They’ve Got The Fear

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HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Sarah Jones’ blog Anthony B. Susan.  It was originally published on September 10, 2013.

These girls. These so-called “teenage exorcists.”

You’ve probably heard of them by now. Enabled by their parents (and I use ‘enabled’ deliberately here) they’ve travelled the world battling the forces of evil. They’ve taken culture war to a supernatural extreme. Adult me pities them. Adolescent me would have rolled her eyes–and probably envied them just a bit.

It sounds ludicrous. And it is ludicrous. The Harry Potter phobia and the conviction that the United Kingdom is a seething hotbed of demonic activity aren’t rational reactions. Nevertheless, I’m going to argue for a certain degree of leniency for these girls.

If you can, step inside my former world for a moment.

In that world, demons are real. And they are terrifying. I spent nights awake, soaked in  sweat, because I had been told that demons can possess people, even people who think they’re Christians. I’d been told that if you aren’t right with God, you’ve left a window open for the devil. So I prayed. I prayed until I fell asleep, and when I fell asleep, I had nightmares about witches and devils who would seek me out and take me over.

The dreams would routinely frighten me awake. One night, I ran for my parents, because I was a child and that’s what children do.

My father then told me that I was actually correct to be frightened, because Satan is a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour.

I didn’t go back to sleep that night.

And then there were the Rapture movies, with their gory martyrs. I secretly loved them, because for a long time Revelation was as close as I could get to science fiction. But at the same time they too filled me with fear, fear that I wasn’t really saved, that I was out of favor with God and would therefore fail to be Raptured upon Jesus’ imminent return. I spent so much of my early life effectively paralyzed by fear.

When you’re a child, and you’ve been told from your earliest days that evil isn’t just real, but that it’s an active force currently engaged in a war against you, it makes sense to go on the offensive. If you’re a girl, of course, your options are limited. You’re not allowed to hold a position of spiritual authority. You can be a ‘prayer warrior.’ You can share the gospel. But you certainly can’t lead an offensive against the devil. That’s men’s work.

Unless you’re Brynne Larsen or her friends, Tess and Savannah Scherkenback.

These girls are the fundamentalist Scooby Doo gang. They’re almost certainly being controlled by Larsen’s father, a failed televangelist, but they’re doing something. They’ve seen the world. When I was a teenager, demonic possession seemed far more plausible than freedom.

People change as they grow. I lay the blame at Bob Larsen’s feet, and at the Scherkenbacks’ feet, for choosing to raise their children in a manner that has emotionally crippled them. Brynne, Tess and Savannah most likely believe they’re helping people.

I was 20 when someone tried to exorcise me.

Specifically, she intended to set me free from depression, and somehow she thought laying her hands on my head in public, without prior warning, and praying the “depressed spirit” out of me would improve my outlook on life.

My exorcism wasn’t particularly violent. I’m grateful for this, because self-proclaimed exorcists have been known to carry things to a dangerous extreme. But it was invasive and humiliating. A year later, I left the church altogether–for a variety of reasons, of which the exorcism was only one.

It turns out that leaving the church did far more for my depression than exorcism ever did.

Brynne, Tess and Savannah have never been on the receiving end of exorcism. ** I suspect that if they underwent what they’re dishing out to others, their perspectives on the matter would change rather drastically.  But that’s my point, really: they’ve never been faced with any real to challenge to their indoctrination. They’ll be adults soon (and since Savannah’s 21, she’s really already there) and personal responsibility does play a role. But believe me, fundamentalists know how to brainwash. They’re terrifically successful at it.

They saturate your every encounter with the world with such a blinding fear that it feels impossible to move or think, and waging culture war is the only proactive measure you can take.

It’s so pervasive that even now, as a secular adult, the occasional sleepless night is still ever so slightly tinged with fear.

If I’m going to be honest with myself, I don’t know that I’d have left the church if it weren’t for experiences like that exorcism. Perhaps I might have eventually, because the doubts were certainly present. But my departure might not have been so early, or so drastic. When I had cause to fear Christians and not the devil, it became much more difficult for me to convince myself that Christianity was worth the effort.

If we’re fortunate, Brynne, Tess and Savannah will learn from their travels. Maybe they’ll even join me and my friends among the ranks of the prodigals.

I hope for their sake their journey is less frightening than mine.

** Update: So it seems that Savannah Scherkenback has received an exorcism. Also for depression. I suppose becoming an exorcist yourself is certainly one way to prove to your fundamentalist community that you’re really “healed.” Maybe I’ve underestimated the level of fear (or arrogance) at work here. Thanks to Kathryn Brightbill for pointing this out.

Resolved: An Index

Resolved: An Index

*****

Call for Stories

By Nicholas Ducote: Resolved: That We Should Talk about HSLDA Debate, NCFCA, STOA, and CFC/ICC, Part One

By Bethany: “Resolved: That We Should Talk about HSLDA Debate, NCFCA, STOA, and CFC/ICC, Part Two”

***

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 Luke: “Debate As Socialization: Luke’s Thoughts”

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”

***

NCFCA/STOA

By Libby Anne: “The Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute: NCFCA and Growing Up in a Conservative Bubble — Libby Anne’s Thoughts”

By Finn:

“Sailboats And The Spirit: Finn’s Thoughts, Part One”

“Sailboats And The Spirit: Finn’s Thoughts, Part Two”

By Philosophical Perspectives:

“Of Love and Office Supplies: Philosophical Perspective’s Thoughts”

“How NCFCA Taught Me to Fight Sexism: Philosophical Perspective’s Thoughts”

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:

“The Most Controversial Thing I Ever Wrote, Part One: By R.L. Stollar”

“The Most Controversial Thing I Ever Wrote, Part Two: By R.L. Stollar”

By Jayni: The Space To Be Human: Jayni’s Story

***

CFC/ICC

By Krysi Kovaka:

“I Was A Problem To Be Ignored: Krysi Kovaka’s Story, Part One”

“I Was A Problem To Be Ignored: Krysi Kovaka’s Story, Part Two”

By R.L. Stollar: “I Was The Original CFC Fuck-Up: R.L. Stollar’s Story”

By Marla: “Competence, Not Character: Marla’s Story”

By Michele Ganev: “CFC Gave Me Confidence: Michele Ganev’s Story”

By Renee: “Sharing the Burden of the Pedestal: Renee’s Story”

***

Great BJU Protest of 2009

By Joe Laughon: “Engaging the World — Debate and the BJU Protest: An Interview with Joe Laughon”

By Ariel: “The Embarrassment of Protesting Racism: Ariel’s Thoughts”

By Krysi Kovaka: “When I Recanted What I Truly Believed: Krysi Kovaka’s Thoughts”

The Most Controversial Thing I Ever Wrote, Part Two: By R.L. Stollar

The Most Controversial Thing I Ever Wrote, Part Two: By R.L. Stollar

 By R.L. Stollar, HA Community Coordinator

< Part One

*****

“When I heard that CFC was banning the book and telling people not to buy it I raised an eyebrow.” ~An email from a complete stranger, two months after I wrote my most controversial essay ever

 *****

I didn’t think it would be a big deal.

I really didn’t.

Which, I know in retrospect, was stupid of me. But, for what it’s worth, my parents — who underwrote my research books each year prior to publication — didn’t think it would be as big of a deal as it was, either.

When I wrote “The Anatomy of the Pedestal” almost a decade ago, for my 2004 research book Uber-Plethora, I wrote it for, not against, NCFCA. I wrote as an alumnus, a current coach, and someone who cared deeply about and for my students, my peers, and my friends — both currently and formerly in the league. I wrote it because, as a 20-year-old relatively fresh out of competing in NCFCA myself, I was worried.

I was worried about the patterns I was seeing. I was worried about some of the struggles I myself had, that I was seeing my friends having as well.

So I wrote about it, with the hope that it could start a conversation among the people I worked with and respected. I wrote about it passionately — which, unfortunately for me, means I also wrote about it in rather dramatic form. I didn’t use as many disclaimers and qualifiers as I do now. But I also didn’t have the knot in my stomach that I have now, the knot that tells me I could “get in trouble” for what I write, even if it is the truth.

What happened, at time, was thus highly unexpected.

People. Were. Outraged.

How outraged? Like “Kill-the-Beast!”-Beauty-and-the-Beast-style outraged.

