A Pragmatic Justification for Competitive Academic Debate

© 2010. James R. Saker Jr..
email: noise -at- thirdparasite . com
Distributed under Creative Commons License. Attribution Non-Commercial. Cc-by-nc. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/

With new debate programs under consideration in the Nebraska community, I wanted to share my support through the illustration of the value of the programs to the education and practice of corporate governance. The usual justifications of debate program proposals often advance the value of debate in expanding the student’s capacity for the development of argumentation theory, persuasive advocacy, analytical reasoning and research skills. While I certainly don’t mean to diminish these invaluable skills and concur with the accuracy of their identification with the competitive activity, I wish to highlight a less frequently identified aspect of debate which is both more relevant to the pragmatic “business orientation” of today’s secondary and post-secondary academic programs.

As a governance, risk and compliance (GRC) professional responsible for enterprise and technology risk management for a global financial processor, I coach, judge and advocate high school debate because of my recognition of the activity’s role in advancing the exposure and familiarity with critical thinking skills. Many on our regional circuit know me as one of the more “critical judges” (which derives from the critical theory label) which tends to perplex those who would expect a corporate type who debated during the 1980s to be of the traditional “policymaker” paradigm.

In my role as architect and leader for our risk management initiatives, I’m challenged with the responsibility of transforming the interpretation, integration and application of “risk thinking” across our global enterprise. Applying the emerging theoretical expertise from critical and post-structural theory, I’ve increasingly valued the pedagogical capacity of debate’s “critical thinking” aspect in the development of future young professionals who will possess the conceptual skills necessary in addressing a whole new set of problems. Globalization, busting economic bubbles, major global demographic shifts, the end of consumer anonymity and the failure of the regulatory model in preventing systemic market risk are all challenges our future professionals will immediately face in their careers. Yet little of our structured academic program engages our students with the awareness of the emerging systems of thought that provide opportunity for an answer to these new challenges.

While the core academic program will continue to produce candidates capable of functioning within the current system, critical debate provides a rare framework which delivers our future architects for advancement of our businesses, institutions and society. With the proposals for college CEDA/NDT debate at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and considerations of program additions at Nebraska and Iowa school districts, I wanted to share a sampling of the application of this critical field of thought and illustrate some of the context and relevance our students experience through the practice of competitive debate. The following four issue areas represent a specific aspect of governance, risk and compliance, where a student with critical debate experience would obtain familiarity with concepts prevalent in the debate realm.

ISSUES OF CORPORATE GOVERNANCE

Do systems of corporate governance suffer from dynamics that facilitate the permanent erosion of authorized policy and procedure? Do our corporations engage in the autopoietic generation of quasi governance systems to a state where corporate policy is permanently extended and controls eroded? What is the impact to enterprise risk when the policy controls of the institution are systemically excepted?

Debaters familiar with Italian post-structural philosopher Georgio Agamben’s work are introduced to vital concepts that illuminate tendencies in governance systems to expand to the extra-legal state, often through the mechanism of exception. Although originally intended for the evaluation of political States, Agamben’s State of Exception provides exceptional theoretical foundation for this corporate governance analysis and the emergence of the existential threat from the expansion of the condition of exception to authorized corporate policy. Both descriptive and prescriptive, Agamben’s model is useful in assessing and counter-acting the erosion in policy controls within institutions.

REGULATION, AUDIT AND ITS ACCIDENTAL COMPLICITY IN THE FAILURE OF GOVERNANCE

Why do efforts to protect the economy and its consumers from systemic risk fail? Is this failure – illustrated by market meltdowns, exposures of systemic breaches in corporate ethics, financial accounting fraud or product safety nightmares – caused by a shortage of regulations and regulators? Or can it be blamed on the deficiencies in audit and accounting methods and procedures? Or is each failure a unique, unforeseeable occurrence society is unable to predict or prevent? Or is there perhaps a structural flaw that is inherent in our systems we don’t yet understand?

