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Gifted Tongues

Gifted Tongues: High School Debate and Adolescent Culture

Gary Alan Fine
Copyright Date: 2001
Pages: 328
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  • Book Info
    Gifted Tongues
    Book Description:

    Learning to argue and persuade in a highly competitive environment is only one aspect of life on a high-school debate team. Teenage debaters also participate in a distinct cultural world--complete with its own jargon and status system--in which they must negotiate complicated relationships with teammates, competitors, coaches, and parents as well as classmates outside the debating circuit. InGifted Tongues, Gary Alan Fine offers a rich description of this world as a testing ground for both intellectual and emotional development, while seeking to understand adolescents as social actors. Considering the benefits and drawbacks of the debating experience, he also recommends ways of reshaping programs so that more high schools can use them to boost academic performance and foster specific skills in citizenship.

    Fine analyzes the training of debaters in rapid-fire speech, rules of logical argumentation, and the strategic use of evidence, and how this training instills the core values of such American institutions as law and politics. Debates, however, sometimes veer quickly from fine displays of logic to acts of immaturity--a reflection of the tensions experienced by young people learning to think as adults. Fine contributes to our understanding of teenage years by encouraging us not to view them as a distinct stage of development but rather a time in which young people draw from a toolkit of both childlike and adult behaviors. A well-designed debate program, he concludes, nurtures the intellect while providing a setting in which teens learn to make better behavioral choices, ones that will shape relationships in their personal, professional, and civic lives.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2419-9
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 3-18)

    Students of social life routinely speak of their subjects asactors: an image derived, in part, from the dramaturgical approach pioneered by sociologist Erving Goffman,¹ and before him from the various approaches labeled behaviorism, including the social behaviorism of the pragmatist philosopher George Herbert Mead. What peopledois judged to be central for human understanding. Yet, if we are honest, we recognize that on many occasions we are less actors thantalkers, realizing, of course, that talk is a class of behavior. Talk constitutes much of the meaningful behavior that defines humanity.² As sociologist Florian Znaniecki has noted, verbal...

  5. One Learning to Talk
    (pp. 19-37)

    By early afternoon Friday, vans begin to pull into the parking lot at Harrison High School—a modern, well-landscaped campus in the suburban outskirts of St. Paul, Minnesota. Soon the parking lot and entryway of Harrison High fill with well-dressed adolescent boys and girls, most carrying or rolling large plastic containers (“oxes” or “tubs”) plastered with bumper stickers or other markers referring to their home schools or the tournaments that they have attended. This is the early November weekend of Harrison High’s annual debate tournament, part of a debate “season” that begins in early October and continues until February. As...

  6. Two Rites of Arguments
    (pp. 38-66)

    It will be no surprise to parents that adolescents enjoy arguing. Even if these offspring are not, by parental standards, fully persuasive, they often vigorously and tenaciously defend their positions. This contrarian impulse does not begin in the teen years, as studies of childhood arguments demonstrate. As early as preschool, children argue with passion and fire.¹ By preadolescence, argumentation skills are well developed, and some disputatious conversations are lengthy, socially sophisticated, and intellectually complex.² Arguments do not only involve cognition, but occur in social worlds, and must be understood as practical achievements, even if this suggests that they are less...

  7. Three Evidence and the Creation of Truth
    (pp. 67-96)

    Debate, similar to other forms of persuasive discourse, involves truth claims: statements that attempt to describe the nature of reality.¹ One side presents a set of claims, and opponents dispute those claims. The affirmative advances a case and a plan, and their opponents argue that the case does not apply and that the plan would not work or would have undesirable side effects. How does one make one’s view of reality stick? How can one convince an audience that claims about the world are justified? The key is “evidence.”

    Adults knowledgeable of policy formulation realize that evidence is critical to...

  8. Four In the Round
    (pp. 97-132)

    So far I have focused on the preparation for the round. Here, I examine how students actually debate: the practice of competitive high school debate. Opening one high school tournament, the principal of the host school, welcoming the participants, began his remarks: “As one talker to another group of talkers . . .” (field notes). To understand this world is to understand talk, although it is not only the “quality” of talk that determines the outcomes of rounds; talk is situated in special settings that provide the criteria for judging.

    At its heart, debate is simple. One participant noted that...

  9. Five Our Team
    (pp. 133-161)

    Debate is not just talk and research, but it is talk and research within an organizational and social structure. In this, debate is like all activity, and compares to other forms of voluntary behavior.¹ Debaters participate on a team: a group that provides a safe space within the hectic world of high school life. Their peers and coaches constitute their social world, the cocoon from which they emerge to meet other teens.

    Teams demand considerablesocial investment, and must generate commitment strategies. First, a team requires atemporal commitment: participants give their time for the achievement of collectively valued and...

  10. Six Debate Culture
    (pp. 162-189)

    To understand high school policy debate, one must understand adolescence. In the reams of analysis of teenage social organization, most scholars emphasize that the teenage years are a time of transition: a period in which individuals must navigate the shoals separating childhood from adult life. This transition occurs in the context of powerful biological changes (the mischief of puberty), a recognition of new goals (needs for achievement, self-esteem, and affiliation),¹ the acquisition of cultural knowledge (creating niche marketing for film, music, and clothing) and economic responsibility (becoming wage earners with access to disposable cash), and changes in institutional commitment (dropping...

  11. Seven Teachers and Coaches
    (pp. 190-216)

    Debate exists within an institutional world. That debate is situated in schools is essential to understanding how the activity operates. This is an activity that schools teach and in which their teams compete. In contrast to many forms of voluntary adolescent activity, forensics is controlled by teachers, school-hired coaches, principals, school boards, and state educational agencies. In this, it contrasts with Babe Ruth baseball, Eagle Scouts, religious assemblies, gymnastic clubs, fantasy gaming groups, and youth gangs.

    The organization of debate within schools means that the presence of a team or class is tied to organizational politics.Without institutional blessing, a...

  12. Eight Gifted Leisure and the Politics of Debate
    (pp. 217-240)

    How should the public respond to the world of high school debate? Is debate vital to the future of the American polity, is it merely an odd expression of adolescent enthusiasms, or, worse, could the gamelike argumentation divert us from the serious consideration of public policy? Is high school debate a form of gifted education? Is it an educational tool that is valuable for every educated citizen? Is it a bizarre activity, no more worthy of public attention than, say, the game of Dungeons and Dragons? Or does it contribute to an atmosphere of contention, dominated by facile elites? In...

  13. Nine Debate and the Adolescent Toolkit
    (pp. 241-251)

    Like the debaters with whom I have traveled, I wish to emphasize a few points in closing. While much evidence has been presented, some salient arguments must be underlined: policy debate is a domain of youth, talk, evidence, competition, attachment, and schooling. In the terminology of debaters, I present an overview of my themes and their implications, setting aside the details of field notes and interview abstracts. My fundamental claim is that high school debate is a social world that, like any community, establishes its own moral order, addresses its divisions, and shares boundaries with related social worlds. Although for...

  14. Appendix Communities of Debate
    (pp. 252-270)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 271-296)
  16. Glossary of Debate Terms
    (pp. 297-298)
  17. Index
    (pp. 299-301)