On Saturday, Nov. 5, the Vassar College Debate Society held its second annual high school invitational debate tournament. Fifty-four teams, most from nearby northeastern states, competed in the tournament, held in various academic buildings on campus. The teams were split into two categories, Varsity and Novice. The team from the Horace Mann School in New York City won the Novice finals, and a hybrid team with competitors from the Dalton School and Horace Mann won the Varsity finals.
The tournament consisted of five regular rounds plus a semifinal and final round for the two best scoring teams in each category. The tournament began at 10:00 a.m. on Saturday and ended at 7:00 p.m. Though the debate format mimics that of parliamentary governments, the proposed motions—the subjects of the debates—weren’t limited to governmental issues. One, for example, read “This House regrets the popular narrative of good triumphing over evil in children’s entertainment.” Others regarded the salary of elected officials or infrastructure investment. “Our motions covered everything from pop culture to international relations,” Vassar Debate Co-Vice President for Operations Seth Molwitz ’18 said.
Molwitz, along with the other Co-Vice President for Operations Tabraiz Lodhi ’20, planned and coordinated Saturday’s tournament. Both agreed that the tournament was a success.
There were a few hurdles, however. Once of the roadblocks organizers ran into this year, Molwitz explained, was the amount of food they ordered for the competitors. “Next year we will be ordering many fewer pizzas,” he said, half-joking.
Molwitz explained the structure and style of the tournament, saying, “We ran the tournament the way we did because of what we learned from last year … We operated under the advice of the leader of the Connecticut Debate Association (CDA), who has a lot of experience planning and running tournaments.” Molwitz himself is an alum of the Connecticut Debate Association.
Saturday’s tournament, like the first hosted by Vassar Debate, operated on the High School American Parliamentary Debate Association (APDA) format. APDA is one of the two major debate formats practiced in the United States, the other being the British Parliamentary (BP) format. The leaders of Vassar Debate worked closely with the leaders of the Connecticut Debate Association to plan and execute the tournament. A representative from the CDA, Everett Rutan, directed tab for Saturday’s event. This means that he oversaw the tabulation of scores, determining who moved on to the semi-finals, finals and ultimately who won the tournament.
According to the APDA website, “Parliamentary debate on APDA focuses on skills which are not greatly emphasized by other forms of intercollegiate debate. Rather than concentrating on extensive preparation of evidence, APDA encourages a breadth, as well as a depth, of knowledge — as students can be forced to debate almost any topic at short notice, they must have a working knowledge of all manner of political, economic, social and philosophical issues. A high premium is placed on quick thinking and logical, rigorous analysis” (American Parliamentary Debate Association, “About,” 2016).
During a given round, two teams will debate their given motion. One team, naturally, is for the motion, the other against. The teams learn what this motion is 15 minutes before the round begins, a feature borrowed from the BP system of debate. However, in the style of APDA, each side of the debate consists of a team of two people, both from the same school, working together to make a clear and convincing argument. Each round, which lasts about 40 minutes, is assessed as an extemporaneous debate, meaning students are not permitted to reference briefs, prepared cases, research materials or the Internet.
There was no shortage of logical, rigorous analysis on Saturday. Debaters donned professional attire to compete, with many traveling from Connecticut and upstate New York, but some from as far as California, to face off against their debating peers. It was clear that these competitors were serious; even before a round began, teammates spoke in hushed tones, preparing their case or anticipating what challenges the round would bring.
During Saturday’s debates, the participants took on an air of formality, even of gravity. When a competitor wasn’t speaking, they focused unwaveringly on the person who was. Debaters had no time for idle watching or listening; they hung on to every word, though undoubtedly contemplating their own argument at the same time. A competitor would often write down notes, either to reference themselves when it was their turn to speak or for a teammate to reference.
When it was a competitor’s turn to speak, their speech was hypnotic. The students at Saturday’s tournament showed off an impressive breadth of knowledge, alongside the admirable ability to articulate it. The debaters rarely stumbled, and when they did, it was almost always shrugged off with competent grace and dignity. Passion and persuasiveness were on display in bounds on Saturday.
The goal of the tournament for Vassar Debate, according to Molwitz, was not only to observe these impressive high school debaters but also to raise money for Vassar Debate to attend tournaments throughout the year. Vassar Debate competes in about five BP tournaments in a year and hopes to cover some of their registration and travel costs with funds raised through the tournament.
Lodhi, who began debate during his sophomore year of high school, elaborated on the importance of debate tournaments. “Through doing debate and competing at tournaments,” Lodhi said, “you really grow as a debater. This means growing as a critical thinker and a student.” Lodhi added that participating in debate has just generally helped him in both high school and college.
Even watching tournaments, according to Lodhi, improves a competitor’s debate skills. “Seeing other people’s growth makes you want to do better as a debater. After a certain point, there’s really no upper limit on how good you can be,” he said.
“I see no reason to stop doing debate,” Lodhi concluded. “It was really great to see all of the freshman join the team this year … it almost never ends. It’s great to see the community keep growing.”