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THE GREAT DEBATERS or THE GREAT MEMORIZERS.—

With the TV trailers piquing my interest, I decided to learn more about the background of the new Denzel Washington movie, The Great Debaters:

From two-time Academy Award winner Denzel Washington and an ensemble cast [led] by Washington that includes Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker, comes THE GREAT DEBATERS. Inspired by a true story, THE GREAT DEBATERS chronicles the journey of Professor Melvin Tolson (Denzel Washington), a brilliant, but volatile, debate team coach who uses the power of words to shape a group of underdog students from a small African American college (Wiley College) in the deep south into a historically elite debate team. A controversial figure, Professor Tolson challenged the social mores of the time and was under constant fire for his unconventional and ferocious teaching methods as well as his radical political views.

In the pursuit for excellence, Tolson's debate team receives a groundbreaking invitation to debate Harvard University's championship team.

Wiley College's account of the factual background includes this revelation:

According to James Farmer, Tolson's drive to win, to eliminate risk, meant that his debaters were actors more than spontaneous thinkers. Tolson wrote all the speeches and the debate team memorized them. He drilled them on every gesture and every pause. Tolson was so skilled at the art of debating that he also figured out the arguments that opponents would make and wrote rebuttals for them--before the actual debate. . . .

In 1935, he led the Wiley Debate Team to the national championship to defeat the University of Southern California before an audience of eleven hundred people.

Wiley College should be commended for posting such a candid account of one of their most famous and accomplished faculty members. I haven't been able to determine if the Wiley team ever debated Harvard, or instead whether in the movie Harvard was substituted for USC.

Wanting to know more about Tolson, I read a fascinating account by David Gold of Tolson's impressive pedagogical techniques, an article that unfortunately did not discuss his composition of his debaters' arguments. It appears that Tolson was extremely devoted to teaching his students to argue and write (using a teaching style that bore some relation to Professor Kingsfield's in The Paper Chase):

In coaching debate, he stressed the logical fallacies, always seeking to find the "crack" in the other team's strategies. He trained students by having them debate him for up to a year before allowing them to join the team and by playing the devil's advocate in any discussion. When he exhausted his own copious body of knowledge, he would bring in faculty from other fields to challenge his students.

One can get a sense of Tolson's politics from reading his opinion of conservatives:

"Conservatives have stood for prostitution, blood-letting, polygamy, illiteracy, ignorance, witch-burning, voodooism, piracy, plagues, child labor, social diseases, and cannibalism."

"If a man isn't a liberal or a radical, he is a joke or a foggy among intelligent Folk."

Cornellian (mail):
"Conservatives have stood for prostitution, blood-letting, polygamy, illiteracy, ignorance, witch-burning, voodooism, piracy, plagues, child labor, social diseases, and cannibalism."

I'm having a hard time seeing the cannibalism. And "voodooism?" Not even sure what he means by that.

"If a man isn't a liberal or a radical, he is a joke or a foggy among intelligent Folk."

Well I wouldn't say William F. Buckley is a joke or "foggy among intelligent folk."

It's a sort of paraphrase of John Stewart Mill's line that not all conservatives are stupid, but nearly all stupid people are conservatives. Of course, conservative meant something quite different than what it does today. Free market types would probably be described as liberals, or at least Liberals whereas today that counts as conservative.
12.19.2007 10:54pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
1. I don't think conservatives have stood for polygamy, piracy, or cannibalism. Maybe privateering, but that was long ago. Polygamy might divide social and libertarian conservatives, and while cannibalism might awaken stem cell debate issues, it is doubtful that liberal or conservative would care to go for Crepe Susies or Chuck roast.

2. I really think it unlikely that at any stage of debate, a team that was trained to memorize speeches would have gotten anywhere, except chewed up. And why trying to anticipate the other side's speeches would be an innovation is beyond me.

3. In my day, the 70s, Harvard's debate team was as feared as its football team, which had a 50-50 record against Pop Warner. USC and UCLA were powerhouses, Harvard was not. I suspect the movie just figured they had to move Harvard in because it sounds fancy, even if its debaters had to speak as if they had their jaws wired shut.
12.19.2007 11:20pm
NYU 3L:
I may be missing something, but when a professor writes out speeches for his debate team and has them memorize them verbatim, isn't that what we usually call cheating?