Communicators for Christ (now Institute for Cultural Communicators) had — for the past three years — carried my research books on their tour and sold them exclusively. Which made sense, because I pretty much spent my entire high school traveling with David and Teresa Moon, the founders of CFC (Teresa also being one of the founding leaders of NCFCA, along with my father and several others), designing their curriculum, and teaching thousands of students speech and debate across the country. I was one of their original student instructors. So it made sense that they’d carry my book.

But now CFC was outraged. They were going to immediately cease selling the book and would tell everyone to not buy it. After a long conversation, Teresa offered a compromise: if we ripped out my essay (as well as two other less controversial parts) from my book and sent them new copies, they would consider reselling it. David Moon from CFC had gone further, demanding that the entire “Sociology of Debate” section get ripped out. It was outrageous, he said, what I wrote. It was inappropriate, out of line, flat out wrong, and could damage the reputation of homeschool debate. But in the end their exact demands were as follows:

“1) Remove The Anatomy of the Pedestal, R.L. Stollar

2) Remove All About Resolutional Kritiks, Stephen Mar

3) Remove references to dating in any bios”

If we would “consider these modifications,” Teresa said an email follow-up to David yelling at me over the phone for two hours, maybe, just maybe, we could “work out the remaining book-selling details with David.”

But CFC was not only outraged party.

Parents starting calling. Parents from around the country. They demanded my parents let them talk to me (even though I didn’t live at home and was 20?). I had some of the most intense conversations (although “conversation” isn’t accurate — they were more like lectures, since I never talked much during them) I have ever had, as parent after parent lashed out at me for saying the evil things I said. I spent several hours listening to one of NCFCA’s leaders (and later one of the founders of STOA) argue that I was making it all up — which was ironic, because one of his daughters was one of the people whose struggle with self-injury inspired what I wrote. But I couldn’t tell him that. And he wouldn’t have listened anyways.

Then there were the emails.

Here are excerpts of one such email I received. This one is from Dorr Clark, who would later serve as the Debate Committee Chairman for STOA :

“There seems to be something capable of offending almost anyone, although I believe that a great many people who could be offended will never see it, and I’m grateful about that…”

“Some readers will be offended by the politics, some by the lack of moral discretion. What is most grievous to me is the carelessness towards the feelings of others, and the manifest ingratitude. There are other emotions on parade as well…”

“I have to believe [Ryan] took his observations pretty seriously; but for me it’s all very reminiscent of that moment when teenagers come to realize that their parents must have had sex, and may still be…”

“I hope for everyone concerned the sales are really, really small.”

So what was it that I wrote, that had my book almost banned and had my words so vehemently attacked and actually censored? That had grown men and women, the “adults” in my life speak down to me (a legal adult) as a child, an evil, rebellious child? What did I dare say, that made a leader in the homeschool debate world wish that a project I poured my heart into failed miserably to the point that I would suffer economically?

Well, it was this, the most controversial thing I ever wrote:

*****

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The Anatomy of the Pedestal: A Case Study in Idolatry (circa 2004)

American culture is idol-obsessed. From the halls of Congress to underground recording studios, the American people place heroes and heroines upon platforms and  glorify them. It is a trait common to all: every subculture, whether great or small,  whether mainstream or fringe, has this obsession. While the majority of U.S. adolescents might idolize Avril Lavigne, Blink 182, and other such denizens of pop radio, the anti-pop movement engages in the same acts of deification. They might denigrate Miss Duff, Miss Spears, and Master Durst, but they do not hesitate to magnify Master Folds, the confessions of a dashboard, or even Miss Björk. In short, American culture is a culture that longs to put spotlights wherever it can.

The two sides of the spotlight

Many Americans want the spotlight on themselves. A brief glance at American Idol will confirm this fact. Something about the spotlight promises that one’s fantasies can come true if one just has enough popularity. One sees this mindset in Hollywood. Even though it has had more than its fair share of rumors, heartbreaks, and corruption, Hollywood has retained a veneer of innocence. It still represents “the American dream,” the dream of driving to sunny Southern California and pulling up to a red carpet. Many Americans retain their Disney mindset of wishing upon stars. They hope for some new “gold rush” — or that their prince will come. And, oddly enough, stardom seems to promise such things — and stardom has no qualms with flaunting this side of itself.

Because of its promise to fulfill dreams, the drive towards popularity has become so intense that most of the U.S. population — while mocking those who succeed — secretly wish to appear on Reality TV programs. Medical professionals even have a name for this drive: “Celebrity Worship Syndrome.”(1) As long as the devotees have their day of fame, they have no qualms appearing the fool. They will air their putrid inner thoughts on blogs. They will pose naked for the public eye. They will even sing at karaoke shows.

Underneath the glamour and glitter of stardom, however, lies a very dark underside. Most people today, when they refer to “the underside,” have a specific economic and/or sociological phenomenon in mind: that of Third World poverty.  These people — who are often “liberation theologians” — call the poverty-stricken masses of Latin America, for example, “the underside of history,” because the Latin American poor rarely receive the attention of historians, policy makers, or the media. Instead the world focuses on the grandeur of civilization: its advances, medical revolutions, tabloid rumors of political leaders, and various and sundry world wars. Rarely, though, do newspapers bother to report in depth about “the underside”: the mother who cannot feed her child because she herself has no nutrients in her body and therefore has run dry of breast milk, or the child who has not eaten in days and can see his brittle skeleton pressing against his skin.

While “the underside of history” has this economic and social meaning, it seems applicable to the spotlight of stardom as well. For beneath the grandeur of the rags-to- riches stories, underneath the silk garments and multi-million-dollar homes, lies the grief of humanity. The newspapers rarely portray this grief. It appears now and again, of course: when an Olsen twin acquires anorexia or when Natalie Wood descends into a watery grave. But Americans do not like to discuss these matters. Oh, they love to gossip. It tickles their voyeuristic appetite to read the latest happening or scandalous rumor in The National Enquirer. But they never do this to understand the human beneath the celebrity. They read it for entertainment’s sake and The National Enquirer reports it to sell magazines. For all their railings against pornography’s evils of objectification, American culture at large engages in no less of an evil: objectifying its celebrities.

Occasionally, of course, the objectifying does not bring pleasure. Every now and again a story will “shock.” What this shock does, though, is not create true compassion for those who struggle with a drug or alcohol addiction, family abuse, or suicidal tendencies, but rather it creates outrage. The public becomes disgusted with the “imperfect” lifestyle this or that celebrity lives: when, for example, a celebrity enters a rehab program or fails in a marriage. The public demonizes him or her and suddenly that celebrity’s career is jeopardized: not because the public actually lives a better life, but because the public has not the moral and spiritual depth to know how to understand and tolerate its celebrities’ imperfections. Thus it commits the ultimate hypocrisy: it condemns those who admit to having the very struggles common to each and every human being by nature of his or her humanity.

The spotlight and the forensics subculture

It is of the utmost importance, as we turn our attention now to the forensics subculture, to remember that it is an extension of: (1) American culture at large and (2) human beings specifically. As a result, all of the previous observations regarding cultural forces come to play within forensics. The longing for stardom, the struggles that come with being human, the tendency to either deify or demonize — all of these mindsets and energies manifest themselves in speech and debate. And this applies without exception to NCFCA itself.

Such a suggestion, of course, seems rather shocking. To implicate NCFCA, a Christian organization of primarily Protestant conservative homeschoolers, with voyeurism, idolatry, and demonization, may initially appear audacious. In the long run, though, this implication has no “uniqueness” (as far as debate theory goes). Since the beginning of time Humanity has poked its nose into others’ affairs, even to the point of desiring the same knowledge of good and evil that belongs to God alone. To desire this requires not only an insatiable curiosity but also the hope of being equal with God, a hope of nothing less than idolatry. And the moment God questioned Humanity’s motives, Humanity resorted to blame shifting: Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the serpent. Only Satan himself had the respect and inner consistency to accept his punishment without speaking back.

In light of human history, therefore, it is no great claim that a collection of human beings — in this case, NCFCA — contains voyeurs, idolaters, and banshees. The only other clarification that might be necessary here is that this problem extends beyond NCFCA. As an extension of American culture and a manifestation of humanity, NCFCA is but one place in which the evils of humanity manifest themselves. Other prime areas of manifestation would be you, the Apostle Paul, and myself, for the Apostle said (and I echo), “I am the chief of sinners.”

