The more I coach debate and talk to others in the activity, the more I come face-to-face with a disconcerting reality. You, me and everyone else who coaches debate is about to be hit by a bus.
By "A bus" I mean any one of the long list of eventualities that could suddenly force you out of the activity. Between new jobs, grad school, law school, funding cuts, and even the actual miniature human beings that are in the care and protection of some of us, our lives as debate coaches is short. Even for the lucky ones of us who are able to make debate part of our "day job," our activity is subject to forces far out of our control.
In some ways we as a community are victims of our own success. As we give students the tools to advance in debate, we also open up access to far-off schools, high-power careers, and the kind of fulfilling life that is incompatible with coaching debate. Of course this is a natural process, the very reason that we are willing to do so much for the activity in the first place. It's a good problem to have.
Unfortunately, it means we are sowing the seeds of our own destruction. we can't ignore this reality, and absent some major changes to the public education system we can't make it go away.
The conclusion that I'm becoming convinced of is that we need to embrace it. We need to embrace the bus that is careening toward us and do everything we can to help the activity before it hits us. I'm not entirely sure what this means yet, but there are already a few things that I've started to see differently about debate.
I'm starting to envision my job as a debate coach less as "training debaters" and more as "training debate coachces." If I'm doing my job right (not that I'm ever sure that I am), I want my students to understand the value of the activity and take the long view of what the community needs to thrive. I want them to understand that the value of "in-game" success is predicated on the existence of a community that we all create together.
If we cannot live as long as the elephant, then we need to reproduce like the mosquito. But there is a risk in this strategy as well. If at any point a program is coachless, it can take years to regain that inertia. One of the biggest challenges we face is finding continuity, someone to champion the cause of debate and help to fill in the gaps. Even mosquitos need standing water.
The emergence of the MDTA, NDCA, and Urban Debate Leagues here and elsewhere is promising, but their project is just beginning. And even with their help, all of us need to do everything we can to grow debate. Part of this means finding barriers around entering the activity and knocking them down whenever we can. For me, I'm continually discvering that I've taken things for granted that are incredibly hard for new coaches to overcome.
And while we're on the subject of personal confession, let me admit that I've been downright mean to other coaches. I've belittled people in public and in private for debate decisions that I disagree with. I've made fun of people who are making a good faith effort to grow a debate team. I've treated other judges and coaches as if they were beneath me, as if they weren't good enough to judge or compete against my studnts. And I was wrong.
Short of actual malice or criminal intent, nobody deserves that, especially nobody who is dedicating even a few hours of their time to this activity. If we go searching for intellectual purity, we are going to find nothing but a shrinking pool of kids and adults willing to play this game. The bus is heading for all of us, we must resist even the slightest tendency to throw each other under it.