Monday, June 16, 2008


As the parent of a kindergartener, I am always interested in finding out what lies ahead in the school years yet to come, what to expect and what to be prepared for. A lot of news of about middle and high school in America is quite disconcerting. The system seems to create some big winners and more than a few big losers but the vast majority get left behind in all round mediocrity that is a recipe for failure in the globalized world that they will increasingly need to participate in.

HBO's Resolved is a movie about the winners - the story of the high-stakes, win at any cost high-school debate whose cornerstone is a technique called "the spread" which is defined as " speed speaking, was introduced in the 1960s, debate was primarily characterized by eloquence and persuasion. Since, debate has emphasized information and academic research, with persuasiveness taking a back seat. Debaters began using a densely-worded jargon that few people could understand, and crowds dwindled. Where once high school debates filled auditoriums, they now take place in small rooms, sparsely populated by the few people who can understand what is being said and the even fewer people who have the ability to participate"

The movie traces the journey for a few debaters though several rounds of competition until they make or fail to make the all important
TOC (Tournament of Champions). The heroes in this story are a couple of black kids from a struggling inner city school in Long Beach, CA. They decide to challenge the format that high-school debating has come to assume and question its merits given how biased it is against those who lack the time and money to carry out exhaustive research in the area that they will be debating only to regurgitate as much as they can, and as fast as they can. They question the very premise of rewarding information collection as opposed to critical reasoning and original thinking.

It was a surreal experience watching these kids frothing in the mouth as they fired away without even pausing for breath in affirmative or negative of the resolution. No debate in the real world resembles even remotely what they were doing and just for that reason you wonder why kids and the adults involved in this activity would expend so much time and effort toward something that has questionable practical value.

While the facts and figures were rattled off at break neck speed, the response to questions from the opponents or the general ability of the debaters to hold and present a well considered independent opiniona on the subject was largely lacking. This is particularly disappointing in light of the fact that high-school debating supposedly attracts top talent. It was like the kids were crippled without the fifty tubs full of research material that they had gathered so painstakingly.

The two spirited kids from the Long Beach school make an impassioned case for restoring the true spirit of debate and not have it set up so that it would be impossible for the underprivileged and minorities to compete on an equal footing. In the end it is the one with the most powerful and convincing argument that should win and not the one with the most access to expensive research materials to buttress an otherwise non-descript argument.

It was sad to see the duo not able to change the style and substance of high school debate despite their heroic efforts. The system briefly acknowledges that it is imperfect but it seems to have a life of its own and rolls on like a juggernaut over two revolutionaries who tried to stand in its way.

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