The infamous pedestal

All of these attitudes and energies appear in debate most notably in a concept known to most every NCFCA competitor yet rarely articulated. The concept itself is numinous: tempting and desirable, yet at the same time fearsome and hallowed. The concept is “the pedestal.” The pedestal is the place of honor. It is forensics’ olive wreath. It is that upon which any god or goddess of this league stands so that others can look at him or her and admire the person’s finesse and expertise.

As such, the pedestal is not primarily for those who win tournaments. Of course, winning tournaments helps one on the quest to step upon the pedestal. But the pedestal is more than tournament conquest. It represents honor, not merely trophy collections. To stand upon it one must first win the hearts, minds, and souls of the NCFCA populace — always the competitors, and often the parents as well. One must have the tact to avoid offending parents, but also the courage to speak one’s mind when necessary. One must play with fire, and yet know when to blow out the match. One must speak with wisdom, while wearing a coy smile. In short, one must be a public master of oneself and be recognized as such by both one’s peers and one’s elders.

The difficulty arises once one succeeds in scaling the pedestal. For suddenly the ground appears very far below oneself and the spotlight shines directly in one’s face. Suddenly one realizes that to obtain stardom in NCFCA is to receive a grave responsibility — and a nearly unbearable weight: that of being the standard of excellence within a Protestant, conservative, homeschooling subculture.

Instantly the shackles descend and, make no mistake, the pressure weighs down heavily. One may be an adolescent, but the subculture ignores this. They reference their mantra: “Do not let anyone look down upon you because of your youth, but set an example…” And this mantra serves many a purpose: it dictates what you can wear even after a tournament, it puts limits on which persons you can befriend, and it has no tolerance for the pains and agonies of “growing up.”

Naturally such a burden is hard to bear. Many have cracked under its weight.

Once this occurs, of course, the gossiping choirs descend. Word spreads like wild fire and one’s reputation can be tarnished in an instant. If NCFCA were large enough to have a National Enquirer, it would seize hold of such opportunities and exploit them to the maximum. Often, though, a newspaper is not required: homeschooling parents do this task well enough. (And if they miss anything juicy, it will at least still surface on Homeschooldebate.com.) Furthermore, homeschooled adolescents are naïve enough either to blindly follow such parents’ leads or to recklessly cheer on “the rebel” without their parents’ knowledge.

The pedestal, therefore, takes on a demented shape to those atop it: the pedestal is that towards which all aspire, and, once conquered, that which all its conquerors long to leap off — yet cannot without great inner and public turmoil. In short, the pedestal is the point of contact between the Protestant, homeschool subculture of debate and the American culture at large: it is the clearest manifestation of the devastating impact of the spotlight of stardom. When Hollywood celebrities suffer their blows, they turn to alcohol, sexuality, or suicide. When NCFCA’s pedestal-ized icons suffer such blows, they often turn to similar tonics.

This, of course, does not surprise anyone who understands human nature and the times. But, oddly enough, it probably surprises most homeschooling families.

Nursing the wounds

The question arises: what can and should one do in light of this reality? Naturally, a thorough answer cannot be given in an essay of this length. But at least a suggestion or two can be made. First, members of NCFCA — and Americans in general — must realize just how devastating success can be. (2) Stardom is no easy cross to bear. The pleasure is but momentary and the effects can last a lifetime. We must constantly keep this in mind as we allow adolescents to engage in the struggle for success. We must be sensitive to their needs and attentive to their cries.

To be able to do so requires that we have knowledge. We must take the time to equip ourselves. Many psychological and sociological accounts exist that explore what impact the debate subculture has on the adolescent mind. (3) While the disciplines of psychology and sociology often discredit themselves with strange conclusions and faulty assumptions, they still can perceive forces at play within a social context that participants in that context cannot. At the very least we ought to allow these disciplines a voice. Then we ought to consider the voice well, with all the talent debate affords.

If the disciplines do perceive well, we must next consider how to heed their warnings. Must we alter our vision? Must we entertain the notion that, in our passion to “save the world,” we are losing the hearts and minds of the next generation by exhausting them? Do we hold our children up to false and dangerous expectations? Do we not express our love for them adequately? Do they feel accepted? Do we give them the room necessary for them to grow up and make the natural failures along the way?

Answering such questions will prove crucial to the health of NCFCA competitors — and in general to the health of all American adolescents. When teenagers today turn to bulimia, cutting, and drugs, and increasingly so, we must stop and ask ourselves: why? And instead of pointing fingers at “secularism,” “Hollywood,” and other such easy excuses, perhaps we ought to aim our fingers at ourselves. Perhaps we ought to wrap our hands around our own necks, and shake out of our heads our preconceived notions. Only then can we look objectively at what presuppositions we bring to the situation. Only then can we answer in all honesty: Are we obsessed with idols, we who claim to believe in a triune God and no other? Do we push our children too harshly in our desire to “raise up” this “Generation Joshua”?

If so, why?

Think long and hard. Put yourself in the shoes of someone in the spotlight.

At what cost the pedestal? A child’s life?

*****

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I will conclude with an excerpt from an email I sent to a close friend who contributed to Uber-Plethora and whose essay was also lambasted by STOA’s Dorr Clark. This email, like this controversy, is also from a decade ago:

“if we touch the heart of but one parent, or but one student, we will have done our duty — even if it comes at the cost of a thousand dorrs. at least we’re being honest. being honest — that’s really the best thing we can do…

“i want everyone to know what life is really like. i want these younger ones to know that even the oh-so-impressive [name omitted]s, ryans, etc. struggle. it’s ok to struggle as Christians! they NEED to know this.

“if it pisses parents off, that’s their parents’ loss.”

A decade later, we are fighting the same fight.

End of series.

The Most Controversial Thing I Ever Wrote, Part One: By R.L. Stollar

The Most Controversial Thing I Ever Wrote, Part One: By R.L. Stollar

 By R.L. Stollar, HA Community Coordinator

When I prepare to publish something I wrote that I know will be controversial, my stomach clenches into a knot. I feel nauseous and worried. I start imagining how it will be misinterpreted and attacked — and, when I am right, I am right on. I predict exactly what will be said and the tone with which it will be said. Which is always discouraging, because — as a trained communicator — I try my best to anticipate controversies and nip them in the bud. In fact, I’m almost neurotic about that. I have a tendency to pad my writings with qualifiers and disclaimers like a worried mother might pad her kid for its first day of street hockey.

The thing is, I revel in provoking conversations and breaking down assumptions. I have always tended to fight the status quo and to question the toed lines. But at heart I am a peacemaker. I don’t shout “fire!” in a crowded theatre when I see no fire. I am motivated by love and compassion for my fellow human beings — particularly the misfits and the disenfranchised. When I am outraged, I am outraged by dehumanization.

I wasn’t always plagued by a stomach knot before I published something controversial.

That knot only started growing about ten years ago.

Because ten years ago, I wrote the most controversial thing I have ever written.

In 2004, I was a junior in college. I attended a conservative Christian college in Eugene, Oregon — Gutenberg College, a classical, Great Books school with a heavy emphasis on exegesis of the Bible and the canon of Western Civilization. At the time, I considered myself a conservative Christian. In fact, after a long bout with depression the previous summer, I had recently recommitted my life to Jesus. I was also still involved with NCFCA through occasional coaching and the research books I did each year — the Plethora Series.

I tell you this background because I need you to understand the context in which these events occurred. I was a conservative Christian; I loved NCFCA and — three years after I was a competitor — was still heavily involved because of my love for it; I was attending a conservative Christian college.

I was a far cry from the proverbial soul lost in college.

I made the mistake of speaking up when I saw a problem.

Every summer, I created research books for NCFCA debaters. (And keep in mind that, ten years ago, there was only one homeschool debate league — NCFCA. STOA had not at this time split from it, as this was half a decade before the Great BJU Protest of 2009, when competitors, alumni, and coaches protested holding the NCFCA National Tournament at BJU on account of the university’s history of institutionalized racism.) I called my book series “Plethora,” in the sense of overabundance, because these research books contained an overabundance of evidence for policy debaters — at least in my mind at the time. Being the typical homeschooler nerd, I named the books after the Matrix series for the first three years: Plethora, Plethora Reloaded, and Plethora Revolutions. In 2004, the fourth year, I ran out of Matrix titles to copy, and we had just read Nietszche at Gutenberg, so I called the fourth book Uber-Plethora. (The final year’s book was The Last Breath of a Dying Plethora.)

