Disclosure and Creativity by Martin Sigalow


This is the first of a few articles I will write criticizing disclosure as a norm in Lincoln Douglas debate. In this article, I will argue that the practice of disclosure diminishes creativity in debate and therefore prepares debaters poorly for life.

I have three caveats to the disclosure series as a whole.

First, what I am about to say doesn’t really affect disclosure as a plank in a theory counter-interpretation designed to resolve theoretical offense. It primarily affects offensive theory arguments forcing other debaters to disclose. A grey area would be where disclosure was added to a plank of a different offensive theory argument. My feeling on this is: if the disclosure part itself was meant to magnify some abuse story then what I will be saying does not apply, and if the disclosure part could be won as standalone offense then it does.

Second, this article is entirely personal opinion, and should be treated as such. I am interested primarily in what effects this piece has on people who read it, those who have the ability to do otherwise than force disclosure. There are many people I will not convince that disclosure is bad. I have almost no interest in arguing with these people, because the resolution to our difference of opinion will not result in a difference in action, something the pragmatist in me prizes highly. I am far more interested in talking to people who have not thought about disclosure with any seriousness, or who enforce disclosure but have a conscience that registers feelings of doubt every now and again. I hope to have had some impact on people in the area of the proverbial fence of the disclosure debate.

Third, nothing that I say in this piece (or in the pieces that will follow) should be used to support an argument for disclosure, even if I sometimes advance an argument disclosure might achieve some beneficial result. Any use of my words to force another debater to disclose is an evidence ethics breach of major proportions and should compel a loss. I think judges who know this about my series should enforce this regardless of whether a debater advances an argument to this effect, chiefly because it is the worst form of academic dishonesty and should be dealt with harshly.

The Value of Creativity

The goal of debate is to train people for real life. As participants in a large, insular debate community, it is easy to forget that the activity is embedded in larger institutions that do not support it for its own sake. Debate is a great activity for high school students (and college students) because once debaters leave the debate community they’ve learned so much that will help them in the real world. In this sense, the distinction between the “real world” and the “debate world” is unproductive. A person who is no better prepared for life after debate has, in a very real sense, wasted their time. Debaters are students, and learning is a central component of the enterprise of debate.

I am no teacher and no student of education theory. The distinctions I draw are purely my own and come from the experience I have. I find these distinctions useful but a person with a better background in education might be able to put what I say here in a better light.

In debate rounds, education claims are often thrown around without much thought. At their best, education debates these days center around certain sites of education, such as education about the current debate topic, about philosophy, about so-called “critical” literature. The introduction of role of the ballot arguments caused the diversity of education arguments to skyrocket. The quality of education-based arguments subsequently plummeted. Almost without exception, these types of education are what I will call “content education.” All of these arguments claim that people should be educated about certain facts. Topic education involves learning facts about the question of the resolution. Philosophy education involves learning what philosophers have said and how they relate to what other philosophers have said. A role of the ballot argument claiming that people should be educated about capitalism requires learning facts about capitalism. Many of these facts take the form of arguments; this is debate, after all. Good topic education is learning why certain people support certain policy proposals. Good capitalism education involves learning not just what capitalism is, but how it works, and how people might support it or fight it.

I will contrast this form of education with what I will call “process education.” Process education involves doing and not just knowing. Undertaking a task that requires intellectual development helps process education. A familiar argument in the sphere of debate is the “clash” theory standard. This claims that interacting arguments is educational since it requires people to forge new connections between different issues and think about the relationship between divergent things. This is a process of individual discovery, if done correctly, and helps people create neural pathways open and receptive to new issues. Educational systems try to cultivate “critical thinking” in students, which is the sort of thinking provided by process education (I have chosen not to use the term “critical thinking” here because I find the term vacuously applied). The difference between this form of education and content education is that process education is not really “about” anything. There is no set subject of the learning. Instead, the learning that happens is in new ways of thinking rather than in new things to think about. Existing bits of learning can be more extensively and interestingly applied to new areas.

These forms of education are not mutually exclusive, or course, and every bit of good content education involves content process education, and vice versa. After all, learning about why government surveillance harms national security could help people think about different arguments and how they work together to support a cohesive position against surveillance; cohesion between arguments and how they relate to other arguments could be a helpful form of process education. The relationship between content and process education is about the focus and priority of education rather than on direct tradeoffs. Process education focuses on how the way people learn affects the total education a student gains. Content education focuses on what people learn and that affects the total education a student gains.

“Creativity,” as I use it here, is a particular form of process education where students apply what they know to other things in new and interesting ways. This is an inventive process; new, unexpected data must be applied to existing knowledge in complex ways. A focus on creativity in education requires that students are put in a position where they must apply what they know to a wide variety of different situations in unpredictable ways.

Creativity is one of the most valuable skills in education today. Content based education demanded by theory arguments and role of the ballot arguments cannot truly help students for the rapidly changing world before us. A focus on creative process education is vital to any connection to modern education. As Sir Ken Robinson writes:

“The challenges we currently face are without precedent. … The world’s population has doubled in the past 30 years. We’re facing an increasing strain on the world’s natural resources. Technology is advancing at a headlong rate of speed. It’s transforming how people work, think, and connect. It’s transforming our cultural values. If you look at the resulting strains on our political and financial institutions, on health care, on education, there really isn’t a time in history where you could look back and say, “Well, of course, this is the same thing all over again.” It isn’t. This is really new, and we’re going to need every ounce of ingenuity, imagination, and creativity to confront these problems. Also, we’re living in times of massive unpredictability. The kids who are starting school this September will be retiring—if they ever do—around 2070. Nobody has a clue what the world’s going to look like in five years, or even next year actually, and yet it’s the job of education to help kids make sense of the world they’re going to live in. … So being creative is essential to us …”[1]

