Homeschool Debate and Growing Up in a Conservative Bubble

As I prepared my debate briefs, scouring the internet for evidence, there were two places I always looked first—the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation. A good quote or two that could be applied in argument against a given plan was generally sufficient for my purposes. I filed my briefs carefully in my box and prepared for competition.

I honestly think my participation in NCFCA, known colloquially as “homeschool debate,” was the best thing about my high school years. I participated for four full years, attending debate competitions across my region. I loved it—the buzz of people, the feeling of purpose, and the heady rush I got when stepping up to speak.

Homeschool debate was one of the social highlights of my high school career. At the time, my main socialization events were church, AWANA (bible club), and a weekly arts and music co-op. Homeschool debate gave me one more weekly opportunity to see friends (or at least, the ones who were also in our local debate club) and, wonder of wonders, an opportunity to meet people outside of our local social circle. Debate tournaments were amazing—they served as the gathering points of dozens or even hundreds of homeschooled teens just like me, comprising the largest gathering of young people I found myself in outside of our annual homeschool convention.

And here is where we come back to the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation. Homeschool debate was an approved activity for me and many other teens like me because our parents considered it safe. Homeschool debate was founded by Christy Shipe, the daughter of Michael Farris, founder of HSLDA. The goal of homeschool debate was to train up a generation of young people for public speaking and political involvement in an effort to restore America to its Christian foundation. We were those young people.

NCFCA was unabashedly Christian. To participate in homeschool debate, we had to sign a statement of faith. This meant that the teens filling the halls of a given debate tournament were, like me, growing up in Christian homeschooling families. They were there because they shared the mission and vision of NCFCA. They too were being trained to be culture changers—they too were being brought up to embrace their parents’ vision for the restoration of a Christian nation.

As I’m sitting here, all my memories from homeschool debate are pouring over me. There were the long car trips in which we carpooled with others in our club and spent hours singing, talking, and playing games. There were the hotel stays where we congregated with the other debaters late into the night, sipping hot chocolate in the hotel lobby and swapping stories about tournaments and life. There were the times when we stayed with host families and made new friends in the process. There were the tournaments where disaster struck—a car problem, an illness—and memories were made. There were the times I stood up without a shred of actual evidence and used simple logic to overturn the other team’s carefully laid plan, basking in the heady rush I felt as I did so. The conferences, the tournaments, it all comes rushing back, along with the time spent on the homeschool debate forum cracking homeschool jokes with other debaters (When can the principal kiss the teacher without facing a harassment lawsuit? When you’re homeschooled, because your father is the principal and your mother is the teacher!).

And once again I’ve lost track of where I started this essay—with the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute. My parents and the parents of the other students in homeschool debate thought they were preparing us to go out and take on the world, but they had a curious way of doing so. Namely, homeschool debate was like having pro-lifers debate each other about whether abortion should be legal. One year the topic was protectorates, and my partner and I created a plan to get rid of the D.C. gun ban. Watching the other team when we got up and presented our plan was always amusing. After all, how could they argue against the second amendment? They couldn’t! Not only would it be hard for them to argue against their principles, but also the judges were generally chosen from among homeschool parents and their church friends, meaning that the audience was one-sided as well. Generally, the other team would get up and argue that because of a case currently working its way through the courts, our plan was not inherent—in other words, the problem was real but was already being solved.

And beyond just this, we all knew that the best sources to use came from the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute. If you quoted one of them to back up a point you were making, you were golden. In college, I learned something I hadn’t known before—that those centers leaned right and were generally taken with a large grain of salt. In homeschool debate, no one was going to argue that. In homeschool debate, no one knew that. We accepted the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute as fair and balanced and objective—and our coaches weren’t about to challenge that. The same was true of just about everything about homeschool debate.

Homeschool debate took place in a bubble. Within that bubble, it was great—I learned a lot about rhetoric, logic, and argumentation—but it was still in a bubble. You can’t raise a group completely outside of a culture and then send them out into it expecting them to change that culture without even accurate knowledge about that culture. Individuals raised in a bubble like we were are simply not equipped to do that—and indeed, our understanding and perspective was limited because we were never encouraged to really question and think outside of the box.