In the months before I began working on Uber-Plethora I had recently learned about the scope of self-injury among some of my students and friends in NCFCA. I had been thinking about my own experiences in NCFCA and touring with CFC, and trying to process — as a Christian — the incongruity between the pressures and values of the league’s high performance culture and Christian love and compassion. I had also been out of homeschooling for three years, attending college, and had become particularly fascinated by the study of sociology. The concept that, even in NCFCA, sociological forces were at work was game-changing. It was helpful for me to understand how something like self-injury, or any of the problems I was observing, could occur in a Christian homeschool debate league.

I made the mistake of thinking people would listen.

Plethora had always been a different sort of research book. We never were strictly an “evidence book,” giving debate students nothing but evidence. I prided myself on the fact that Plethora included analysis of the topic and provocative essays by debate coaches and competitors from around the country that challenged how we thought about debate strategy and theory. I wanted to promote new ideas, to encourage dialogue about controversies, and include a diversity of voices.

My experiences with Plethora were, in a sense, a lesson in organizational strategy that would foreshadow HA.

Plethora would foreshadow HA in more ways than one.

In 2004, for Uber-Plethora, I had a fire in my heart. And I wanted to take Plethora’s value of thinking critically to a new level. So I included a brand new section. In some ways it wasn’t new: the values that influenced it were always there. But what was new was that I asked fellow debate coaches and alumni of NCFCA to use what they learned from NCFCA to think about NCFCA.

Why? Because as an NCFCA and CFC alumnus, a coach, a Christian, and someone with many of my best friends in NCFCA, I cared about NCFCA and I hoped that, by having these conversations, we could make NCFCA better.

(Sound familiar?)

We called the new section of the book, “Towards a Sociology of Debate.”

Here’s the introduction to that section that I wrote:

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Towards a Sociology of NCFCA Debate

Rarely do we ask ourselves what psychological or social impact speech and debate might have on adolescents. Of course we know the usual list: better articulation, better research, better cooperation, and so forth. But the activity has become so much more than speech, evidence, and teamwork. Ask anyone who competes today and his or her reasons for competing will differ widely. Most likely one’s answer will be about socialization or about the ideological mindset that sees forensics as part of apologetics or cultural redemption. Few nowadays perceive the activity as purely post-motor-skill enhancement.

These perceptions, consequently, give rise to certain questions: What is the relationship between a purely academic exercise (such as debate) and the culture in which one engages in the exercise? How do our preconceived assumptions enter into debate? How do they shape our expectations about the activity’s results? Why do adolescents behave how they do once they enter the activity?

In recent years people have given significant attention to such questions. Primarily, though, this attention has come from non-NCFCA, non-homeschool circles. For example, Gary Alan Fine analyzed primarily the debate culture of the National Forensics League in Gifted Tongues: Highschool Debate and Adolescent Culture (Princeton University Press, June 1, 2001). Deborah Tannen explored American culture at large in The Argument Culture: Moving from Debate to Dialogue (Ballantine Books, February 9, 1999). It seems, then, that our culture — mainly a Protestant, conservative homeschool community that adores speech and debate — ought to put its own self under the microscope and analyze itself in similar fashion.

To aid in this task, we have included — for the first time ever in an NCFCA source book — a collection of essays that begin this process. Jonathan Wolfson, for example, discusses how debate can be used in non-academic situations: in college, for example. Joel Day argues that, if one has participated and learned from debate, one brings into the “real world” certain powers that consequently come with certain responsibilities. Kirsten Flewelling shifts the focus from society at large to individuals specifically: how does success in debate impact the people who succeed? Lastly, R.L. Stollar explores NCFCA’s tendency to have false expectations and how these tendencies can be detrimental to the health of its members.

Our hope is that these essays will spark further interest in the relationship between debate and society. We have merely scratched the surface in this book. There is much more work to be done. We urge you to consider the issues explored in these articles. Do not critique them superficially. Think about what they suggest and ask yourself how you, your club, and others ought to act in light of the material presented.

We pray that what we have contributed will serve you, your clubs, and humankind beyond our inner circles. And we look forward to continuing these studies further.

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I don’t think it is necessary to tell you that we did not continue those studies. I probably don’t even need to tell you that our essays sparked no further interest at the time in the relationship between debate and society.

But what I need to tell you is a lesson in anatomy.

The anatomy of the pedestal, to be precise.

Because “the anatomy of the pedestal” was the title of the most controversial thing I have ever written.

And I wrote it ten years ago for Uber-Plethora.

Part Two >

Engaging the World — Debate and the BJU Protest: An Interview with Joe Laughon

Note from R.L. Stollar: I had the honor and pleasure of asking NCFCA alumnus and coach Joe Laughon about his debate experiences as well as his role in organizing “The Great BJU Protest of 2009.”  We decided to present our interaction in an interview format.

HA: Talk a little bit about your experience in homeschool debate — how you got started, how long you competed, and if you did any coaching after graduating.

JL: I first got involved my freshman year. I was part of a small club solely comprised of first timers, including our coach. I competed all throughout highschool and eventually competed on junior college and four-year college level. I continued to coach my old high school team for roughly 4 years and also coached in a separate league for a year.

HA: Would you consider your experience in NCFCA to be positive, negative, or mixed? And mention a few examples of what makes you feel that way.

JL: I consider it overall to be positive. It was a huge growing experience for me. I started as a fairly awkward, very angry (my family had just split up) freshman and left someone who was miles away from where I had started. It wasn’t all debate, but debate played a huge role in it. I made friends that I am very close with to this day and it was a great outlet for me.

That being said, there were times that the experience took a turn for the negative. It was odd to see, like in any other activity, parent-coaches live vicariously through their students, even to the point of becoming borderline cutthroat, like manipulating who got what ballots. Furthermore I think there was a “squeakiest wheel gets the oil” mentality when it came to oversensitivity. Seeing people throw conniption fits over a ceremony at a Mason Lodge (Technically Shriners “Temple” but yeah), or disqualify one of my competitor’s IEs because it “promoted cannibalism” made me roll my eyes more than once. However, competitors weren’t above making it groan-worthy either, occasionally advocating for Southern slavery or saying fairly nasty things about LGBT people.

On the whole, however, it was positive.

HA: Before you started debate, you were a “conservative Christian.” Today, you are also a conservative Christian. Did debate inspire any evolution in how you would define that term and how you, as a conservative Christian, look at the world?

JL: Debate definitely changed how I view the term. It opened me up more so to other points of view beyond the very socially conservative/neoconservative “Bush republican” point of view that was so common then. By the time highschool ended I called myself a big L Libertarian. However when my debate career took me through college, my horizons really opened up. I came in contact with cogent and coherent defense of points of view from the left. Today I would call myself a moderate Republican, ideologically somewhere between libertarianism and conservatism but with a strong emphasis on pragmatism. I don’t really consider social conservatism all that important to me, though I remain pro-life.

I remain a doctrinally conservative Christian, but I am less concerned with Christian infighting over secondary doctrine than I used to be and more focused on how we present Christianity and the gospel to the rest of the world.

HA: In 2009, you and several other individuals from NCFCA started “the Great BJU Protest of 2009.” I was long graduated from NCFCA and high school — in fact, I was even graduated from my M.A. program at the time — but I heard about it almost immediately. It was a really big deal. Can you explain what the protest was and what inspired it?

JL: The BJU protest came on the heels of some major disaffection from Region 2 (CA) in 2008. We felt that we had been punished for not conforming to the Board and we felt the rug was pulled out from us in regards to Nationals.

Many of us in California, in particular coming from racially and doctrinally diverse families and clubs, felt that BJU did not represent who the NCFCA was. We saw BJU as still recovering from a racist and bigoted past, and is still intensely legalistic and fairly un-Christlike in how they present the gospel. We didn’t want the NCFCA to be associated with that name, as Christian homeschoolers get a bad enough rep as is.

However, by then the decision was made, so it transformed into overall disgust at how the Board ran things. Again the Board was secretive, rejecting transparency and had learned nothing from the ill will of 2008. Furthermore, some of us saw it as a regional coup as the last four nationals were held in the South. It began to represent everything that was wrong with the Board, but also it was a protest against racial indifference and insensitivity in the League.

HA: After your protest gained traction, and a bunch of competitors, alumni, and coaches had signed the protest petition, NCFCA regional coordinator Lisa Kays wrote an email that sent some shockwaves through the community. What did she say and how did you think about Kays’ email at the time?

