (p. 117) . Early competitions changed the nature of debate on campuses to a specialized sport, with specialized faculty to coach a hand-picked team (Keith, 2007).

In the mid 1890’s pairs of schools developed intercollegiate competitions, which were held annually or semi-annually (Nichols, 1936). Among these pairs were: Princeton University and Harvard University, The University of Michigan and University of Wisconsin, and the University of Iowa and the University of Minnesota (Nichols, 1936, 1937). The first format of debate involved debate contracts (Nichols, 1936). Schools would negotiate the topic of their debates. One team would present a possible topic, and the other school would choose a side of the proposition or present a competing topic. They would carry out this process until eventually a topic was chosen (Nichols, 1937). Eventually the format expanded to include three schools (the triangular formation), with schools sending two teams, one debating for the topic, one against.

The first debate invitational was held at Ohio Wesleyan University in 1897. In attendance was Ohio Wesleyan, Oberlin College, Ohio State University and Western Reserve University. They debated over the course of a season, and kept track of wins and losses. These larger tournaments lead to tournaments assigning individual teams to argue both sides of the resolution. This new switch side format moved debate past debate contracts, rather than schools simply fielding teams on both sides of the proposition (Keith, 2007).

As the leagues and forensics societies grew, so also did the student demand for credit. The institution of credit for debate classes was important both because it legitimized debate in academia, and because it specialized debate as a discipline. There were now faculty dedicated to the activity of debate, to coaching and facilitating it on university campuses, and ensuring that debaters were learning and applying the right skills. Around the turn of the century up until around 1915, debate continued to grow and gain public notoriety both on campuses and beyond them, receiving the notice of Teddy Roosevelt and the public in 1913. Some high profile intercollegiate debates were published throughout 1900–1910, and argumentation courses were created to give credit to debaters. Forensic honor societies were created, to reward participation in debate. With debate’s rising popularity also came criticism. The decision to have debate teams argue both sides of the question, which is called switch-side debate, drew outcry from critics. Critics argued that this type of debate would teach debaters the wrong morals, teaching them to defend any position rather than standing by their principles (Roosevelt, 1913; Kellog, 1922). Teddy Roosevelt (1913) said in an interview with The New Outlook,

What we need is to turn out our colleges young men with ardent convictions on the side of the right; not young men who can make a good argument for either right or wrong as their interest bids them. Our present method of carrying on debates encourages precisely the wrong attitude among those who take part in them. There is not effort to instill sincerity and intensity of conviction (Roosevelt, 1913)

This critique demanded a response due to the public status of Roosevelt and the papers such as “the New Outlook,” which presented itself as the moral guardian of the public conscience (Kellog, 1922). This criticism provided the exigence for intercollegiate debate’s educational turn. The scholarly answer to these critiques came first from the newly minted editor of the Quarterly Public Speaking Journal, J.M O’Neill in 1915 (O’Neill, 1915). This would spark a two-year long debate about whether debate is a game, or should be conceived of as a primarily educational activity.

1915–1958 Professionalizing Debate Instruction

From 1915–1958 the activity of debate shifted from a public liberal art to a specialized game played and judged by experts. Collegiate debate became popular at the same time that the communication field developed. Debate became a primarily game in the 1930’s partly as a desire to professionalize debate (Keith, 2007). As a result, during the 1950’s when the Basic Communication Course developed, debate was primarily thought of as a game and was not included in the course pedagogy. Instead, the field shifted to focus primarily on methods of consensus like discussion to teach civic communication. This section will discuss intercollegiate debate’s identification as educational and competitive, its subsequent professionalization in connection to the communication discipline itself, and the discussion turn in pedagogy which happened before and following World War II that ultimately led to debate’s exclusion from the basic course.

The critiques of debate focused on its role as civic communication training. Up until 1915, the academic mission of intercollegiate debate had not yet been fully negotiated (Keith 2007). The critics provided the exigence for debate instructors to identity debates educational value. Debate entered the academy as the discipline of speech itself formed, and debate’s emergence coincides with the emergence of the National Communication Association (Keith 2007). The NCA represented a push to define speech as a separate discipline, and debate was a popular speaking method, which coincided with this push. Discussions surrounding debate made up a key part of the development of the speech discipline. The Quarterly Journal of Public Speaking (QJPS) published its first volume in 1915, and was the first public speaking journal in America. The journal covered a number of topics, but the primary controversies were about the organization and operation of debate. This publication lead to a large academic discussion about debate, which spanned three years and four authors. The debate about debate questioned the social role of the activity in universities

The journal’s first few issues covered three dominant controversies about debate, which framed debates identity as academic sport and educational civic activity. The first controversy asked whether debate should have judges. Woodward experimented in a non-judge debate tournament in 1910, and later developed the change in opinion ballot (Woodward, 1915). O’Neill (1915, 1916) argued in favor of a single expert critic, who is a coach or faculty member. Davis (1915, 1916), and later Wells (1917), advocated for juryman judges, concerned with the possibility of professional judging alienating debate from its liberal arts function. This fear was certainly perceptive looking at modern debate’s own preoccupation with competitive expedience (CEDA Assessment Conference, 1991

The second controversy asked if debate is a sport or civic educational activity.