It’s funny, I actually think homeschool debate is what started me thinking my way out of the entire belief system. The introduction to argumentation and logic that I received during my participation served me well once I got outside of the bubble and subjected it to questioning. It was that very foundation in argumentation and logic that kept me going, somehow naively unafraid of what I might find or where my questions might take me. I suppose I might say that homeschool debate gave me the tools I needed to think myself out of the bubble, but that I had to recognize the existence of the bubble before I could do that. But of course, none of this is what my parents intended when they involved me in homeschool debate, eager to train me as conservative culture warrior.

Note: Since some readers have been commenting asking about how exactly debate worked, let me add some explanation. I did policy debate. There was a new topic each year, border policy or energy policy or trade with Africa, and each team (two person teams) breathed a plan based on that policy—in other words, they made an argument for a very specific course of action. In a debate each team had four times to talk, in order, and there were also four cross examinations, when a person from one team would ask questions of someone on the other team. The judge or judges would decide who won based largely on whether they were convinced that specific course of action should be taken. So while some person might have to argue against a specific course of action they might be in favor of, they could do so without having to defend the status quo or go against heir conscience—instead they could point out specific problems, limitations, etc.

This post was originally published on Homeschoolers Anonymous as part of a series on homeschool debate and related topics. For a full listing of posts on the topic, see the roundup post on the subject. I will also add links to the other posts in the series as follows:

Call for Stories

By Nicholas Ducote: Resolved: That We Should Talk about HSLDA Debate, NCFCA, STOA, and CFC/ICC, Part One

By Bethany: “Resolved: That We Should Talk about HSLDA Debate, NCFCA, STOA, and CFC/ICC, Part Two”

***

Debate History and General Topics

By R.L. Stollar: “A Brief History of Homeschool Speech and Debate”

By Nicholas Ducote, “A Letter of Gratitude, A Call for Dialogue”

By Luke: “Debate As Socialization: Luke’s Thoughts”

By Andrew Roblyer: “Angry Emails And Thoughts On Why They Happen: By Andrew Roblyer”

By Alisa Harris: “The Shining City’s Superman: By Alisa Harris”

***

NCFCA/STOA

By Libby Anne: “The Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute: NCFCA and Growing Up in a Conservative Bubble — Libby Anne’s Thoughts”

By Finn:

“Sailboats And The Spirit: Finn’s Thoughts, Part One”

“Sailboats And The Spirit: Finn’s Thoughts, Part Two”

By Philosophical Perspectives:

“Of Love and Office Supplies: Philosophical Perspective’s Thoughts”

“How NCFCA Taught Me to Fight Sexism: Philosophical Perspective’s Thoughts”

By Andrew Roblyer: “The Lessons I Wasn’t Supposed to Learn: Andrew Roblyer’s Thoughts”

By Kierstyn King: “Teenagers Taking Over the World: Kierstyn King’s Thoughts”

By R.L. Stollar:

“The Most Controversial Thing I Ever Wrote, Part One: By R.L. Stollar”

“The Most Controversial Thing I Ever Wrote, Part Two: By R.L. Stollar”

***

CFC/ICC

By Krysi Kovaka:

“I Was A Problem To Be Ignored: Krysi Kovaka’s Story, Part One”

“I Was A Problem To Be Ignored: Krysi Kovaka’s Story, Part Two”

By R.L. Stollar: “I Was The Original CFC Fuck-Up: R.L. Stollar’s Story”

By Marla: “Competence, Not Character: Marla’s Story”

By Michele Ganev: “CFC Gave Me Confidence: Michele Ganev’s Story”

By Renee: “Sharing the Burden of the Pedestal: Renee’s Story”

***

Great BJU Protest of 2009

By Joe Laughon: “Engaging the World — Debate and the BJU Protest: An Interview with Joe Laughon”

By Ariel: “The Embarrassment of Protesting Racism: Ariel’s Thoughts”

By Krysi Kovaka: “When I Recanted What I Truly Believed: Krysi Kovaka’s Thoughts”

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Rosie

    When I was a believer, I was afraid of debate tactics. I was afraid to argue something I didn’t believe because I worried it might start to make sense to me. But my parents encouraged me to “think for myself” rather than try to belong, and in the end I took that a whole lot farther than they ever intended…right out of the religion they taught me.

  • John Small Berries

    Did teams assigned the “wrong” side of the debate ever actually try to win, with the same fervor and dedication as if they’d been assigned the “right” side, or was it tacitly understood that if you got assigned the non-orthodox position, you were not to put forth your best efforts as though it were a position you actually supported?

