The LD Novice Topic, a History (AKA, "Clang, Clang, Clang Went the Trolley")

As we are about to learn the September-October LD resolution, and as many people are gearing up for the new season with their teams and bringing in their novices, I thought it might be a good time to tell this story.

When I started coaching LD in 1995, the curriculum was heavily dependent on a number of classical philosophical texts, concentrating on a basic set of philosophical ideas like rights protection, the social contract and the harms principle. Every year I would start up a new bunch of novices in September, and every year I wanted to start them roughly the same way to get these basic philosophical ideas across. I recommended introductory reading of Locke and Mill, and went on from there. Given the nature of the topics at the time, this worked quite well.

LD, of course, has changed, and the topics are seldom the general ethical questions that were usual in the past. Nevertheless, those basic philosophical ideas and introductory readings have always seemed to me a very good way to introduce philosophy and ethics to high school freshman. I guess I could hand them a copy of The Genealogy of Morals at the orientation meeting, but I'd actually like to have them come back again to the second meeting. For that matter, I'd like to come back to the second meeting as well. The minute we get on to Nietzsche, I'm outta there (as a couple of students I've judged over the years will no doubt readily attest).

I don't think that I was different from a lot of other coaches who had developed a basic structure for introductory meetings. Granted, there is a school of thought that believes that learning the mechanics of debate is the best starting point, but that's beside the point. If those folks are happy with that approach, more power to them. Meanwhile, the idea of a standard curriculum of philosophy/ethics study as a starting point worked for a lot of us. I would maintain that even for the most modern styles of LD, learning the basics first is a good thing. I mean, even Thelonius Monk put in his time at Juilliard.

The problem with wanting a standard starting curriculum was that we were subject to the luck of the draw when it came to the topic the novices would be debating. Sometimes the topic leant itself to one's standard curriculum, while sometimes the topic seemed to have been selected entirely so that a given year's novices would all quit by October 1st, before they completely lost their sanity.

Being an inherently lazy person, motivated by the idea of doing as little work as possible, I had the idea that, if we could only have the same starting topic every year, I could use literally the same starting curriculum season after season. I could develop what I felt was the best lesson plan for training and keeping LDers, and I could use that plan every year without having to worry if it applied to the resolutions the students would be debating. I tried this idea out on a few people, and some of them liked it. Others, not so much. The luck of the draw wasn't all that bad, they said. They were content to leave things as they were.

And then the trolley came to town.

The 2008 Sept-Oct LD resolution was: It is morally permissible to kill one innocent person to save the lives of more innocent people. On face, this is simple enough, and it's certainly easy enough to present as a thought experiment. The idea of a trolley you can switch from one heavily populated track to a different lightly populated track is a classic, used for all sorts of things, including analyzing morality on a cross-cultural basis. Most people, regardless of age, nationality, culture, religion, etc., agree that it is preferable to kill the one and let the five live.

If only debating it were that simple. The thing is, this resolution draws on some of the most sophisticated morality issues in the realm of philosophy. The calculus does not remain as simple as the basic one vs. many. At the point where you throw another person off the bridge to stop the trolley, usually step two in the thought experiment, you are dealing with issues of agency and action and the like that are beyond the abilities of many college philosophy students. Explaining why one feels differently about one's mother being the one vs. strangers being the five? Well, that’s (perhaps) the root genesis of morality (with apologies to Nietzsche). This is all great material, and many of us could build an entire course or two around it. But for high school freshmen with no understanding yet of the simplest ideas of ethics and morality? It was two months of hell.

I would now like to officially thank all of those who voted for this topic. It was just what I needed to launch my devious plan for a standard novice topic. I called the proposal the Modest Novice, an obvious tip of the hat to Jonathan Swift, although I had no plans to eat any novices if the proposal fell through.

I doubt if I'm the first person who ever thought of having a repeating topic for novices, but coming up with the idea was only the beginning. Making it happen was another thing altogether. I'm from New York. Around here, we have a number of relatively self-contained groups that compete together off and on during the year. There's Massachusetts, there's New York City, there's upper New York from about Albany to the City border (my location), there's Long Island, and there's New Jersey. While these people might compete against one another occasionally, they never communicate on an official basis. The only thing linking them is their attendance, occasionally, at one another's tournaments. And the only way that the idea of a novice topic would work was if I could get most of them to agree to it. In the middle of all of this is a tournament I run in November, attended by most of these contingents. I offer novice LD. I wanted as many teams to come as possible, so either I had to convince just about everybody, or there was no point to it. At my tournament I'd have half a division if I didn't get decent buy-in. And we couldn’t very well have novices debating one topic one week and another topic the next week. It was an all-or-nothing proposition.

