Well versed in de Tocqueville, Hegel and NATO reform, dressed to impress in their best business suits, they’re over-prepared, under-rested and, in many cases, looking forward to getting their driver’s permit.
The cream of an incredibly driven crop, these 12-to-18-year-old homeschooled students represent the elite of the National Christian Forensics and Communications Association debate league. Monday, over 530 of their ranks will overrun Belton, Texas, for their own personal Super Bowl: the 8th annual National NCFCA Debate Tournament.
“The competition at nationals is extremely intense,” says Dr. Roger Smith, NCFCA board member and regional coordinator. “Only the top 5 percent of competitors from each region is invited to attend, and the field is quickly narrowed to the best of the best.” Some 34 states will be represented at nationals this year.
The tournament is the culmination and main focus of the NCFCA debate league, which was founded in 1995 by Christy Shipe and her father, Michael P. Farris, head of the Home School Legal Defense Association, or HSLDA, and chancellor of Patrick Henry College. Shipe saw a need for a forum in which homeschoolers could participate in competitive forensics and collaborated with her father for a solution.
The solution took the form of a league specifically designed for homeschooled students, and was originally called the “HSLDA Debate League.” The league was fathered by Farris’ organization at its inception, but when it began to take on its own identity due to exponential growth, Shipe and Farris knew it was time for the organization to mature. It was separated from HSLDA and renamed the “National Christian Forensics and Communications Association” in 2001.
In the last five years, according to NCFCA President Michael Larimer, the number of participating families has tripled. The organization now retains over 2,000 affiliate families. As each family often contains multiple participants, the real number of competitors is closer to 5,000, with clubs and debaters located in 45 states across 10 regions.
This year’s national tournament will begin Monday with expository and extemporaneous speeches. In the former, students are asked to give a 10-minute, prepared speech using a visual aid of some sort. In the latter, students are asked a question about a current event of the past 90 days, such as “Is Mogadishu sliding back into anarchy?” or “Is the optimism of Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz justified considering the growing pains of the company that were evident at its March 21 shareholder meeting?” They are then given 30 minutes to prepare and rehearse a 7-minute speech.
Arguably the most intense portion of the competition begins Tuesday with the inception of the forensics preliminaries. Forensic debate in NCFCA takes two forms: Lincoln Douglas values debate, in which participants will discuss whether or not “Democracy is overvalued in America,” and Team Policy debate, in which participants will discuss whether or not “The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) should be significantly reformed or abolished.” All debaters will be asked to argue both for and against each position.
The debate events will proceed through Wednesday, alternating every other hour with speech events, including humorous interpretation, original oratory and impromptu speaking, which will allow students to participate in as many styles of rhetoric as they choose. Those who compete in five speech events are termed “marathoners.” Those who manage to compete in five speech events and one form of debate are called “ironmen.” Rewards reflect each category.
Thursday, Lincoln Douglas and Team Policy debate will proceed into the out-round portion of the tournament, in what Smith calls “do-or-die” single elimination. To win the entire tournament, competitors must remain undefeated in out-rounds. After the tournament is completed, the topics for next year’s debate cases will be announced.
Obviously, preparation for NCFCA’s tournament season, which typically begins in January, is extensive. Many competitors begin researching debate topics and preparing speeches immediately upon the close of nationals, setting aside old cases for new. Most will train from 30 minutes to 2 hours each day throughout the year. As nationals approaches, serious competitors will multiply their efforts several times over, often dedicating over eight hours each day to pursuit of the championship title.
But why do they do it? And, more importantly, is it worth it?
Marla and Rachel Blum
Rachel Blum, champion of 2004’s Lincoln Douglas National Debate, participated in NCFCA debate for over five years, accruing over 13 national tournament awards, including a close 2nd finish in Team Policy Debate in 2006. Her biggest regret, despite enormous success, is that she didn’t win the national title in both forms of debate. She says her time in debate was entirely worthwhile and that the intellectual benefits were bountiful.
“Debate is, essentially, a dress-up game for higher academics, politics and personal interaction,” she said. “The competitive aspect of speech and debate gave me motivation for reading good literature, reading and attempting to understand philosophy (although sometimes, like at 14, I was a bit too young to comprehend the subtleties of Hegel), staying abreast of the news/current events, learning how to research, finding out how our government works and why, forming coherent defenses for Christianity, and learning how to think on my feet …”
Longtime NCFCA competitor Isaiah McPeak believes the benefits of debate far outweigh those of its written cousins.
“Rather than simply reading and regurgitating, or even writing a paper on a subject, debate forces one to defend one’s position and attack another’s,” he said. “Debate is therefore the culmination of the liberal arts, and furthered my intellectual growth in two main ways; first, it gave me better tools, and second, it applied learning from other areas.”
The 2006 Team Policy champion, Rachel Heflin, says debate taught her to adapt her speaking style to different sorts of people and their accompanying presuppositions.
“You learn the importance of asking probing questions to understand the framework and presuppositions of arguments,” she said. “What are their assumptions? Why are they arguing this way? What common ground do we share? How can I persuade them of the truth?”