Debaters researching the 2010-2011 high school debate resolution will almost certainly encounter Hardt and Negri’s vitally relevant text, Empire, encountering an application of German sociologist Niklas Luhmann’s social systems theory. While Hardt and Negri evaluate the applied theoretical landscape of hegemony, imperialism and post-modern constructs of statehood, Luhmann’s underpinning model provides exceptional descriptive and predictive capacity for anticipating the failure of a regulator or auditor evaluating an assessed entity. Problems of second-order communication are of particular concern, and should Luhmann’s model be correct, neither more regulation nor additional auditors engaging through current second-order practices will have any meaningful change in the realization of unanticipated systemic risk and impact. Alternative methodologies will need to be developed and employed in order to respond to this phenomenon.

CONSUMER PRIVACY AND MARKETPLACE PERCEPTION

What is the role of the corporation in the safeguarding of consumer information? Should personally identifiable information, including consumer preferences, medical records, credit histories and other attributes that identify the behavior and orientation of a specific consumer, be further utilized for the advancement of product customization and the enhancement of the “consumer experience”? Are there risks in the aggregation of disparate consumer information sources that could incur reputational risk from consumer backlash? And through what framework – legal, ethical, moral, social or other – should the corporation evaluate this capability and commensurate risk?

Continental French philosopher Michel Foucault, who’s examination of the application of biopower in social service systems was predominant in the 2009-2010 high school policy debate season, evaluates at length the concerns of a surveillance system. Foucault, and numerous others who have followed his analysis, provides debaters with an invaluable orientation into the risks of surveillance and the role of authority in social systems. Debaters who become familiar with the works of Foucault and followers will likely possess greater understanding of the inherent perceptual risk associated with systems of surveillance, particularly as applied to the digital marketplace.

CORPORATE CULTURE AND STRATEGIC TRANSFORMATION

How is corporate transformation facilitated? Why do corporate cultures tend to decay to a state of regimented, stagnant, silo-structural dominance? Why do extensive hierarchies and vertical organizations tend to struggle in the globalizing marketplace, particularly when we’ve been led to believe that stronger hierarchies with increased central power are the solutions for problems in our economy as pronounced through a growing central government? If expansive hierarchies are not the solution to corporate and economic transformation, what are alternatives and how are they employed?

Philosopher Gilles Deleuze and sociologist Félix Guattari, predominant in advanced critical debate circles, provide ground-breaking theories on the relationship between hierarchical and decentralized structures. D&G’s analysis of rhizomic (decentralized) vs. arboreal (hierarchical) systems, the behavior of cultural territories, the conceptualization and application of multiplicities, and numerous other concepts are significant in addressing organizational transformation. Other predominant critical debate authors, including Continental philosopher Jacques Derrida, who is notable for his development of deconstruction as an approach for identifying and moving beyond systems of binary conceptualization, and Slovoj Žižek, notable for criticisms of capital particularly in a realm of increased globalization and interdependency, provide ample ground for the discovery of new methodologies for the re-engineering and ethical transformation of institutional process, program and enterprise.

CONCLUSION

Competitive debate, particularly oriented around the critical analysis of our society, systems, institutions, policies and cultures, provides an unparalleled educational experience for our students in the introduction and advancement of critical thinking skills and concepts.

Acknowledgment: I’d like to recognize a notable University of Nebraska at Omaha leader who inspired me in my practice of high school debate and encouraged me to look deeper in questioning the rules and norms of the institution, recalling deconstructive opportunities inherent in paths left unexplored at earlier forks in the road. To Dr. Otto Bauer, retired UNOmaha vice chancellor, published debate theorist, Air Force Academy debate coach and Northwestern University debater, I thank you the encouragement you gave to the many generations of debaters you reached.

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One response to “A Pragmatic Justification for Competitive Academic Debate

  1. Thats a wonderful blog post! I’m so delighted you decided to share it.

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