JL: Her letter was fairly offensive not just because of how it proposed to deal with the protest but also how she characterized it. She functionally claimed we were all whiners, and we simply wanted attention (fairly common points). This was unfair and didn’t help dialogue.

But the worst was her policy for “dealing” with it. She used her power as a Regional Director to strip people from her region (or threaten to) of their Nationals slot and then used her position as a member of the Board to pressure other regions to do the same. I thought and think Mrs. Kay’s response to be frankly really unacceptable, immature and also another example of how bylaws that allow people to hold multiple offices can be abused.

HA: After the protest controversy happened, a whole section of the country split from NCFCA, thereby creating a second homeschool speech and debate league, STOA. Do you think how certain NCFCA leaders handled the protest was a catalyst for this forensics’ “civil war”?

JL: I absolutely think so. I think even the more timid among Region 2 coaches and parents were appalled with how the Board had responded to concerns in the past and even those who weren’t sympathetic to the protest didn’t like how the Board handled it. It wasn’t the only issue but it highlighted a lot of problems. I think a wide amount of people outside of CA clearly agreed due to the growth of Stoa at the expense of the old NCFCA.

HA: It’s been four years since the BJU protest. Looking back, are you proud of what you did or do you regret it? Also, four years after, what do you think about how Kays handled the situation?

JL: I am definitely proud of what we did. We highlighted the issues of racial indifference in the community and how the Board played a role in this. Furthermore, we highlighted major problems with how the Board and the League were set up, problems people had known about for awhile. The work that many people did — like Dr. Konrad Hack, Ryan Herche, Jon Chi Lou and others — is something to be proud of. I think Mrs. Kays’ response was unacceptable but also pretty typical response; malign, misdirect and then punish for different views. It’s too bad. I hope she looks back on the event with regret.

HA: Coming from a background of conservative Christianity, what do you think is the proper response to the sort of institutionalized racism that prevailed for so long at BJU?

JL: I think, first and foremost, the response should be found in Scripture. The Biblical worldview brooks no racism. God’s concern for all, our common ancestry, Jesus’ concern for those outside the House of Israel and the Church’s mission to all peoples should make us be abhorred at racial bigotry. While those who repent are to be forgiven, I think there is an immense difference from true repentance and simply begrudgingly saying you’re sorry and changing policy (piecemeal) when forced to by the federal government. One can forgive people, but people aren’t called to forgive an institution. If Bob Jones University was serious about purging the environment of racism on campus and its memory, they should change the name to something else and replace or phase out administrators that were around in that day.

Also what went totally ignored in the discussion of, “Is BJU still racist?” was the problem of legalism and violent anti-Catholicism. Calling the pope “a demon”, denouncing Billy Graham as an unbeliever, continuing to give an honorary doctorate to Ian Paisely, a violent, unrepentant bigot who promoted sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, are all actions that have yet to be apologized for at all. Probably because federal tax exempt status isn’t tied to it. Such a shame.

HA: Do you think participating in speech and debate shaped your perspective on responding to social ills like racism?

JL: Definitely. It opened up my eyes to experiences beyond my own and it also made me realize that racism isn’t a box that one checks, “Yes” or “No.” Unfortunately prejudice and privilege follow us all on some levels. I think it revealed to me that the biggest problem in many of our homeschooled communities (overwhelmingly white and middle-upper class) isn’t racism, like some fantasy KKK boogeyman, but rather simple racial indifference.

My experience in NCFCA, the protest, coaching in Stoa and debating at Concordia really opened me up to understanding the issue of race relations and I think I am a better person and Christian for it. Too often I think we have insensitive or insincere discussions of race because we’re afraid of being called a racist or because it may challenge our little bubbles. We need to move past it and debate can be a great vehicle to do so.

HA: One final question, prefaced by a statement: Pop culture likes to stereotype conservative Christians automatically as fundamentalists. Add homeschooling to the batter, and the cake goes from fundamentalist to crazy. Yet here you are, a conservative Christian homeschool graduate who protests racism and is unafraid of speaking up about injustices you see happening on your own side — even in conservative Christian homeschooling itself. What do you make of this stereotype and how do you think it can be defeated?

JL: I think part of it is media-perpetuated to an extent. It’s easier and it sells more (more of anything, newspapers, movies, episodes, books) to show a stereotype than it does a nuanced picture. I remember rolling my eyes at portrayals of homeschoolers and their families in sitcoms or shows (almost always crime shows for some reason), as unbalanced, cold, crazy, borderline fascists who are on their way from a cross-burning from their abortion clinic bombing planning session. I think as time goes on, more people homeschool and the demographics of homeschoolers change, I think you will see this change over time.

However, part of it is the responsibility of the community. I have met people who are fairly insensitive and dogmatic. These are the kind of people who are attracted to homeschooling because it is difficult, and thus have somewhat of a martyr complex about it. They are waiting to be insulted. The rest are issues I think are common to conservative white Christians (not that any of that is negative, it is simply descriptive) sometimes. It happens with every demographic. Free association turns into exclusive association and some borderline self-segregate themselves from others. Thus, viewpoints outside the group that may be valid and shake things up, are rarely heard. The ideological water thus can remain a little brackish. It’s pretty common outside the homeschooling community, but it doesn’t mean the homeschooling community shouldn’t take it on.

I think it can be dealt with by making an effort to join things outside church or homeschool activity. Don’t discourage friends made outside of this, friends that may belong to different denominations or may not be Christian at all. We’re not called to build up the Church by just outbreeding people (ok, that’s a joke but anyone who has said the phrase “homeschooling van” knows what I mean), we’re called to build up the Church by engaging in the world. It’s a complicated issue and sometimes it’s portrayed worse than it is, but it’s one that I think the homeschooling community is now facing.

Sailboats And The Spirit: Finn’s Thoughts, Part Two

Sailboats And The Spirit: Finn’s Thoughts, Part Two

HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Finn” is a pseudonym.

< Part One

The other half involves an openness to new ideas.

I can remember people commenting on a quotation I used in one of my policy debate cases. The quotation dealt with some random technical aspect of immigration policy — the content of which wasn’t an issue. The issue was that the card was from someone who worked at the Ayn Rand Institute, and Ayn Rand was an atheist. Therefore (these people said), I needed to be careful about using this card. I remember being concerned by these comments at the time, but now I see no foundation for them. Instead, I see a byproduct of the somewhat insular community which Christian speech and debate creates.

Because the community is distinctly conservative and distinctly Christian, and because the community is centered around the ability to communicate a message, some of the most popular messages are those that create a group mentality (Jonathan Haidt has some important research about the importance group loyalty plays in conservative groups; give his works a read if you’re interested). In other words, the messages that get to the top are those that create an us vs. them mentality: Christians in a culture war, liberals trying to destroy the Constitution, America becoming increasingly immoral, etc. Regardless of whether or not you believe these messages are true, it should be clear that the combination of these narratives with the homogenous nature of the speech and debate community creates a very real possibility for students to develop a fear of outside ideas.

I can remember the first time I met an openly gay person. I can remember watching his hands to make sure he didn’t have a knife.

I listened carefully as we were talking, lest some underhanded message corrupt me. I did my best to stay polite, yet slightly gruff and on my guard (I was 14 with a somewhat squeaky voice – a funny picture, no doubt). I was confused for a while after he left. I didn’t see any attempts to undermine my faith (we talked mostly about the weather), and he was phenomenally well-spoken. This reaction wasn’t just because I thought “gay” was bad – it was because I had created an “us vs. them” narrative in my head and begun to fear people along with the idea. I had prevented myself from engaging with a human person because of a narrative I had created as a result of my fear of an idea.

But there’s a deeper reason why a fear of ideas is bad. To illustrate it, I need to introduce the concept of Hegel’s dialectic.

Hegel, a German philosopher who lived between 1770 and 1831, taught that knowledge was achieved through a threefold process: the thesis, the antithesis, and the synthesis. Essentially, you begin with one idea, contradict it with another idea, and then get a result (the synthesis) which is closer to the actual truth than either of the originals. In other words: every set of ideas has something to teach us.

Action items:

1. Students: you’re in high school. You have barely completed a fifth of your average life. You haven’t figured things out; you don’t have a perfect conception of God. That’s not a bad thing as long as your conception of God changes. If your faith and beliefs are not changing and developing, look carefully at speech and debate to ensure the insular community is not inhibiting the process described above.

