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Monday, November 24, 2008

Mundt Debate: Think Bigger, Not Smaller

Madison Central Superintendent Vince Schaefer and Madison High School Principal Sharon Knowlton extended me the courtesy of taking an hour from their busy schedules to discuss my concerns and the district's plans for the Karl E. Mundt Debate Tournament. During that meeting, Principal Knowlton asked we needed to be having all this public discussion (i.e., my blog posts and your occasionally stern comments, dear readers) about a school matter that the district can handle "behind the scenes."

Well, she didn't really ask so much as rhetorically scold. That's o.k.—I know how hard it can be to switch from chewing out backtalking teenagers to having a genuine exchange of ideas with a fellow adult.

In case Mrs. Knowlton actually wanted an answer to her question, I would note that "behind the scenes" is exactly the wrong way to conduct public affairs. Folks in Madison and around the state get the feeling that their local and state governments are just good old boys' clubs that make their decisions behind closed doors to avoid public input and scrutiny. That impression weakens public confidence in their public institutions, which can translate into a lack of support, which can translate into a lack of funding (how of us want to hand more tax dollars to an entity we don't trust?).

Open government and open discussion of public policy build public confidence. When we discuss matters of public concern like keeping the Karl E. Mundt Debate Tournament in Madison, we should not seek to hide or narrow the discussion. We should seek input from as many perspectives as practical, so we can make decisions based on a variety of views about the value and practical challenges of hosting a debate tournament.

In that spirit, I reprint below my letter to the editor of the Madison Daily Leader, published Friday, November 21, on page 3. I also reprint because MDL doesn't have an instant comment section, and your comments are as important to public discourse as my conversation-starters.

To the Editor, Madison Daily Leader:

The Friday, November 14 Madison Daily Leader story on Madison High School's desire to scale down its support of the Karl E. Mundt Debate Tournament carried a number of statements that are, at the very least, open to debate, if not counterfactual. I have already discussed those statements online and in person with the Madison Central administration.

My greater concern, and the greater point missed in MDL's coverage of Mundt (as we debate veterans fondly call the tournament) is a practical one: If we downsize the tournament, which the school district appears to consider desirable and necessary, even if DSU helps, we will likely lose the tournament to Harrisburg or some other town. Coaches want their kids to have as many chances to compete as possible. Scaling down Mundt is like telling basketball teams that they can only bring their starters, no bench or JV, or that because our gym is a little small, we're only playing four-on-four.

Teams won't come to Madison for a smaller Mundt. They'll go to a tournament and a town that can find the resources and the ambition to host a full tournament.

The Mundt Debate Tournament is a great Madison institution:

  • The contest honors Senator Mundt, one of numerous distinguished graduate of MHS and the Bulldog Debate Team.
  • Mundt brings busloads of business to our restaurants and motels on an otherwise cold and quiet February weekend.
  • Mundt showcases our high school and the DSU campus.
  • Mundt helps build the Bulldog Debate Team and recruit new members, as it spotlights debate in our community, gives kids a home contest that Mom and Dad can easily come watch, and offers a team-building exercise as the students help run the tournament.
  • It's an exciting competition, the last regular-season debate tournament, and a great learning experience for hundreds of kids from all over South Dakota.

Principal Sharon Knowlton has said running the Karl E. Mundt Debate Tournament is "overwhelming." If the school needs help running Mundt, my hand is up. I could set Mundt up and run it from my computer... from my couch, if I had to. Mundt certainly requires effort, but it does an overwhelming amount of good for our community.

Madison has a long tradition of excellence in speech activities, going back to Senator Mundt himself and the school's charter membership since the 1920s in the National Forensic League. A key part of that tradition is Madison's successful hosting of the Mundt Debate Tournament for 41 years.

If we say Mundt is too big, that we can't handle the contest without downsizing it, we will lose that tradition. Instead of asking how we can Mundt smaller, we should be asking what we could do to bring more kids to Mundt, to give more kids more educational opportunities.

We ought to do it, and we can do it. Let's keep Mundt in Madison!

[Cory Allen Heidelberger, Madison Daily Leader, 2008.11.21, p. 3.]

Can Madison High School host Mundt? Do we say we're too small to do big things? Or do we look beyond our limitations and find the spirit to be bigger and better?

As always, your public comments are welcome.


  1. Perhaps by going to a 4-day school week that was discussed in that pornography-spewing newspaper, there would not be a conflict with classes on a Friday, allowing the tournament to expand even more!

  2. Cory:

    Is it true then that you advocate going to a 4 day school week just to keep the Mundt tournament in Madison? ;)

  3. If I'm not mistaken, we have an active Toastmaster's group in Madison. Since they focus on public speaking, perhaps a non-profit sponsoring the debate tournament would help keep it in Madison for another generation or two. Add in the Chamber Education Committee's assistance and the burden is lessened on our local coach and principal.

  4. It sounds like there are plenty of people ready to step up and capably take the whole tourney out of Knowlton's and Nils' hands if they can't handle it. This is a positive thing for the students as well as for Madison, and there should be no earthly reason why that tourney can't stay in Madison and be successful and even grow!

    To me it just sounds like those in charge don't want the work involved. That's fine. It also sounds like there are plenty of other folks who aren't afraid of the extra work willing to step forward.

    KEEP THE MUNDT IN MADISON!!! Madison has already lost too much in the last couple of years.

  5. Toastmasters! Exactly what I was thinking! Good idea!

    Four-day school week -- you are kidding, I hope, Anon 10:41. I like the four-day school (or work!) week for a number of reasons, but at no point have I suggested we need a four-day week to make Mundt happen (we never did when I ran it, at least). And it won't matter for the debate team and clean-up crew: they'll still be putting in overtime!

  6. I was being facetious, Cory, but there was an interesting article in the porn-promoting rag this last Sunday about how more schools are considering the four-day school week, including in this area.

  7. Cory and others:
    I am the president of the Madison Toastmasters Club. I have been following this story with interest, and as a club dedicated to self improvement through public speaking skills, sponsoring the tournament would fit well within our mission. However, I am afraid that sponsoring the tournament through our club would not alleviate the apparent roadblocks currently facing the tournament. If the issue is manpower, we are still a young club in the building phase with only a handful of active members. If the issue is hosting space, we do not have any space to provide as we meet at the public library.

    If our club can indeed be of any assistance, I encourage you to contact me with any ideas. Additionally, if anyone is interested in checking out our club, you are always welcome to join us at one of our meetings. We meet the first and third Thursdays of the month at the Madison Public Library.

    Jenny Wolff
    (605) 256-8049

  8. Jenny! Nice to hear from you!

    I agree: The Toastmasters aren't a solution all by themselves to the roadblocks being erected to keeping Mundt in Madison. But I'm glad you're following the issue.

    Now I'm just spitballing, so if you don't mind a little input from a non-member, I think the Mundt Tournament and the Bulldog debate activities in general offer the Toastmasters some interesting opportunities for club service activities. Listen to practice rounds throughout the season, come judge a few rounds at Mundt... there are some interesting possibilities that might be fun for all involved!

    I know what you mean about space: I'd offer to host rounds at my house, if I thought that would help. But the fact is, Mundt needs a big building with a lot of rooms, so kids and coaches have to do as little running around in the February snow as possible. And right now, MHS/MS is the best facility we have in town for that (plus, no steps to climb, except in the library!). Mundt needs MHS!


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