    If the former, what was the response if they actually did win?

    And if the latter, how would that ever possibly train people for the ideological opponents they hoped to meet out in the real world?

    • victoria

      I wonder if they just wouldn’t have questions where one side would be completely out of bounds of mainstream evangelical thought? (“Resolved: Abortion should be legal in cases of rape or incest” vs. “Resolved: Abortion on demand should be legal through the first trimester of pregnancy”)

      I’d be curious to hear if that’s how things worked.

      • http://www.shaneyirene.com/ Shaney Irene

        Yeah, those kinds of resolutions were not allowed. The NCFCA very specifically chose morally-neutral topics every year (i.e., “Resolved: That NATO should be significantly reformed or abolished.”)

    • fiona64

      Good point … because (at least back in the day when I did policy debate), you were only notified about 30 min prior to the debate whether you were affirmative or negative — and you were expected to be able to debate either position appropriately.

  • Machintelligence

    Were there ever any debates where at halftime (so to speak) you had to switch sides and argue the opposite case? I would think this would be the only fair way to evaluate the teams. Pardon my ignorance, but debate wasn’t part of my educational experience.

    • KarenJo12

      In public school debate that is exactly what happens. In later rounds the teams draw “for” or “against” at the beginning of the match.

      • Christine

        I felt really cheated when I discovered that debate normally doesn’t involve you knowing the topic in advance. (I didn’t do debate in high school, so I only had one board to go by). That said, I don’t know if I’d be any good at regular debate.

      • LizBert

        That’s not necessarily true, the main types of high school debate all involve knowing the topic ahead of time. For policy (CX) you debate the same topic all season. For other styles it changes more frequently.

    • Composer 99

      I’m reminded here of the method by which the game ‘Thud’ (from the Terry Pratchett Discworld universe) is played.

      • NeaDods

        I just bought that game this weekend! Discworld Emporium sells it.

      • Composer 99

        Sweet.

    • http://www.shaneyirene.com/ Shaney Irene

      In NCFCA debate, you have six round that make up the prelims. Each team has to debate three rounds on the negative, three rounds on the affirmative. So no, you’re not debating both affirmative and negative in the same round against the same team, but you do have to argue on each side an equal number of times. In the out rounds, you’ll either switch sides if you’re going up against an opponent you already faced in the prelims, or just flip a coin to choose sides.

      • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

        Same for public school debate in both TFA and UIL (two different organizations in Texas), though sometimes we only had 4 prelims because there just weren’t that many teams.

    • http://lanahobbs.wordpress.com/ lana hobbs

      no, but that would have been awesome.

  • Gail

    The one-sidedness of the debates remind me of how we were taught to “witness” to other people when I was a teenager at a Southern Baptist church. We were given the same old tactics, and then we’d practice in pairs, one person pretending to be the non-Christian. Of course, nobody ever made it difficult. It was incomprehensible to them that somebody wouldn’t be convinced easily and want to convert. I remember that I once did try to make it difficult (as in, react the way normal people do when accosted by missionaries) and my partner acted like I was insane.

  • Karleanne Matthews

    Your comment about sending people out into the world without even representing that culture honestly reminds me of how I felt in my Christian apologetics class in high school (we all had to sign statements of faith to get in, so we had to at least all pretend to believe the same stuff). Our teacher, though very intelligent, would lay out an argument to use with an atheist when we left high school and then get this smug look on his face, like he’d just proved it it beyond a doubt. I was already somewhere in my errant-Christian/agnostic/atheist journey, and was SO not impressed by his arguments–but what could I say? I might be able to carefully play devil’s advocate, but it wasn’t like I could just be like, “Actually no, that’s not what I believe at all. You’re totally misrepresenting atheism so you can win the argument.” Grrr.

  • smrnda

    Your experience demonstrates one thing; a person with a firm understanding of logic and rhetoric can make great arguments for wrong positions *IF* they’re given bad information to begin with.

    I’m wondering if the *opposition sides* ever made arguments similar to what people outside of the bubble did? Did anyone ever, for example, make a pro-choice argument that actually sounds like an argument a real pro-choice person would make? It’s not that I’d assume debate involves building straw-men, it’s just that if you have little contact with people who don’t agree with you it can be hard to really know how those people think.

  • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

    I did debate in high school too (also policy, we called it CX for cross-examination). We did use sources from CATO and Heritage, but also Brookings Institute and other thinktanks, as well as various professors, political scientists, and experts in the field. We always knew CATO and Heritage leaned right and Brookings leaned center-left, though.

    It was a ton of fun. I can relate to the hotels, the random disasters that make memories, and just hanging out with friends from other schools that you only saw at tournaments,though we might have had a bit different drinks *cough*alcohol*cough* and a bit less hot chocolate than the home schooled debaters. Unlike your experience, though, there really wasn’t a “right” side. You were more likely to win with leftist philosophy than pro-capitalism, pro-militarism, pro-state philosophy, which was really annoying, but on the policy level there wasn’t nearly one right side.

  • luckyducky

    This was my biggest frustration when teaching college freshmen who were primarily from conservative – though not necessarily homeschoolers. My dad LOVES to play devil’s advocate and he does it really well, to the point that I am often not sure where he really comes down on an issue… it was great modeling for actually fully considering an opposing view point, on its own terms and not just for the sake of knocking it down.

    So it was incredibly frustrating teaching American Gov’t for the first time and regularly encountering student who wouldn’t just refuse to consider the opposing side, getting to know it as those who hold it understand it but who also decided there was nothing to learn from me because I asked them to. To be fair, while I am and have long been lefty liberal, I explicitly asked them to outline BOTH or ALL sides of an argument, drawing from openly liberal, openly conservative, and nonpartisan/centrist sources (I don’t buy the axiom that if both sides are angry with you, you must be doing something right).

    And that to me is a great moral failing of modern conservatism, it explicitly teaches people to be ignorant and dishonest. Ignorant of what the other side thinks and why, ignorant of where they are on the continuum of cultural/political spectrum (people on the far right are often simultaneously convinced they are a persecuted minority and part of the great silent/moral majority — neither of which is objectively accurate), and dishonest about what the opposition thinks and even the evidence for their own argument.

    • Machintelligence

      So it was incredibly frustrating teaching American Gov’t for the first time and regularly encountering student who wouldn’t just refuse to consider the opposing side, getting to know it as those who hold it understand it but who also decided there was nothing to learn from me because I asked them to.

      I presume their grades reflected this inability to follow instructions.
      It seems odd that the conservatives are able to attract almost all of the authoritarian personalities. The liberals must be doing something wrong. :-)

      • luckyducky

        In fact, their grades did reflect this. I gave them instructions, a rubric before hand and graded them according to where they fell on the rubric… and I not quite sure whether you are being facetious…

        Case in point: that first semester, there were a number of “constitutional” issues that were really big in the news. So, I asked them to put together a presentation of BOTH sides of the issue, explain both sides, with explicit instructions to draw from “liberal” and “conservative” as well as “nonpartisan” sources in order to do this. They were told they were not to take a side at all but just present the arguments. I made the mistake of allowing one group choose the 2nd amendment and all they used were the NRA and NRA-friendly sources. In retrospect, letting them tackle that one was a mistake because the issue has been masticated by the far right so long that it is hard to find any sort of “balance” but they didn’t take any direction as in “check out the Brady Campaign to get started on the pro-gun control side of the argument.” There wasn’t even a token reference to the Brady Campaign and the presentation was so thoroughly biased that even LaPierre would have blushed.

        And it isn’t really odd that conservatives attract more authoritarian personalities… there is a fair amount of neurological research involving fMRIs, etc. that indicate that people are more likely to interpret images as threatening and less comfortable with ambiguity are more likely to be identify as conservative.

    • Hilary

      Did you ever find the reverse to be true? Liberal kids who couldn’t work out conservative arguments coherently, and refuse to learn from you? Because I come from a pretty liberal bubble and ran into a little culture shock the first time I encountered conservative people who actually thought like that.

      • luckyducky

        I can’t say. I was teaching at a regional religious institution in a conservative region. Though bent of the religious who founded and ran the institution would be a tad bit more on the liberal side, because of the tuition and the ongoing religious affiliation it attracted students from more conservative families (if you are going to pay $$ for school, it is likely because the religious aspect of the education is very important). I’m not saying there were no liberal students because but those that were either didn’t grow up in the bubble you referred to thanks to growing up in a conservative region and/or in a denomination with a very strong conservative streak or didn’t find it so out of their comfort zone to have to read some Heritage Foundation or Cato Institute that they were resistant to it.

