When Sarah Youngquist hopped online to watch Tuesday night’s presidential debate with her Palo Alto High School debate students, she hoped it would prove educational.
Instead, it felt like watching 90 minutes of fingernails on a chalkboard.
Repeated interruptions. Personal attacks. Dodged questions. Belligerence toward the moderator.
In a high school debate, Youngquist said, “you’d probably be kicked out if you behaved that way.”
That was the general message in classrooms across the Bay Area and beyond Wednesday as teachers and coaches who work with young debaters on the cusp of adulthood and eager to participate in the democratic process grasped for any lessons to be learned from the widely panned debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden.
Trump, especially, repeatedly cut off both Biden and moderator Chris Wallace, refused to answer specific questions — including about his views on white supremacy — and lobbed debunked claims at his opponent.
Teachers found themselves trying to help students process the experience — in some cases while still reeling themselves.
Kris Goldstein asked his government students at Tokay High School in Lodi to watch the election’s first head-to-head match up. On Wednesday morning, he found himself apologizing.
“That was an absolute disgrace to American democracy,” he told his students. “That was not a normal way to debate.”
“I’ve been trying to emphasize that this is not normal,” said Goldstein, who like most teachers across the state has been forced to try to facilitate a nuanced, complicated discussion virtually because of the pandemic. “I feel very bad for them…they’re coming of age, seeing this.”
Like Youngquist, Goldstein said his mock trial students “would lose instantly and have disqualifications” if they engaged in the insults and ad hominem attacks that characterized Tuesday’s showdown. “I’ve never in my 10 years of doing this ever had a student do that.”
Trump falsely attacked Biden’s son Hunter, accusing him of being dishonorably discharged from the military.
An exasperated Biden told Trump, who interrupted incessantly, to “shut up.”
“We were hoping there would be some actual argumentation so we could break down the arguments,” Youngquist said. “Unfortunately, mostly what we saw were fallacies.”
There were a few lessons from the moderator in how to be assertive without crossing the line to rude, she said, but “overall, I don’t think it was super educational.”
Neither did the nonprofit, nonpartisan commission that arranges the presidential debates. On Wednesday the commission said it would add new “tools to maintain order” to the two remaining presidential debates in the wake of Tuesday’s chaos.
It was not immediately clear what those tools would be, but social media exploded with calls for the moderator to be allowed to cut the mic if someone speaks out of turn. The next debate — Oct. 15 in Miami — is set to be facilitated by Steve Scully of C-SPAN, widely considered an even-keel, fair journalist.
The event is scheduled to be a town hall format with undecided voters from South Florida. A third debate is scheduled for Oct. 22 in Nashville.
Jennie Savage said she helped found Paly’s speech and debate team more than 16 years ago because working as a senior legislative aide in the House of Representatives showed her DC’s political culture was growing toxic and she didn’t see a focus on critical thinking or compromise.
“We have a broad range of students with differing ideas about the role of government and ideologies and we celebrate that,” Savage wrote in an email. “We are able to listen to and respect one another and we see our diversity as our strength. If *we* can stay together and happy as a team, this country can do it too.”
But Goldstein is worried the chaos and vitriol on display Tuesday will disillusion young people and turn them off to the political process. One of his brightest students, he said, told him she had to turn the debate off and watch it in short segments later because it was causing her to experience bad anxiety.
He remembers watching George W. Bush and Al Gore debate 20 years ago. The pair were bland, he recalled, but civil.
“I just hope for the sake of my students that they do get to experience a return to more normal civil discourse,” Goldstein said. “This is like something they’d see on Jersey Shore.”