Author Archives: patrickoathout

Duke Student Government Elections: Students actively avoid adversarial tactics

While national democratic politics are generally adversarial, it turns out democratic politics in the context of student governments at American universities are not. Last week, the Duke Student Government held its annual debate for candidates running for student body president and vice president. The presidential candidates had very similar platforms, so the moderator spent most of the debate asking questions about their leadership styles. In a race where candidates differed on personal, rather than ideological, attributes, the candidates did surprisingly little to distinguish themselves from their opponents. None of the candidates directly criticized the other, and when asked to the name the biggest weaknesses of their opponents, one candidate declined to answer for sake of “constructive conversation.” Interestingly enough, the candidates were willing to scapegoat the school’s administrators on every issue.

Without any conflict, the debate lacked entertainment, for sure—but also substantive value. The platforms of all the candidates were vague and inflated, and they all got away with inaccurate statements. The candidates had plenty of opportunities to go after each other, but none of them did.

Much of this lack of conflict can be explained by the candidates’ relationships to one another. At the end of the campaign, the candidates will inevitably see each other again in class or at a party. They don’t have the luxury of returning to their home states or hiding behind a camera. The candidates have to directly confront each other, and a contention taken the wrong way would make future interactions awkward. On the national stage, it is easy to call your opponent a flip-flopper. On a cafeteria stage in front of a group of peers, a comment with even the slightest contrast can be taken offensively.

In some ways, a government where members are sensitive to conflict will be a government with a lot of mutual respect and cooperation. However, less conflict means fewer substantive policies are crafted on the campaign trail, and candidates win with broad promises without a map to completion. Additionally, voters cannot make informed decisions—without the ability to compare differing platforms or leadership styles, voters inevitably base their decisions on recommendations from peers and name recognition.

At the end of the debate, the uncontested candidate for vice president lambasted the presidential candidates for their remarks about the administration (see it here at 1:00:35), and the audience responded with hoots and applause. The candidates may not like conflict, but the voters sure do.

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Redshirting: Holding kids back from kindergarten is bad gamesmanship

This past Sunday, 60 Minutes did a segment on academic redshirting, the practice of holding kindergarten age-eligible children back in order to allow extra time for socioemotional, intellectual, or physical growth. The segment also included an interview with Malcolm Gladwell, who articulated a similar phenomenon in the case of older hockey players in his book Outliers (Gladwell calls the phenomenon “accumulative advantage”). In the many adversarial institutions these parents want their children to excel in (little league sports, elementary academics, and the cafeteria social hierarchy), there is a significant advantage for students who are older. The 60 Minutes segment showed a lot of eager mothers who adamantly claim they were not breaking any rules, but just doing what was best for their children.

Within current confines, those parents are not breaking any official rules. But, there is a sense that eager parents are gaming the system. This sort of gamesmanship also signifies a paradigm shift in extracurricular activities. Little league sports are no longer just for fun—they are institutions that cultivate talent and personalities prone to success. Most interestingly, it also appears that the process of raising children has shifted from a once inherently rewarding practice to an adversarial institution where the benefits of winning are permanent.

Competitive extemporaneous speaking: unchecked rhetoric is a race to the bottom

Extemporaneous speaking (extemp for short) is a competitive event in high school speech and debate where competitors are given thirty minutes to come up with a seven-minute speech on a randomly selected topic. Competitors are judged on their analysis of the topic, their use of sources, and their oratorical presence. A video of the 2004 National Champion in Domestic Extemp can be found here. By putting a non-competitive activity (public speaking) into a competitive arena, students find a fun and engaging way to hone their skills.

In addition to their own knowledge, competitors are allowed to use and cite sources from a tub of evidence they prepare before selecting their topic. All other factors being equal, competitors who cite more sources in their speeches win more. In the past, the standard number of sources for a good speech was three. Three sources in a speech works because most speeches are structured to have three separate points, and while three was not a written rule, it was a known convention. However, competitors over time have defected from this collective agreement in order to improve their chances of winning. In a classic race to the bottom, other competitors deviate from the three-source standard to keep up with their opponents, and over time, the average number of sources per speech has risen to nine.

How is this different from any other race to the bottom? In thirty minutes of preparation, a competitor has to scour mounds of newspaper clippings to find relevant sources, incorporate those sources into a speech outline, memorize the speech, and practice it a few times. Simply, it is impossible to write and practice a speech with nine distinct sources in thirty minutes; so, competitors choose to cite fake sources. Judges rarely check if competitors are citing real sources—one could spend more than the entire speech’s seven minutes back-checking nine sources. In a competitive event that teaches students how to persuasively and eloquently convey information, students are also learning how easy and convenient it is to lie.

Lying in a public speech is not unique to high school forensics—politicians regularly lie in debates, because the short-term benefits of making a seemingly valid point outweigh the long-term effects of a lie. Rep. Michelle Bachman, in the recent Republican Primary Debates, was notorious for this—she regularly misrepresented the views of her opponents (check it out at 2:00 here). Many news organizations, notably the New York Times, try to ‘live fact-check’ these debates, but there is little damage to the liar if they come out of the debate unscathed.

Having nine sources in your extemp speech does not necessarily mean you are citing fake sources. Some competitors craft universal sources for every speech they could possibly give by memorizing a citation for a popular book or study. While these ‘canned sources’ are successful, they defeat the extemporaneous nature of the competition.