His educational method may be fine (the Gold link isn't opening on my computer, because Acrobat's acting up), but as far as the "this poor black school was able to challenge Harvard" feel-good storyline goes, am I the only one who has a problem with it? It reminds me of Miami-Dade Community College's status as a national chess powerhouse because they enroll 40 year old Grandmasters (true story--in 2006 they placed 4th. And that wasn't even technically cheating according to the rules of the competition.)
12.19.2007 11:24pm
Cornellian (mail):
I may be missing something, but when a professor writes out speeches for his debate team and has them memorize them verbatim, isn't that what we usually call cheating?

I suppose that would depend on the rules of the debate. If he's referring to some kind of opening statement, presumably no one thinks people are expected to come in and totally ad-lib it.

If they're trying to memorize a reply speech, it's hard to see how that could ever be effective since you don't have any way of knowing what the other guy will say before you memorize your reply.
12.19.2007 11:30pm
Cornellian (mail):
I don't think conservatives have stood for polygamy

Heck, it's still the "traditional values" position today in Muslim countries. So it depends on time and place and the shifting meaning of the terms "conservative" and "liberal." I seem to recall even in France today lots of people distrust free market economics as "neo-liberal," a term that sounds strange to an American who probably would have a very different understanding of what that term would mean.
12.19.2007 11:33pm
NYU 3L:
Let me clarify--it's not the memorization that's the issue, it's the fact that the professor wrote the speech. The equivalent would be Duke hiring Tom Brady to "coach", and then putting him out on the field as Duke's QB.

Also, in most HS and college debate forms, the debaters have prewritten replies to anticipated arguments. If the professor actually wrote them, rather than just advising, that also should be considered cheating. I've seen rounds in competition that were essentially scripted the whole way through.
12.19.2007 11:34pm
CDU (mail):
I seem to recall even in France today lots of people distrust free market economics as "neo-liberal," a term that sounds strange to an American who probably would have a very different understanding of what that term would mean.


Actually that's true pretty much everywhere outside the U.S. In most of the world "liberal" refers to a set of views that generally include free-markets and individual rights (views that are usually labeled as conservative or libertarian in the U.S.). However, if you go back to the base meanings of liberal and conservative both the U.S. and international definitions make sense. Conservative is the label for people who resist changes to the existing order, while liberals promote change.

In European countries, conservatives generally supported the monarchy and the landed aristocracy, while liberals wanted to change the existing social order to promote mercantilisim and individual rights. Liberals wanted change and conservatives didn't.

In the United States, we had already rejected monarchy long before conservative and liberal took on their current meanings. The established order was one of free markets so people who defended it and were thus conservative. People who wanted to change these got the tag of liberal. Again, liberals wanted change and conservatives didn't. The difference is that the established order that they were trying to change/protect was very different than the one in the European countries.

Back to the European countries, when socialist, big-government ideas (the stuff we think of as liberal ideals here in the U.S.) came along the liberal and conservative monikers were already set, so these new, left wing parties tended to get names like socialist, labor, etc., rather than getting the liberal label that they got in the U.S. Take a look at the progression of British party politics for example. The original two parties were the Tories (conservative) and the Whigs (liberal). When Labour came along (standing for things we would generally describe as liberal here in the U.S.) they were to the left of both the Whigs and Tories, generally disagreeing with both.
12.19.2007 11:49pm
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):
"Conservatives have stood for prostitution, blood-letting, polygamy, illiteracy, ignorance, witch-burning, voodooism, piracy, plagues, child labor, social diseases, and cannibalism."


He forgot the part where we make our kids do their own school work rather than doing it for them.
12.19.2007 11:54pm
Mike Keenan:
Googled around to find out that James Farmer was a 14 year old freshman at the time. That seems rather impressive, regardless of the circumstances.