O’Neill (1915) argued that debate should develop as a competition, because it is already an extension of classroom activities. The argument O’Neill made is in line with an Aristotelian view of formal debate, which focuses on form but not context, and judgement of elites (Keith, 2007). Davis and Wells argued it should be situated in a civic public context, adopting a view from American legalism for how debate should function. This view of debate suggests that debate should be carried out in a public forum with non-expert judging, as training for being a lawyer presenting to a jury. These two positions toward debate make up a primary tension in competitive formats, between debate training American legislators and lawyers, and a view of debate as an act in formal logic and expert commentary.

The third controversy asked if it was ethical to assign sides of an issue to debaters. O’Neill was in favor of assigning sides because it teaches debaters to challenge their assumptions, and makes debate a space for practicing the skills of argument rather than only focusing on the content. Davis and Wells were against assigning sides, for much the same reasons Roosevelt was. They were concerned with using debate as a space of public discourse, and this public forum view suggested debate should be primarily about personal principles rather than a broader personal investigation of competing sides to an issue.

One major issue for O’Neill, and other advocates for game debate, was the developing profession of speech. They desired that argumentation be a key part of the burgeoning communication field, and saw experts running and judging tournament debate as an essential piece of securing discipline of argumentation itself (Keith, 2007). Davis and Wells were concerned primarily with debates application to civic educational outcomes, because they were concerned with a view of debate as primarily a liberal art and social analytical tool, and were less concerned with debate as a discipline. These competing senses of what collegiate debate should be led to a competing view of the debate space.

Despite its importance in the development of Communication departments, debate as a method continued to be separated from the introductory course classroom. Debate was placed either into its own courses or into tournament competitions following the 1920’s. Intercollegiate Debate operated according to tournament models, in line with O’Neill’s professional concept of debate. The process of debate specialization is important, because it took debate from an educational activity for anyone to enjoy, to an activity which exclusively experts and special dedicated teams can benefit from. This was likely an unintended consequence of professionalizing debate, but it was also a consequence of the gamified view of debate. Intercollegiate debate was described as game from the start, but between 1910 and 1915 competitive debate sought to explicate an educational frame that challenged on some level this concept of the game. This frame saw debate as an activity in training public discourse, hosted within one of the major institutions of public discourse the University. Ultimately the practical suggestions of educational debate advocates were mostly ignored in favor of the game view of debate. The educational frame does, however, continue to present itself within journals and literature surrounding debate, though the educational promise of debate is exclusively available to competitive teams (CEDA Assessment Conference, 1991).

Early controversies point to the central question of debate’s social role in teaching democratic citizenship. Debate took a strong route toward specialization and competition following the publication of the texts analyzed in this thesis, and the public speaking discipline turned to discussion formats to teach civil discourse. In the 1920’s the field became interested in the new rhetoric of discussion, and eventually would come to focus on public forums as the model for civil discourse (Keith, 2007). In the 1920’s a particular social view of democracy merged with renewed interest in public debate that produced a progressive education policy centered around the concept of discourse, or discussion (Bourne, 1920; Keith, 2007). Democracy was understood within speech departments fluidly as, “any occasion for joint action which requires decision-making has the potential for democracy” (Keith, 2007, p. 109). Discussion was reconceptualized in the late 1920’s by John Dewey, who defined it as, “a cooperative, problem-solving activity, as opposed to conflictive, resolution-passing activity of debate (Keith, 2007, p. 112).” This conception of discussion removed the oppositional aspect to the deliberative discourse, suggesting problem solving should be cooperative and not competitive.

Discussion pedagogy was advanced by action research in the 1940’s-1950’s, leading to the development of the civic “training-group” which reconceived of communication training as primarily focused on experiencing awareness and consensus, as opposed to a clash of views which debate pedagogy would offer. Lewin (1946) developed learning groups where clash and conflict were primarily minimized, focusing on where groups already agreed. Lewin founded The National Training Laboratory, which was moved to the University of Michigan’s Institute of Social Research in 1948. According to Keith (2007), discussion groups began to focus on sensitivities as opposed to specific skills involved in argumentation clash. Clash is a concept for describing the points of conflict within two incompatible positions. Debaters focus on these points of conflict because they are where problems need to be resolved. Lewin’s training groups focused on group dynamics, and were interested in how different social groups play within the discussion. Civics groups did not necessarily focus on points of conflict between group members (Keith, 2007). By 1955 the political aspect of the action groups and training groups had all but been eliminated or muted, leading to a renewed interest in oppositional methods in the 1960’s (Bradford, 1955).

