Read it and weep: The perils of high school debate in Ben Lerner’s ‘The Topeka School’

A person waiting for a debate round to start
(Nina Potischman • The Student Life)

To an outsider, it is hard to communicate the cult-like, life-consuming nature of high school debate, where speeches are given at 500 words per minute and retainer-clad adolescents swarm college campuses in ill-fitting suits.  

Though the book takes place in Topeka, Kansas in the 90s, the details Lerner uses to illustrate the idiosyncrasies of the debate world underlie the collective consciousness of most debaters. 

“Competitors do not look at one another,” Lerner notes. All “serious debaters” know that a “dropped argument” — one that is not responded to — is true. Debaters lug tubs of evidence around tournaments, a practice made obsolete as debate research went digital in the 2010s, but not removed from collective memory.

From my experience as a former high school debater, “The Topeka School” is fascinating for its hyper-realistic rendering of the particularities of the high school debate world.  At its best, a debate speech is like one in which Adam, a character who stands as a proxy for Lerner, feels less like “delivering a speech and more like a speech was delivering him” — that debate is a form of “poetry,” or perhaps transcendence. 

At its worst, it is a training ground for weaponizing language without regard for truth or basic human decency. Adam’s coach is noted to “go on to … be a key architect of the most right-wing governorship Kansas has ever known, overseeing radical cuts to social services and education, ending all funding for the arts, privatizing Medicaid [and] implementing one of the most disastrous tax cuts in America’s history, an important model for the Trump administration.” Though Adam’s coach is fictional, the debater-to-politician pipeline is documented; Ted Cruz excelled as a debater before making his transition to politics, and other famous debaters include: Elizabeth Warren, Richard Nixon, Kamala Harris, Nelson Mandela, Oprah Winfrey, Karl Rove, Malcolm X and Antonin Scalia.

Told from a variety of perspectives, “The Topeka School” frames high school debate within a broader narrative about what is wrong with American politics. Spreading or “the spread,” a practice in which debaters read evidence at nearly incomprehensible speeds, stands at the center of this critique. The description of spreading as “gasping for air” like “hyperventilating” or “the barking of a seal” is apt; the persuasive voice one might assume politicians and debaters share is completely abandoned in an attempt to cram as many arguments as possible into a short speech. 

Lerner writes, “Even before the twenty-four-hour news cycle, Twitter storms, algorithmic trading, spreadsheets, the DDoS attack, Americans were getting ‘spread’ in their daily lives.” Spreading serves as a metaphor for excess, “linguistic overkill,” the capitalist desire for “accumulation at all costs” or, as Lerner notes in an interview, how we are “overloaded in our daily lives with the language of information.” 

At its core, “The Topeka School” is an exploration of language at its limits and the consequences for politics. How might we, in the wake of Trumpism, reconsider how we speak to one another? What ways of speaking might we not even realize are possible?

The goal of “The Topeka School” is laudable. At the end of the book, Lerner seeks to reimagine what he describes as “collective speechthat can be counter to the dominant racist and avaricious discourses of the day.” 

Yet this seeming resolution simultaneously feels unsatisfying. In contrast to the complex rendering Lerner gives high school debate and its limits, this collective discourse takes the form of Adam, decades later, at a protest against ICE. When a cop instructs Adam his daughter cannot draw with chalk outside the building, which is government property, Adam retorts in classic high school debater fashion, “I guess I don’t understand what government property is.” The comment seems less like the beginning of meaningful discourse, and more like Adam is a high schooler obsessed with quippy one liners that catch his opponents off guard.

In the book’s final paragraph, an organizer has other protestors repeat after them, amplifying the organizer’s voice. Adam concludes, “I forced myself to participate, to be part of a tiny public speaking, a public learning slowly how to speak again, in the middle of the spread.”

Yet rather than sit with the complexities of a world that can offer us tools to understand the present, Lerner abandons it.” —Nina Potischman PO ’21

The ending frames itself as a resolution to the problems faced in the book; the public is learning how to speak up against the overabundance of information by joining in protest. Yet speaking with others, amplifying the voices of others and engaging in protest are in no way mutually exclusive with the forms of language he introduces earlier in the text. While Lerner may intend to illuminate new forms of communication, the end simply serves to iterate a form of discourse that already exists. 

In debate, Lerner establishes the possibility for poetic transcendence, the collapse of language, the dangers of unwieldy power and  the genealogy of the rise of a post-truth state. Yet rather than sit with the complexities of a world that can offer us tools to understand the present, Lerner abandons it. By attempting to reduce debate simply to a metaphor for the problems of excess of information, Lerner flattens the interpretive possibilities of his text. 

What do we do with debate? Because while Adam might believe that showing up to a protest decades later offers a mechanism to engage with one another, high school debate is ongoing, a microcosm within a world that remains saturated by the 24-hour news cycle. 

High school debate is a salient metaphor, but it is also a material reality. How do we create a space that leaves open the possibilities Lerner introduces without creating individuals who will simply manipulate language in pursuit of power? How do we ensure one’s desire for success does not supersede one’s commitment to truth or justice? In an activity that teaches individuals how to think rationally, debate is surprisingly full of people who barely believe in anything at all.

I certainly don’t have the answers for how to resolve the problems with high school debate — but “The Topeka School” doesn’t, either. In his rush to tie up the book’s loose ends, Lerner creates an artificial sense of resolution to problems that have yet to be resolved. As literary critics Laura Riding and Robert Graves note, “it is always the most difficult meaning that is the most final.” “The Topeka School” would have been better served by Lerner leaving the reader to sit in this difficulty.

Nina Potischman PO ’21.5 is one of TSL’s book columnists. She has been involved in debate, both competing and coaching, for ten years. She is a co-founder of Speech and Debate Stories, an organization dedicated to making high school debate more equitable.

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