Apparently, Wiley debated Harvard in the preliminary rounds and USC in the finals. (Harvard was replaced by USC for "dramatic impact" -- poor USC!)
12.19.2007 11:59pm
eric (mail):
If that is the best the guy has, I don't see how they won anything.
12.20.2007 12:01am
Baseballhead (mail):
Also, in most HS and college debate forms, the debaters have prewritten replies to anticipated arguments. If the professor actually wrote them, rather than just advising, that also should be considered cheating. I've seen rounds in competition that were essentially scripted the whole way through.
Yep. From my own debate days, I remember entire tournaments where I didn't hear a single unscripted positions until we got to the out rounds (playoffs). It sounds bad to outsiders, but I find nothing unusual about a coach having his debaters memorizing entire arguments or speeches -- at the end of the day, no matter what anybody says about education, it's all about winning.

That said, all the winning debaters I knew (and I was sometimes one of them) were able to do our own work. Having scripted positions is tremendously helpful for beginning debaters, but you find out real quickly that you simply couldn't win in out rounds unless you could leave the script and rock your own stories. It shouldn't surprise anyone if Wiley's students, who I'm sure benefited greatly from his coaching/puppetry, could also walk and chew gum at the same time.
12.20.2007 12:42am
Randy R. (mail):
"at the end of the day, no matter what anybody says about education, it's all about winning."

Not sure what you mean by this, but if it means what it appears to, I'd say you are wrong. Education by itself doesn't mean anything of the sort -- it means learning about something. How that's a 'win' or 'loss' I can't guess.
12.20.2007 1:23am
goWings:
Apparently, Wiley debated Harvard in the preliminary rounds and USC in the finals. (Harvard was replaced by USC for "dramatic impact" -- poor USC!)

Many forget that the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" US hockey team beat Finland in the finals, and that the "Miracle" win over the Soviet Union was in the quarterfinals.

I think the movie they made about that got the facts straight, though.
12.20.2007 1:35am
Truth Seeker:
Any man who is not a socialist at age 20 has no heart.
Any man who is still a socialist at age 40 has no head.
Georges Clemenceau
12.20.2007 1:49am
BGates:
I'd think support of witch-burning suggests pretty strong opposition to voodooism.
12.20.2007 2:43am
Lev:

"Conservatives have stood for prostitution, blood-letting, polygamy, illiteracy, ignorance, witch-burning, voodooism, piracy, plagues, child labor, social diseases, and cannibalism."


Prostitution - would that be sexworkers and their "freedom of expression"?

Polygamy - would that be polyamory, group sex, serial sex?

Illiteracy - would that be public schools in the major cities with the NEA that pass children up and out without their being able to read?

Ignorance - would that be the public schools and the NEA focussing on self esteem and sex education to the exclusion of actual knowledge?

Witch-burning - would that be attacking global warming deniers of The One True Faith?

Piracy - would that be rampant copying and use of copyrighted material without payment of royalties?

Plagues - would that be refusing, in the 80's, to treat AIDS as a public health problem because to do so would offend An Oppressed Minority?

Social diseases - would that be celebrating the sexualization of children so that they do what they are going to do anyway?

Who are the "Conservatives" these days.
12.20.2007 2:53am
Cornellian (mail):
Considering the guy said those things in 1935, I doubt he ever devoted a moment's thought to global warming, rampant copying or AIDS.
12.20.2007 3:59am
Joe Bingham (mail):
Ha! No fallacies here.
12.20.2007 9:18am
Mike Keenan:

Many forget that the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" US hockey team beat Finland in the finals, and that the "Miracle" win over the Soviet Union was in the quarterfinals.


Actually, not quite true. The medal round in 1980 was a kind of round-robin. The Soviet game and the Finland game were at the same "level." The US defeated Finland to ensure the gold, though.