2. For judges and parents: recognize that your kids are growing up. They’re going to be evaluating ideologies that you’re not comfortable with regardless of how much your try to shelter them. Competitors may advocate for ideas in debates that are contradictory to your own. That’s perfectly fine. Debate (particularly in the NCFCA and Stoa) is a safe environment. Your decision in a debate is feedback about the comparison between the two teams — not implementing a real philosophy or policy: occasionally you may vote for teams that you disagree with personally. Again, that’s fine.

In fact, one of the worst things you can do is to take a competitor aside in one of the infamous hallway conversations and tell them that the ideas are “dangerous” or discourage further interest in them. If you really believe that what you believe is true, then you should be comfortable with people exploring the arguments in a safe environment. Be their partner in discovery, not someone that holds them back from developing a broader understanding. Otherwise you may be surprised at what was suppressed when you are no longer there to restrain their intellects.

My time in the NCFCA was incredibly positive. I learned to speak professionally. I learned to analyze topics and arguments with an acuity that I couldn’t have achieved through any other method. I’m still involved in the homeschool debate scene because I want other people to experience this tremendous growth and development and get the maximal amount of benefit from it.

End of series.

Sailboats And The Spirit: Finn’s Thoughts, Part One

Sailboats And The Spirit: Finn’s Thoughts, Part One

HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Finn” is a pseudonym.

A few weeks ago, I ventured back into the depths of my Documents folder and found my apologetics cards. It wasn’t long before I started cringing.

My conception of God, though still distinctly Christian, has grown significantly since graduation from high school two years ago. A large part of this has been reading some of the greatest works in religion and philosophy in college; only a few years ago, I had read virtually no significant philosophical works and had virtually no knowledge of any religion besides Christianity.

I want to tell a few stories, and then I’ll close with a few action items for both judges/parents and students who may be reading this article.

When I first started speech and debate, I never did very well in impromptu because I simply wasn’t very good at talking about something random. Then, I noticed that I would get noticeably higher rankings when I would pick a topic which involved talking about God. So, naturally, I began connecting even the most straightforward topics to some spiritual-sounding stuff like grace, Jesus’s sacrifice, or our sin nature. I remember thinking during one round “alright, and for the third point I’ll just drop my voice really soft and sound all distressed about our depraved nature and then close with Jesus.” The topic itself had nothing to do with the Christian message, but by golly I was going to put some spiritual-sounding junk in there somewhere. And that’s exactly what it was: junk.

But it got me the rankings. 

I wasn’t glorifying God by using my soft, passionate voice to talk about the virtuous stuff I threw in there to get the judges to like me. I was literally only talking about God because I noticed the correlation between my rankings and the total amount of Christian spiritual content.

I tell this story because I want to warn students against doing what I did.

You might think that this phenomenon is rare. On the contrary, I’ve seen nothing but increasing numbers of competitors catching onto this. At nationals, I judged a round of illustrated oratory. Seven out of the eight speakers spent a sizable portion of their time talking about God despite the fact that only two or three of the topics were actually about spiritual matters. Some of the analogies and methods they used to tie in “God” were so laughable that I’m sure I just had a blank stare across my face for a good portion of the round. (As much as I’m tempted to share an example, I don’t want to call a particular speech out for doing exactly what I was guilty of.) A persuasive room was similar: this time, seven out of eight speakers spoke about some topic of spiritual importance or somehow tied in references to God without actually doing any real in-depth analysis of those spiritual matters. These people are discovering exactly what I did years ago: that judges evaluate speeches with spiritual content with a lower standard.

Now, the NCFCA and Stoa are Christian leagues. I’m not concerned that students are talking about God. I’m actually very glad that speakers are able to speak to religious matters in a Christian environment. Instead, I’m arguing that students should ensure that any reference to God advances the overall message of the speech. If your message is that “sailboats are really cool and interesting,” then make that point. Don’t leave me with a bunch of random spiritual concepts you threw out because they sounded good: leave me with knowledge about sailboats.

I’m also arguing that judges shouldn’t accept spiritual-sounding junk because it’s related to religion — more on this in a bit.

There’s a big gap between the NCFCA’s motto “addressing life issues from a Biblical worldview in a manner that glorifies God,” and “mentioning God every thirty seconds to get points.” To quote Lecrae: “I used to do it too,” but I count it as one of the greatest mistakes of my speech and debate career.

So, action items:

1. For students: speak carefully about God. What you say really does have power to change your audience. Don’t use it lightly. Don’t just parrot “spiritual-ese” in spiritual-ish tones. Say something profound. Make sure your judge learns something: write your religious-themed speeches and apologetics cards such that you can teach everyone something. This means research — not just rhetorical devices.

2. For judges and parents: start listening consciously for speakers that are only throwing out Christian-sounding stuff without any real thought or consideration. Don’t excuse weak analysis or lame metaphors just because the topic is somehow Godly. I know there are judges who do this (I’ve seen it happen on my ballots) because there’s a tendency to think that talking about God is far more important than talking about non-religious things. However, this perpetuates the divide between the sacred and the secular. Listen to speeches about missionaries and spiritual matters with the same intensity that you would apply to listening to a speech about sailboats. I don’t want to disclaim any responsibility for having done what I did, but it only happened because judges actually rewarded me for it.

So that’s half of what I want to say. The other half involves an openness to new ideas.

Part Two >

A Brief History of Homeschool Speech and Debate

A Brief History of Homeschool Speech and Debate

By R.L. Stollar, HA Community Coordinator

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“There is warfare. We are soldiers. We have weapons.”

~Shelley Miller, NCFCA Oregon State Representative, 2013

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As we embark on our Resolved: series, you will see a lot of acronyms being thrown around. I figured it would be helpful for those unfamiliar with the homeschool speech and debate world to see a brief summary of what those acronyms mean. The following history of the key organizations and individuals is important to keep in mind as a general context for reading the posts this week.

HSLDA Debate

Homeschool Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) began a homeschool debate league in 1996. Christy Shipe (then Farris), the daughter of HSLDA’s chairman and co-founder Michael Farris, started the league when she was a senior at Cedarville University. The goal of the league, according to Michael, was “to improve your child’s reasoning powers, clarity of thinking, and ability to stand for the truth of God’s word.” Whereas competitive forensics sees the skills of forensics as ends in themselves, homeschool debate sees them as means to a larger end: “to help homeschoolers address life’s issues biblically, with God’s glory, not their own, as the focus.”

The very first national tournament was held in October 1997 at Loudoun Valley High School in Purcellville, Virginia. Christy Shipe was the tournament organizer. The debate team from Cedarville, of which Shipe was a part, played a crucial role in the beginning. Deborah Haffey, Cedarville’s debate coach at the time, was influential in Shipe’s love for debate. HSLDA’s original debate teaching materials featured Haffey. And the very first homeschool debate summer camps — as far as I can remember — began at Cedarville, via the university’s Miriam Maddox Forum, led by Haffey, Jonathan Hammond, and later Jeff Motter.The final round of HSLDA’s first national tournament, by the way, took place a separate venue than the rest of the tournament. It occurred at the 1997 National Christian Home Educators Leadership Conference in front of 400 home school leaders from 44 states. It was judged by Michael Farris, Deborah Haffey, and Bob Jones University’s debate coach, Dewitt Jones.

NCFCA

After five years past, the homeschool debate league had grown significantly. HSLDA decided that the league should become a distinct entity from itself. So the National Christian Forensics and Communications Association was created in 2000, co-founded by Christy Shipe and Teresa Moon. The association’s original seven-member board of directors included: Shipe, Moon, Todd Cooper, Michael Farris, Skip Rutledge, Deborah Haffey, and Terry Stollar. NCFCA’s stated goal is “is to train students to be able to engage the culture for Christ.” From the very beginning, NCFCA had a significant amount of in-fighting, resulting in a rapid burning-through of its leaders. Todd Cooper, NCFCA’s original president from San Diego, was booted almost instantaneously. My father, Terry Stollar, became the second president, and resigned after significant disagreements with the board. The first two presidents — as well as Moon, who served as Director of Forensics — all hailed at some point from California, which is interesting considering what I will later mention about “Region 2” and its split from NCFCA. Mike Larimer took over the presidency after my father. Teresa Hudson is NCFCA’s current president.

