Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

The National Debate Tournament: Through a Half-Century of Argument

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

The National Debate Tournament: Through a Half-Century of Argument

Article excerpt

This year will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the National Debate Tournament. Throughout these fifty years the NDT has been a lightening rod for controversy among forensic educators and communication professionals. It has been hailed for its excellence in training students in public policy analysis and in teaching them how to express and defends their ideas. At the same time, it has been condemned for its elitism and for its promotion of rapid, aggressive patterns of communication.

In this essay, I wish to accomplish two things. First, I will provide a brief personal history of the National Debate Tournament. I have been associated with the NDT for nearly forty years and have been directly involved in many of the conflicts surrounding it. By describing some of the events associated with these controversies, I hope to provide a more complete record for future scholars. Second, I will briefly comment on some of the overarching issues which have been associated with the national tournament.


The National Debate Tournament began in 1947 as a small invitational event hosted by the United States Military Academy at West Point. The West Point tournament sought to bring together the best teams from each region of the country for an end-of-the-season national competition. Twenty-nine colleges and universities participated in the first West Point tournament, but in subsequent years the number of participants increased to thirty-six. The thirty-six school limitation remained throughout the West Point years.

The West Point Debate Tournament was, from its beginning, a prestigious event, and invitations to it soon came to be widely sought. The rapid popularity of the tournament was due, in part, to its elitist nature and the national competition which it offered and, in part, to the stature of the sponsoring institution and its colorful and gracious style of hosting. Fifty years ago, competition at most tournaments was limited to teams from the immediate geographic areas, and the most successful teams from different regions of the country were eager to test their skills against championship teams from other sections. Teams from the South and West tended to be more persuasive in their style and orientation than were those from the East and Midwest. Judging standards were less standardized than today, and theoretical interpretations more diverse. A national tournament thus provided the opportunity to explore and test many of these differences, and participation in a selective championship event enhanced the prestige of the invited schools.

In addition to the appeal of championship national competition, the West Point tournament offered participants an opportunity to experience an inside view of the nation's top military academy and to benefit from much of the pomp and formality surrounding it. Male students and coaches ate at the cadets' mess, and female coaches and students dined at the Officers' Club. A cadet was assigned to escort each team. Pairings for the tournament were announced orally and then posted on a big board at the front of the assembly hall. Banners for each school were hung around the assembly hall, and as the pairings were announced, the competing teams and judges met under the affirmative schools' banners to be escorted to the debate rooms. A serving table in the assembly hall offered a variety of refreshments throughout the day. At the end of the preliminary rounds of debate, a formal awards banquet was held. The Academy's top brass attended these events, and both cadets and officers wore their dress uniforms. The West Point Glee Club provided entertainment for the occasion, and an orchestra provided dinner music throughout the banquet. The traditions established by the Academy and the extraordinary care that was put into hosting the tournament made simply attending the event a reward in itself.

Initially, teams invited to the tournament were selected informally and subjectively. …

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