Such questions have come in handy for Heflin during her involvement with Moot Court at Patrick Henry College. She and her partner, both former NCFCA debaters, won Best Brief for Petitioner at the 2007 National Tournament.
While the intellectual rewards may be considerable, acknowledged Smith, for the students it’s all about community: “It’s not the knowledge,” he said. “Relationships are the things that make life rich, and through these competitions, they are developing.”
Rachel Blum testifies to the same: “Not all of them, but most of my close friends even now are people I know through debate – it brings people of common interests, or even not-so-common interests, together,” she said. As debaters are generally ambitious, type-A personalities intent on developing and furthering their ideas, “most debaters are driven individuals that will be encouragements and good contacts for your future path,” noted McPeak.
“You might even meet your wife [in debate] like I did,” he added.
In Blum’s estimation, however, debate has an even bigger purpose for Christians. “We have a message that desperately needs to be shared and have been given a burden to share it – debate is a very effective means of equipping us to be able to share and defend our faith – to know what we believe, why, and be able to articulate this well to others,” she said.
True to Blum’s words, the vision for the NCFCA, according to the organization’s mission statement, describes its ultimate purpose as follows: “to provide a means for home schooled students to learn and exercise analytical and oratorical skills, addressing life issues from a Biblical worldview in a manner that glorifies God.”
It continues, “rather than pursuing competitive forensics as an end unto itself, NCFCA encourages students to pursue forensics as a means to learn the skills necessary to effectively communicate truth to the world.”
Debate also serves to lessen these gifted students’ tendency to depend on themselves and their own knowledge. Jenna Lorence was Blum’s partner in their 2006 Team Policy venture, and was named the 4th best speaker in the nation. While her public speaking and intellectual skills are undeniable, she says her highest moments of success did not coincide with her most fruitful times of spiritual growth.
“The times that have brought me closest to God or taught me the most are not the times when everything has gone exactly as I have planned in the round,” she admitted, “but rather when I’ve watched God guide my steps in a tournament and see the results that He can bring.”
But after hundreds of hours of preparation, it can often be devastating for these students when things do not go exactly as they had planned. NCFCA Speech and Debate is a competitive pressure-cooker; it’s easy for students to lose their identity in their rhetoric.
Smith calls it “positive peer-pressure,” asserting students push each other to research, to achieve, to grow in godliness and, of course, to compete at a higher level. But obviously, when you find 5,000 students embroiled in a microcosm of intense competition, “pressure” will not always be “positive.”
As Marla Blum, a fourth-year competitor looking to win the Blum family’s 2nd national title at this year’s tournament, said: “Speech and debate is one of the hardest things to compete in, and the NCFCA community is an extremely judgmental and challenging environment. Sometimes I think I can’t handle it. I can’t ever been good enough, or act nice enough, or look proper enough. … I know kids who get so nervous about losing that they throw up before every round.”
When asked what would happen if she won this year, Blum said, “I would probably be really ecstatic for about 15 minutes. Then I’d start coming up with a new goal, and trying to figure out more ways to push myself. … You can’t really dwell on winning, I think. If you do then you’ll never improve.”
While competition amongst her peers is intense, Blum’s drive to succeed has another dimension. She sees her sister Rachel’s national championship trophy every day, sitting on the bookcase when she walks up the stairs.
“Most people say that they want to be as good as a certain competitor, but they don’t live with that competitor,” she said. “They don’t see the trophy every day, … they don’t have people asking them, ‘When are you going to pull a Rachel and finally win?'”
Originally, Blum admits it was difficult for her to be happy for her sister’s national tournament triumph. “Someone said, ‘Oh, you must be so excited!’ and I quite matter-of-factly told them, ‘No. I’m not excited. I wish she hadn’t won, because now I have to win,'” she recalls.
“I’ve finally had to reach the conclusion that I don’t have to live up to her standard,” she said. Developing her own debate persona has resulted in a “major payoff” for the way she performs and how much she enjoys her participation.
Now, Blum says, “I’m glad [Rachel] won nationals. I’m glad she was brilliant. If she hadn’t been, I never would have had as much to push for.”
While the NCFCA debate league is young, the success of its alumni speaks volumes about its positive repercussions. Many alumni have been recruited by top-tier universities and are participating in debate and moot court at the collegiate level. Former debater Lila Rose, a UCLA student who exposed a Planned Parenthood cover-up, was recently featured on “The O’Reilly Factor.” Chicago debater Jonathan Wolfson has gone on to a position as research assistant for the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, where he works with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.
According to Larimer, NCFCA’s president, over 30 alumni will pay their own way to attend nationals this year, to judge the competitors, and to enjoy being part of the event again.
Over 530 young men and women, anticipation boiling in their stomachs, will reap the results of their last year’s labor this next week. As final preparations wind to a close and sleep debt mounts and mounts, one hopes, in the words of Smith, the event’s regional coordinator, “that it will all be worth it when they get to Texas.”
Jennifer Carden is an editorial assistant at WorldNetDaily.com.