While debate was primarily the focus when the league was under HSLDA, NCFCA branched out significantly in their more diverse inclusion of speech events. As of today, NCFCA includes two types of debate — Policy and Lincoln-Douglas — as well as a variety of speech categories — biographical narrative, oratory, persuasive, duo interpretations, humorous interpretations, apologetics, extemporaneous, impromptu, and so forth.

CFC/ICC

Crucial to the growth of both HSLDA debate and later NCFCA was Communicators for Christ (CFC). David and Teresa Moon began CFC in 1997. Teresa was also the personal debate coach of many of NCFCA’s original “legends.” In the early days, the Moons traveled around the country, from state to state in their motor home, with a team of student instructors — later termed “interns.” As CFC taught speech and debate to other homeschool parents and students, it served as a “feeder” of sorts into NCFCA.

As CFC’s popularity grew, Teresa expanded CFC’s focus from homeschoolers to Christian schools in general. She refashioned the for-profit CFC into the non-profit Institute for Cultural Communicators (ICC). Today, ICC continues its CFC tours, but also offers “a variety of programs, events and teaching materials designed to help all Christian students, from all educational backgrounds — public, private and home — [to] become ‘cultural communicators’ — people who can impact their culture through excellent communication of the truth.” ICC’s stated goal is “to provide support and guidance to Christian schools, churches, and community education programs as together we train well-rounded communicators.”

A crucial concept about ICC’s goal is embodied in their “Flood the Five” conferences. The premise of these conferences is that only 5% of Americans are “ready” and “willing” to command any sort of public platform. So ICC “is committed to coaching Christian speakers to flood that 5%.”

HSD

HomeschoolDebate.com (HSD) was created by Andrew Bailey, an NCFCA alumni. HSD is an online forum for competitors, alumni, parents, and coaches from all over the country to connect. HA’s Nicholas Ducote was a board administrator on HSD for four years, and also owned the site (after Bailey and McPeak moved on) for two years, from 2007-2009. I myself used HSD significantly to market Plethora, my research book series, from 2001-2005.

HSD features threads on the current year’s debate topics, on homeschool league politics, on ideas for improving debate skills, and — well, and everything else. Some of the most popular threads on HSD in the past had nothing to do with speech or debate. The most popular threads were the “Just For Fun” and “Controversy Corner” threads, where us homeschool kids would argue about everything from free will versus predestination to that year’s presidential candidates. We would also create role-playing games and fictional stories about each other, projecting fellow competitors into soap opera storylines or superhero graphic novel contexts. HSD was, and continues to be, extraordinarily popular. When competitors would actually gather in person at national qualifying tournaments or the national tournament itself, it was always a highlight to meet in person these people you would socialize with digitally for the year prior.

HSD became a microcosm of some of the speech and debate world’s important developments: the promotion of evidence and research books, the promotion of summer camps, the connecting of alumni with current competitors to pass on both competition strategies and life lessons, and a channel for graduates to help younger kids work through questions about faith and humanity. HSD was also the starting place for the Great BJU Protest of 2009.

The Great BJU Protest of 2009

In 2009, NCFCA announced that the National Tournament that year would take place at Bob Jones University. This caused an outcry from many competitors on account of BJU’s extreme legalism and history of institutionalized racism. Some competitors believed the board made a poor decision that could hurt the image of both Christianity as well as homeschooling. This issue was also exacerbated by two other issues: how NCFCA allegedly ignored California’s previous suggestion of Irvine as a location, and how the previous year NCFCA also held a national tournament event at a Shriner’s Temple. Going from a Shriner’s Temple to a place popularly conceived as racist and small-minded infuriated quite a few people. As early as March of 2009, months before the tournament happened, members of HSD were considering how best to address this — some suggesting a boycott of the tournament, others suggesting petitioning the board to change the location, and others suggesting wearing stickers or walking silently out of the opening ceremony when BJU would give their “come to BJU!” talk.

In the end, a petition was sent to NCFCA leadership to change the location. Mike Larimer, then-president of NCFCA, gave what one of the protest’s organizers called “an expected non-response.” But the petition picked up when alumni from all around the country started showing overwhelming support for the protest. (I myself proudly signed the petition, though I was long graduated from the league. Standing up for what you feel is just and right is what this whole training was about!) As support for the petition ballooned, and word got out that protestors were planning a “walk out” of the opening ceremony, the NCFCA regional coordinator of Region 8, Lisa Kays, did something highly controversial. Kays sent an email to all the other regional coordinators. In her email, she demanded (1) that any competitors from her own region that signed the petition must immediately remove their names, and (2) ban anyone that is unwilling to remove their name from competing at the National Tournament.

Yes, you read that right. Lisa Kays, one of the heads of NCFCA leadership and who is now on the board of ICC, wanted to ban people from the National Tournament for speaking up against legalism and racism. As one of the protest’s organizers said at the time, “I am incredibly saddened to see this. This is nothing less than strong arm tactics against a very legitimate and very respectful protest.”

As it turns out, this protest organizer was not the only one who was saddened by this tactic.

STOA

In 2009, after years of strained relationships between the leaders of Region 2 (primarily California) and the national leaders of NCFCA, secession happened. Due to differences in governance philosophy, the structure of tournaments qualifying students for Nationals, and allegedly how certain NCFCA leaders (mis)handled the BJU Protest, California broke from the homeschool forensics union. A new speech and debate league was formed, STOA — which is not an acronym but a reference to ancient Greek architecture. While there are several accounts discussing STOA’s split from NCFCA in 2009, and while the official date is listed everywhere as such, it seems that the original genesis of STOA as an organization began in 2008, as evidenced by STOA’s original blog post dating back to August of that year. This split was announced on HSD in July of 2009 with the title, “California secedes from NCFCA. NO JOKE!”

The original leadership for STOA were Lars Jorgensen, Scott York, Marie Stout, Jeff Schubert, and Dorr Clark. Lars Jorgensen, who was the NCFCA regional coordinator for Region 2 since 2004, was the one who officially announced the split on August 10, 2009. STOA’s goal does not differ significantly from NCFCA’s: “to train Christian homeschooled students in Speech and Debate in order to better communicate a biblical worldview.”

*****

As of today, there are two homeschool speech and debate leagues: NCFCA and STOA. HSLDA continues to sell speech and debate material geared towards these leagues. Many of the original movers and shakers are still involved. Christy Shipe is still on the board of NCFCA. Teresa Moon continues to run CFC and ICC. Lisa Kays, one of the key players attempting to shut down the BJU protest, is on ICC’s board. Scott York continues as president of STOA.

And most curiously, a lot of us competitors who frequented the HSD forums a decade ago still frequent that forum to this day. There’s something about HSD that feels like home.

Resolved: That We Should Talk about HSLDA Debate, NCFCA, STOA, and CFC/ICC, Part One

Resolved: That We Should Talk about HSLDA Debate, NCFCA, STOA, and CFC/ICC, Part One

By Nicholas Ducote, HA Community Coordinator

I was introduced to the world of speech and debate by Communicators for Christ in 2003. From that moment, I was obsessed with speech and debate. For four years, I competed in tournaments across the country, even interning and touring with CFC.

For me, as a child raised in a fundamentalist homeschooling cult, the Advanced Training Institute (ATI), speech and debate was a welcome diversion.  It emphasized critical thinking, research, and discussion about issues.  All of these concepts were relatively foreign to me, despite my inclination to argue at an early age.  Debate gave me the tools to deconstruct my fundamentalist worldview.  Most of my highschool “network” consists of students I met through NCFCA or CFC.  Some of my closest friends are the other CFC interns I toured with.

So everyone is clear, CFC was a non-profit ministry that held conferences around the U.S. teaching public speaking and debate.  When it began, it acted as a sort of feeder for NCFCA, but has since evolved its own purpose (and changed its name to the Institute of Cultural Communicators).  NCFCA is strictly a competitive forensics league, only open to homeschooled students, that sanctions local qualifying tournaments for an annual national tournament.  While NCFCA and CFC are not the same organization, in the 2000s there was much crossover in people and ideas.

While my experience was liberating and empowering, I was surprised to hear many of my female peers from NCFCA/CFC complaining about the sexism they experienced first-hand in these environments.  The patriarchal attitudes also lead to discrimination against any males that did not conform to the dominant ideal of “Godly masculinity.”  The male youths were given leaderships roles in worship (before the tournaments), while women sang or played an instrument (usually piano).  I can only imagine the torment of being homosexual in such an environment.  I know many of my former NCFCA friends now openly identify as homosexual and they have dealt with other NCFCA friends saying they should be stoned to death.