        Or they were comfortable with me and an instructor so they were more willing to step out of their comfort zone. There is such an us/them dynamic and I think that those on conservative households in particular get the information that institutions of high ed are places of liberal of indoctrination that they come in primed to be defensive and ready to have all their suspicions about having to spout liberal ideology confirmed.

        Maybe liberals have the same reaction in other settings… I don’t know… but I think to say liberal students would be the same in a classroom setting with a conservative professor or if asked to do the same for conservative view points (which I think I did) would be a false equivalency.

  • Kagi Soracia

    our understanding and perspective was limited because we were never encouraged to really question and think outside of the box.

    It should be noted, most of us were actively discouraged to question anything that we were taught. Everything was given as fact, and most conservative ideals were presented as Biblical even if there was no actual place the Bible specifically said that. You could never, ever question anything that was presented as ‘Biblical’ or ‘Christian’. It was Truth ™.

  • Anna

    Hmmm…makes me wonder where you competed. I, along with some of my siblings, did NCFCA a LOT in high school (by a lot, I mean that we attended nearly every tournament in/out of region and my parents were quite willing to spend a good deal of money in the process…we were also quite successful but that’s beside the point). In my region (R9), CATO and Heritage were looked down on for being overly-conservative to the point that they didn’t really take a good look at both sides of an issue. I remember running a Kritik on a team for using CATO as their sole source of evidence in a round. Immigration year, there were several more liberal cases (read: pro-immigration). I definitely see how some homeschool families live in a “bubble” but overall, NCFCA (from what I’ve seen of it…which has been multiple states across the country) is against that. Like the socialization issue, I think that the initial homeschoolers and initial debaters likely had these problems, but in more recent years there’s been a lot of improvement. I realize that you had a really bad homeschooling experience, but assigning some of the problems to NCFCA (at least the current NCFCA) seems a little misguided. Have you been able to remain involved with the league any? I’ve been out of it for a couple years and it’s changed a ton in that short time. I wonder if you would be surprised/impressed with the way it is now. The current NCFCA/Stoa is way past the Heritage/CATO bubble.

  • Daniel Silver

    I was a former NCFCA debater now an NCFCA coach and I encourage my students to use a variety of sources from different viewpoints and this is consistent with many of the other coaches in my region (Region 9, same as Anna) As a student I would never have read evidence from just one or two sources or ideologies and I tell my students to challenge that if another team does. I also agree with Anna that, at least in our region, debaters are not living in a Cato/Heritage bubble.

    I do agree however that a lot of debaters used their logic and reasoning skills in ways their parents or at least the organizers of the league never intended.

  • lauraleemoss

    Libby, I enjoy your blog. So much that I have read every post. You must proofread though. When you use words incorrectly (principle) it casts doubts in readers’ minds.

  • Mary

    Ohmygosh. I remember the Protectorates year!! (If I never again hear about Puerto Rico and why it should become a state, I’ll….live. :) )My little brother went to nationals that year.

  • Joy_F

    ” You can’t raise a group completely outside of a culture and then send them out into it expecting them to change that culture without even accurate knowledge about that culture. Individuals raised in a bubble like we were are simply not equipped to do that—and indeed, our understanding and perspective was limited because we were never encouraged to really question and think outside of the box.”

    Interesting way to describe this – I was actually thinking this quote pertained well to the Miley Cyrus reaction from America – Hollywood is its own culture, with its own expectations. America seems to think that because their kids aren’t a part of that culture, but are invested in it, they can dictate what people within the culture do. It never works. Interesting anthropology at any rate.

  • fiona64

    I was on our high school debate team … and you’re right. We had to learn how to evaluate sources for bias, and could be expected to be called out on sources in cross-ex if we hadn’t ensured their neutrality/factual accuracy. (The year I did policy debate, it was mandatory seat belt law … which is still relatively new, in the grand scheme of things.)

  • Leigha7

    When I saw “Cato Institute,” my first thought was that I’d heard that before. Then I realized that I’d heard of it because of Penn & Teller: Bullshit. They’re Fellows at the Cato Institute, and Penn is passionately against religion. I’m aware he’s a Libertarian, but I was a little surprised to see that an organization he’s a Fellow of is so lauded by evangelicals.

    I’m still not sure what to make of this.


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