I think the remarkable career of James Farmer (and some of the other students) is testament enough to their excellence. Here is a debate between Farmer and Malcolm X. Farmer seems to be losing, but Malcolm X is pretty aggressive.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ISDcGAQmgw
12.20.2007 9:27am
Temp Guest (mail):
I find it amusing that the radical Professor Tolson chose to use extremely conservative techniques in his teaching, writing, and rhetoric--all those areas where he cared about results.
12.20.2007 9:40am
glangston (mail):
Will Denzel get his academy award for Frank Lucas or Mel Tolson?
12.20.2007 10:07am
anonn:
Just to echo what others are saying, scripted arguments are nothing new. When they say he wrote their arguments, I think it's a loose way of saying that he put together their arguments which were scripted. Policy debaters today buy books with entire arguments, counter arguments, rebuttals, etc., etc., etc., all laid out. The debate coach doing the scripting is probably a big step UP, because it helps him tailor the arguments to the team and its strengths instead of reading out of a book. A judge once commented that debate has come to the point where affirmative says "our argument is at tabs 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9" and negative says "our response is at tabs 2, 4, 6, 8, and 10." coaches scripting arguments is nothing in comparison.
12.20.2007 11:01am
frankcross (mail):
Hey, Dave Hardy, Harvard won the national championship in debate in 1974, and they were regularly competitive throughout the decade. What are you talking about?
12.20.2007 11:10am
BruceM (mail) (www):
"Conservatives have stood for prostitution, blood-letting, polygamy, illiteracy, ignorance, witch-burning, voodooism, piracy, plagues, child labor, social diseases, and cannibalism."

Come on now, conservatives have always been against legalized prostitution.
12.20.2007 2:14pm
alias:

Actually, not quite true. The medal round in 1980 was a kind of round-robin. The Soviet game and the Finland game were at the same "level." The US defeated Finland to ensure the gold, though.


That explains Tretiak's comments that, had the USSR beaten the Americans, they'd only need a draw against Sweden afterward to ensure the gold.
12.20.2007 2:56pm
JosephSlater (mail):
BGates: Nicely done.
12.20.2007 3:33pm
solon (mail) (www):
What is interesting about this conversation is the notion of rhetorical invention in a debate, especially as it relates to whether or not a rhetor creates new arguments or uses the available arguments available to him/her.

In Ancient Greece, students would learn and memorize topoi (commonplaces), or common lines of argument, and apply them to different settings. Today, colleges focus on having students go and find research to create new arguments.
12.20.2007 4:26pm
solon (mail) (www):
A good example of an author "inventing arguments" is Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson did not create new arguments; he used the arguments available to him at the time.

For a good discussion of this, see Stephen Lucas' article on Jefferson and Invention at NARA. The Link is here: http://www.archives.gov/national-archives-experience/chart
12.20.2007 4:29pm
James Lindgren (mail):
BTW,

Frank Cross, who commented earlier, was one of the country's best debaters.

Frank won the national tournament in 1976 and took third in 1977.

So, Frank, as an expert, what do YOU think about the coach writing the speeches word for word?

Jim Lindgren
12.20.2007 7:05pm
Baseballhead (mail):
"at the end of the day, no matter what anybody says about education, it's all about winning."
Not sure what you mean by this, but if it means what it appears to, I'd say you are wrong. Education by itself doesn't mean anything of the sort -- it means learning about something. How that's a 'win' or 'loss' I can't guess.
I'm just relating what my academic debating experience was like. My coach used to see it this way: the educational aspect of debating comes outside of debate rounds -- in our research, in our argument construction, in our practice sessions. The education (or rather, the teaching) ended when when the tournament started, in the sense that the only thing anyone cared about learning was how to win, and the only teaching that went on during the tournament was, "How do we beat Team X or Person Y?"
12.20.2007 10:45pm
Brian Rubaie:
The dispute over a coach's role in production of evidence is still present in modern academic debate. However, coaches who choose to produce evidence for their teams now do it in much different ways than those portrayed in the movie.

One major change is that the oratorical style highlighted in the film (dramatic gestures, pauses, etc.) has shifted towards an evidence and research focused style. While eloquence is still rewarded, quality and specficity of research is becoming even more important. As a result, it's almost impossible to detect WHO cut the evidence as it's all drawn from the same journal articles, law reviews, books, etc. and produced by both coaches and students in a very similar fashion.

While modern coaches are often more trained and skilled at selecting and analyzing good research, their efforts require an equal or greater degree of work output from undergraduate debaters. As a result, the question of "is it ethical for a coach to produce evidence?" is no longer as important as "can a pair of undergraduates who don't do a substantial amount of their own research win more than 50% of their debates?" The answer in most cases is no.
12.21.2007 11:55am