The turn to discussion groups and the marginalization of debate classroom methods during the 1930’s likely played a role in the exclusion of debate from the basic public speaking course. The basic course as a general requirement developed in the late 1940’s, early 1950’s as the Harvard reforms to the general education curriculum began to diffuse across universities (Valenzano, 2016), and the first unified study of the BCC happened in 1956 (Hargis, 1956). The BCC justified itself in the context of the need for democratic training and civil discourse, and continues to teach civility. The modern course utilizes discussion a as its primary method for teaching public discourse. The adoption of the basic course and its subsequent reforms occurred within the discussion turn in speech pedagogy, during which time debate was framed as an extracurricular intellectual game. Many argumentation scholars point to Toulmin’s 1958 work as the start of modern argumentation theory, which follows the development of the BCC. Debate was separate from the classrooms, so many of the innovations in debate from the 1960’s onward were never translated into as general course content in the BCC. Argumentation and advocacy classes teach these skills, however the BCC is the “front porch” of the discipline according to Beebe (2013), and reaches the entire student body. The reach and influence of the BCC makes it the perfect space for public discourse training, including forms of debate and discussion.

1958–1965: The Renaissance of Argumentation

The modern academic study of argumentation is commonly agreed to have begun in 1958, with the publication of Toulmin’s first works on reasoning (Keith, 2007). The period between 1958 and 1965 was considered a renaissance of argumentation theory (Keith, 2007). It was also during this time that many of the first modern debate textbooks were published. Modern debate formats draw upon the work of Toulmin’s model of informal argumentation, Perelman’s audience centric model of rhetoric, Whately’s legal theories of presumption, and Cicero’s theory of rhetorical stasis for understanding how debate should operate. During this time debate developed its own language to talk about argumentation. Crucially, during this time period debate emerges as “oral advocacy.” Debate was understood by new rhetoric theorists during this time period as a method for teaching students to advocate for particular groups through testing value and policy propositions. Although dialogue highlights the difference between groups, debate encourages a unique test of how values and policies affect the social conditions of everyday life. Debate is a simulation, but the practical deliberative process of debate teaches students the skills of applying advocacy and argumentation to decision-making.

The same controversies regarding debate which were first debated in the 1910’s, were revisited by theorists like Ehninger, Toulmin, and other advocates for the new rhetoric. Ehninger (1958) published a defense of switch side debate under his framework of competitive cooperation. His work suggested that debate operates according to many of the standards that discussion pedagogy advocated for, on a broad level by testing various ideas through debates competitive method. He suggested that in debate we find an activity where students argue in opposition to each other, but within the broader framework of seeking truth and consensus as a debate community. Ehninger emphasized the importance of argumentation clash and dissensus, because over time civic training groups muted their differences (Bradford, 1955). Questions about debate’s academic place continue to show up in the QJPS, Argumentation and Advocacy, and Assessment conferences, though the discussions about reform don’t often translate into concrete change.

The renaissance in argumentation had material impacts on how debate was practiced. There were several important concepts in the new rhetoric movement that influenced the practice of debate, moving it from a rigid logical activity to an audience adherent view of persuasion that utilized informal logic. It would be digressive to focus on all of these concepts, but two in particular influenced contemporary debate.

Toulmin’s model of informal argumentation encouraged a more conversational style of debate, which differed from the rigid logical structures of early debates such as the ones published by Harvard in 1910. Early intercollegiate debate privileges precise and extensive definition and description, and used classical Aristotelian logic structures. Modern debate models, at least in theory, privilege extemporaneous presentation more than scripted presentation, and utilize the less formal Toulmin Model for presenting arguments. Perelman was also influential in shifting debate from a purely logos centric activity. He suggested a form of pseudo-logic, whereby debaters attempt to adhere to audience specific values to produce persuasion. This influenced debate through the introduction of judge paradigms, and the expectation that students adapt to judges personal preferences. Innovations like these enabled a reinvigorated discipline of debate to train students in strong research and persuasive skills. Debaters were taught to use intelligent critical listening, complex but clear argument structures with clear impacts, and increasingly extemporaneous deliveries that privileged conversational debate styles (Combs, 1992).


Despite the educational frame debate which communication scholars have adopted for debate, it has never been a common component in the basic communication course (BCC). Since its adoption as a general requirement, the basic communication course has sought to teach argumentation as a component of public speaking education. Despite its commitments to training persuasion, the BCC has never adopted the method of debate as a common pedagogy for argumentation. Most of the methods used in the basic course have focused on cooperative activities such as discussion and class presentations that work toward a consensus (Keith 2007). These activities rarely require a thorough test and defense of competing ideas, because consensus focused activities don’t demand a clash of ideas. Debate teaches public defense and argumentation through a process of dissensus and competition. This method focuses on the areas of conflict through the process of competing critiques and answers, and teaches students to identify and resolve problematic reasoning and rhetoric. American academic debate has long been understood by educators as a competitive method for training civil discourse and critical thinking, however throughout the 20th century debate was increasingly placed into extracurricular environments similar to collegiate athletic teams, rather than the more accessible environment of public speaking courses. Perhaps this decision should be reconsidered.



Aaron J. Alford

Media critique and memes. Writing about rhetoric and society. MA in Communication