I looked at this as similar to Don Corleone trying to unite the families. I'm no Marlon Brando, but I had the Five Families that I had to get to agree. These families often didn't see eye-to-eye on many things, including the direction that LD was taking at the time (which is, for all practical purposes, where LD is today). In other words, there were some very conservative elements among them. And there was concern for their own students. Whatever system we had operated under since the invention of LD was, one way or the other, working, even if occasionally you had to throw the fat guy in front of the trolley. Change is never easy. Change against long-accepted orthodoxy can be well nigh impossible, not to mention structural change in a situation where there is no organizational structure. The job was to meet with all the leaders of the Five Families and convince them of the viability of the idea.

I started with my immediate peers in suburban New York, plus a few of my friends in the other families. We all agreed that we should do it, which gave me a base to build from. Chris Palmer built us a little website ( where we could keep people posted on what was happening, and kick around various ideas. We hashed out what topic to use at that year's Lexington Winter Tournament. I can't remember who came up with civil disobedience; I had originally been leaning toward bad gov vs no gov, one of my personal favorites, but CD eventually won out. As far as the Five Families were concerned, Palmer, who was one of the strong supporters of the idea from the start, was at the time the head of the Massachusetts Forensic League. Lexington, Manchester-Essex and Needham was a big buy-in right off the start, thanks to Palmer and the MFL agreeing to support it. We were on our way.

The chief objections to the Modest Novice, aside from that fact that it was new and untested, were these:
  • Any LD team would, at a given time, have to deal with two topics at the same time, with all the attendant drain on coachean resources
  • Judges might have to judge two different topics at the same tournament
  • Teams would develop "Super" cases that they would simply hand to their novices, insuring cheap, unearned wins

The responses to this were these:
  • After the first year, the team would have a set curriculum which it would never have to create again from scratch, plus it would be the best possible curriculum for starting new novices. Not only that, but since all novices would, eventually, grow up and become varsity debaters having learnt themselves from the Modest Novice, they would be able to help pass the wisdom of their experience to the newbies.
  • Almost inevitably, judges are either in one pool or the other. Given that in the northeast, Varsity judging Novices is the norm, the Varsity would be judging the Modest Novice topic and graduates would be judging the topic du jour. Then again, occasionally someone at a tournament judges a round of PF and then a round of LD, and the mental explosion rate as a result of this is minimal. In other words, it's just not that big a deal, and it wouldn’t even happen much.
  • Teams will create "Super" cases and reprocessed cases and hand them to novices regardless of Modest Novice. In other words, this argument was non-unique. If coaches believe their novices are best served by making them into automatons spouting someone else's wisdom, it's going to happen no matter what.

The key objection was that fear of resources being stretched too far. The response was that, before long, the result would be just the opposite. We're going into our fifth year of this, and I can claim categorically that we were right. Modest Novice was the right thing to do.

Anyhow, with Massachusetts in the bag, and the local upstate New York people like Scarsdale’s Joe Vaughan on board, there were three families left: NYC, Long Island and New Jersey. With NYC, I already had the Bronx (Jon Cruz was on board from the start). But I remember very clearly sitting down with Eric diMichele of Regis, who was way more Marlon Brando in all of this than I was. If he wasn't onboard, we weren't going anywhere. He sort of shook his head sagely (he does most things sagely) and put in his two cents about making sure we used the CD topic (since we hadn’t completely committed to it yet). If Eric wanted the CD topic, Eric would get the CD topic. With Eric now on board, the NYC UDL organization was fairly easy to convince, given that they didn't have that many LDers and were happy to go with the flow. New Jersey meant Dave Yastremski of Ridge and Jonathan Alston of Newark, the key LD players who participated with the New York teams at the novice level. They came right on board. (Although after we launched Modest Novice, they pulled out for a year or so, and then came back on board again. What can I say? It's New Jersey.)

By now I had 4 out of 5 of the families. The last one to convince was Long Island, which in a way was the least important as there was little overlap at the novice level with LI and the rest of the area during the early part of the season. And alas, I was not able to convince them. They were mostly in fear of the extra work that it appeared Modest Novice would generate. But there was certainly no hard feelings. They could watch us from afar and decide for themselves later, given that they mostly played among themselves anyhow (Long Island forensics is huge, and further away from the rest of us than you might think).

So Modest Novice was a go. We've been doing it since 2009, and it's now just part of what we do. To tell you the truth, I was pretty surprised when the NSDA adapted it; I didn't even know they were considering it. I gather that it hasn't yet taken the world by storm, and in brief conversations I've had with people, the objections being forwarded are the same ones that we heard originally. Yes, it is a little extra work the first year or so, but after that, it's a breeze. And more importantly, it provides the opportunity to develop curriculum for new debaters, presumably 9th graders, that is exactly where 9th graders ought to start learning about ethics and rights and morality. Those first few months are the beginning of a great adventure. Doesn't it make sense that we make it the best great adventure possible?