As a high school student, I remember noticing that everyone seemed preoccupied with the way women dressed and looked, but as an ATI student this was nothing new.  ATI discouraged women from wearing pants and a strict dress code was enforced at all the events.  I remember some of my female friends complaining about the strict enforcement of dress codes at events like formals and awards ceremonies, but it seemed normal to me at the time.

As I became more aware of my own patriarchal inclinations in college and became more of a feminist, I remember thinking “wow, if all these ideas about gender messed me up, I bet they really did a number on my female friends.”  One moment that stood out from the rest was a regional banquet I attended after touring with CFC (during a gap year before college).  The regional coordinator, Jan Smith, was literally standing at the entrance to the event passing judgment on each woman’s modesty.  Always the provocateur, I decided to enter the banquet with my arms locked with another guy’s.  As the banquet had a nautical theme, Mrs. Smith informed me that there were “no gays allowed aboard this ship!” and we were told to stop.

My conversations in the last few months have identified some troubling themes from our collective experience in the NCFCA. (Caveat: I am six years removed from the league, but I’m sure some of these attitudes are still prevalent in some regions.)  It seems that, as a whole, men were given a sense of entitlement and women were held to an impossible standard of “Godly modesty” and submission.  The arbiter of all competitive rounds in the NCFCA is the judge (or judges), who are trained and informed by the NCFCA prior to their judging.  A mix of community volunteers, competitors’ parents, and alumni judge the events.  Often, sexist ideas about gender influenced a judge’s decision and they commented on ballots about girls’ appearance of modesty.  These sort of critiques of personal hygiene and “modesty” were encouraged usually before every tournament, if not every competition day, by tournament representatives.

All of these misogynistic themes are underscored by the fact that, in reality, women ran the league, coordinated the tournaments, and did much of the coaching of speeches and debate clubs.  In my experience in the Deep South, women would speak and lead public assemblies, but a man would always pray.  There was a certain sense of women in leadership having to defer ultimate responsibility and authority to a man, even if she was more qualified and informed.

Ultimately, the standards of modesty promoted a rape culture (which is not to say that they promoted rape), where women would be “at fault” for dressing immodestly if they turned a man on.  The purity culture’s inversion of guilt can be detrimental to some young women.  Fundamentally, a binary is constructed where the “good girls” wear modest clothes, don’t lead boys on, and get happily married at a young age, whereas girls who dress in pant suits or develop friendships with male competitors are “slutty” and will not be “desirable for marriage.”  In a culture that extols “godly motherhood” as the life purpose of females, not being desirable for marriage is an affront to a person’s intrinsic worth.  Recently, Elizabeth Smart discussed how the purity culture influenced her negatively to feel worthless like “an old piece of gum” during her captivity.

Now that I’ve established that this problem is somewhat systemic and promoted in a top-down manner, I’ll provide some examples of this sexism in action (these examples are from eleven different women).  In debate rounds, young women were often chastised (or given a loss) if they took an “aggressive tone” with male debaters.  If young women wore pant suits, they would be criticized for looking slutty, or even lose the round because they wore pants.  Female debaters were expected to prove their points in a submissive, womanly way, while males were given more leniency with tone.  In many cases, a young woman’s confidence in “looking good” would be smashed by a snide criticism of her modesty.  One young woman who struggled with an eating disorder and body dysmorphia would have comments about her “immodest appearance.”  Young women with natural curves faced the most potential for trouble and they were ordered to hide their body’s shape.

Sexual contact at tournaments (usually kissing) was strictly forbidden — and those restrictions were enforced. On one occasion, a young woman kissed a boy at a tournament and her parents told their host family.  As a result, the host mother approached the young woman and told her that she did not “feel safe” allowing her son to be around her slutty behavior.  Some young women were barred by their fathers from even participating in competitive debate, instead being forced to participate only in speech.  To be sure, any insecurities a young woman faced about her appearance would be challenged and highlighted at a speech and debate tournament.  Despite often spending hours picking out “appropriate” attire, they still faced criticism.

*****

I sent the above to a close friend from NCFCA to have it proofread.  She responded with some reflections about her own time in NCFCA — my essay stirred some memories.  I asked for her permission to post her thoughts alongside my essay because I wanted a female voice on this topic and her response was very sincere, visceral, and empathetic. Read Bethany’s post here.

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Contribute your story or thoughts to homeschool speech and debate week!

Is this a healthy or unhealthy environment for young people to grow up in? What are your stories and experiences with the homeschool speech and debate world? Were they positive, negative, or a mixture? These organizations were a vital part of many of our experiences with homeschooling in high school and no subject or institution is off limits here.

As always, you can contribute anonymously or publicly.

If you are interested in participating in this series, please email us at homeschoolersanonymous@gmail.com. The tentative deadline for submissions will be Saturday, June 29.

Resolved: That We Should Talk about HSLDA Debate, NCFCA, STOA, and CFC/ICC, Part Two

Resolved: That We Should Talk about HSLDA Debate, NCFCA, STOA, and CFC/ICC, Part Two

Note from Nicholas Ducote, HA Community Coordinator: I sent my thoughts on homeschool speech and debate to a close friend from NCFCA to have it proofread.  She responded with some reflections about her own time in NCFCA — my essay stirred some memories.  I asked for her permission to post her thoughts alongside my essay because I wanted a female voice on this topic and her response was very sincere, visceral, and empathetic. This is what she wrote.

*****

By Bethany*

This is such an important issue.

Listening to Elizabeth Smart when she gave that talk, I cried, because I used to think that way, too, and I know how trapped she must have felt and how disgusting. For so long, I absolutely thought “impurity” made you worthless. (As far as I can tell, that belief was something I picked up from a youth group leader, Harris books, unfortunate miscommunication in evangelical circles, and some of the NCFCA culture rather than my parents. I don’t think my parents really had fully figured out what they felt about the “purity culture” — they both had pretty wild pasts and wondered if there was a way they could protect their kids from it.)

I also know that I judged girls who behaved a certain way — girls that I now know I could’ve been close friends with and probably given a huge amount of companionship and emotional support to. The culture within the NCFCA kept friendships like that from happening on a large scale. (Especially as I consider myself to have been far more apt to “cross over” than many.) That makes me so angry.

I also remember a few occasions during NCFCA events when men made me feel genuinely unsafe — some guys were very predatory and harassing. And I remember every time I would be put upon by their advances, I would end up feeling guilty and shameful, like it was my fault. I really believed it was. It kept me from talking about it with anyone ever. (Fortunately I was emotionally safe enough with family and friends that I was never fully victimized.)

One thing that strikes me most about that culture we were in was the mixed messages. So much of the culture and ideology depended on the individual leading your local speech and debate club (usually 10-30 families).  These families would plan and host tournaments.  My mom and some local coaches who were far less patriarchal — they would give us long talks about how, as a woman, what you had to say was JUST as legitimate, that you should never be intimidated by a guy in a debate round and you should just be confident and hold your own, etc, etc.

Then I would go to another club or tournament and the local people there would give me the whole “women must carry themselves graciously and submissively.” I remember losing a round once because I was too assertive to a man in cross-examination, which was “unbecoming.” And it was really confusing.

I do want to say that I owe my professional confidence almost entirely to that experience, and the experience with CFC and NCFCA. Despite the mixed messages and plentiful paternalism to go around, the overwhelming lesson I carried away was to communicate as well as you could — to communicate better than the next person, male or female. Bottom line.

And that training has stuck. Part of it came from facing and facing down paternalistic attitudes — knowing there was something wrong with them and then in college developing the foundation to really push it off. Now, as a woman in a male-dominated business culture, I don’t experience the feelings of intimidation many of my female coworkers talk about and I have become a spokesperson for my company on account of that.

I’m grateful for the training.

*****

Contribute your story or thoughts to homeschool speech and debate week!

Is this a healthy or unhealthy environment for young people to grow up in? What are your stories and experiences with the homeschool speech and debate world? Were they positive, negative, or a mixture? These organizations were a vital part of many of our experiences with homeschooling in high school and no subject or institution is off limits here.

As always, you can contribute anonymously or publicly.

If you are interested in participating in this series, please email us at homeschoolersanonymous@gmail.com. The tentative deadline for submissions will be Saturday, June 29.

*****

HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Bethany” is a pseudonym.