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
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 Andrew Roblyer: “Angry Emails And Thoughts On Why They Happen: By Andrew Roblyer”
By Alisa Harris: “The Shining City’s Superman: By Alisa Harris”
By Philosophical Perspectives:
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:
By Krysi Kovaka:
By R.L. Stollar: “I Was The Original CFC Fuck-Up: R.L. Stollar’s Story”
By Michele Ganev: “CFC Gave Me Confidence: Michele Ganev’s Story”
Great BJU Protest of 2009
By Krysi Kovaka: “When I Recanted What I Truly Believed: Krysi Kovaka’s Thoughts”