Education is unhelpful if it is not creative since students will learn things but not able to apply and reapply them to life’s dynamic situations. Education must help students thrive, and creativity is necessary to do this, as Dr. Rosa Aurora Chávez-Eakle explains:

“Understanding, identifying, and nurturing the creative potential is relevant in education if we want students able to solve academic and personal problems and challenges, to find innovative solutions and alternatives, and to have better tools and resources for success in a fast-changing world. Creative thinking not only enhances our ability to adapt to our environment and circumstances but also allows us to transform those environment and circumstances. Creativity has been identified as a key component for survival and resilience. If our goal is to teach and nurture future scientists, artists, engineers, entrepreneurs we need to understand and nurture the creative potential because creativity has provided the foundation for art, science, philosophy, and technology. If we want to teach children to become productive human beings, and more satisfied with what they do with their lives we need to support them in the process of discovering and enjoying their creative potential.”[2]

Among means of process education, creativity takes center stage since there is not a real value to learning how to do something if it cannot be applied to new situations. Creativity outclasses any content or process based education, and is eminently important in the context of debate. In debate, speech times are limited, which prevents most in depth content discussions. Process education is most important in debate because the experiences of individual debate rounds is what drives specific memorable learning. Creativity is therefore key in the context of debate, where it is important to actualize any bit of process education and translate it into true and unique learning.

Disclosure’s Impact on Creativity

The disclosure question is best posed this way: should there be a constraint on easy access to information about opposing case positions? I believe such a constraint is justified because it encourages creativity by pushing people to think quickly about things they do not expect, encouraging in-round argument innovation. In general, constraints on the available options of competitors in a game increases the creative potential of the game; this is a triviality of game design. In the specific case of debate, constraining access to information, and dispensing with disclosure, promotes creativity.

There are three related ways disclosure hampers creativity.

First, and trivially, a debater is forced to be creative if they’ve never thought about an argument before, or heard of it. If debaters generally do not disclose, the position up for debate is not known until the precise moment of the debate begins. With disclosure it is likely that talented students at the same tournament will know what the likely competition is reading. Even people who are not well-known gain attention if they disclose interesting positions, so their arguments will not be a surprise. Not knowing opposing arguments in advance will force debaters to respond creatively as their brain struggles to come up with something responsive to say. This experience and pressure of having to come up with new and good arguments on the spot is uniquely valuable, even if the arguments presented in the debate are not as strong as they would be with coach assistance and extra time to prepare.

Second, people will attempt less academically mainstream arguments in a world without disclosure. An argument that is more fringe, and harder to defend, is significantly less likely to be made in a world where universal disclosure exists. This, of course, narrows down the arguments a debater can expect to face. Arguments are far more likely to be normal issues on which there is much academic debate, and not on old or forgotten issues which are settled in academia. Without arguments of familiar types and familiar applications, a debater is forced to think about and respond with their own minds. I believe that being forced to debate against positions like these helps people prepare for the real world.  It is not unjust if a debater loses to an argument that people in academia do not defend. It means instead that a position that academics agree is shaky can beat someone not used to thinking about arguments of that type. In fact, losing to an argument not considered in advance is a very teachable moment, first because hard losses tend to be educational, and second because during rebuttal redoes people are likely to think long and hard about how to not lose to the position again.

Third, coaching is a huge help to debaters before debate rounds. In rounds where the other debater is fully disclosed, a coach becomes a person that gives arguments to a debater looking for answers to a position before their debate. This can and, for some of the more-coached schools, often does happen at the level of line-by-line responses to certain arguments. Without disclosure, coaches are reduced to giving strategic advice before debater, or writing up responses to a position after someone sees it. In a world without disclosure, if a debater argues against a position they and their coach did not expect, that debater must think and make arguments of types they have not thought about beforehand. If they fail to do so, they will probably lose. In the real world, a person does not often have a coach to help them with responses to new and fast data. It is better for a person to not need one. While there is certainly some value in a coach pointing out creative connections between arguments, it is vastly better for a debater to do that themselves because experiencing the process of drawing connections between arguments is more of a learning experience than finding out what connections exist from someone else.

I am convinced that the increasing prevalence of disclosure is at least partially responsible for a disturbing trend among debates I have seen and judged where debaters seem unable to make responses themselves to arguments of new types they have not heard before. The expectation that arguments will be expected, normal, and carded has made responses to new and strange items much, much worse. This is the only way someone would ever lose to the arguments that “trivialism takes out theory,” or that “only one thing exists” for example, because those arguments are very poor. Those arguments would not survive a moderately responsive thought. They also rarely get one.


When I was in high school, towards the end of my senior year, I debated against an affirmative case I had never seen in any type before. It argued that everything is true, and contained many cards from people like Derrida. I sat down for preparation time without an argument at my disposal I was used to making that would be useful. Disclosure was not a widespread practice yet, and I had no idea this was coming. The experience of that prep time was oddly liberating. I had to make arguments, new arguments, and interesting arguments, about something odd and most surely false.

Debate now needs more experiences like this, where debaters will say silly things and they are forced to use their reasoning skills to figure out responses and strategies anew, right there, in the middle of the debate. When the real world afflicts us with new and interesting facts, new and interesting choices, new and interesting opportunities, we should be creative enough to respond. Disclosure substantially limits this by making sure that any argument can be laid out, plotted against, and colonized in advance by a literature base and an army of coaches.

[1] http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/sept09/vol67/num01/Why-Creativity-Now%C2%A2-A-Conversation-with-Sir-Ken-Robinson.aspx

[2] http://education.jhu.edu/PD/newhorizons/Journals/spring2010/therelevanceofcreativityineducation/