How to Spend a Saturday Watching the Next Generation Learn to Listen, Discuss and Reason

If you’ve ever watched a teenager, alone or with friends, sit and stare at a smart phone for hours, you probably worried that they were tuning out the world.

It’s a legitimate concern, but I’ve recently seen a very different future for today’s young adults.

In mid-January, I volunteered to serve as a judge for Northern California Regional High School Ethics Bowl at the University of California, Santa Cruz. I went into the event with only a vague idea of the intention: I assumed it was like a debating club in high school, though I had been advised that it was something quite different. I assumed it would be a lot like our classrooms discussions when I was in college years ago.

What I discovered was certainly not what I had expected.

First, picture the campus of UC Santa Cruz, deep in the redwood forest overlooking the Pacific Ocean, a couple of hours from San Francisco. It’s over the Coastal mountain range from Silicon Valley, and yet stands a world apart in many ways.

A back trail at the University of California, Santa Cruz with a view of the Pacific Ocean.

The setting is serene and cool, especially on a January morning.

The 2018 Regional High School Ethics Bowl took place on the campus of Cowell College, the first of the ten colleges, in the Humanities Building.

The Humanities Building, Cowell College, UC Santa Cruz.

The judges assembled a 8 am for a quick introduction; it turned out most of us were first timers, but there were veterans present to guide us through the judging process. Then the students arrived in time for a 9 am start time. I expected them to be typically raucous teenagers. Instead, they were pretty quiet and serious — smiling and laughing a bit, but mostly preparing themselves mentally for the challenge, and the opportunity, that was about to begin.

What is an “Ethics Bowl?”

The High School Ethics Bowl activity is, in principle, quite simple: teams of 4 or 5 students from local high schools compete against other teams in a series of discussions — not debates — on several particularly timely and often thorny ethical questions.

As in a debate, team A presents the case, the team B responds, then team A has a final say. Judges listen without comment throughout these phases, then get to ask questions of team A, with the intention of exploring their thought processes and how they determined their positions. Judges score each phase of the process, based on predetermined criteria and point allocations. The winner is the team with the most points.

So, what’s the objective of an Ethics Bowl? And how is it different from a standard debate?

Simply stated, the objective is to encourage the participants to examine difficult social questions, not from the perspective of how to win an argument, but rather how to find the right solution based on ethical criteria.

Sounds simple, right? Actually, it can be quite challenging to do this according to the rules; you have to leave a lot of your preconceived notions, preferences and biases outside the room. You have to engage, listen and explain without reverting to the social conditioning and judgments that most of us carry with us.

Participants are given a set of questions to review in advance; on the day of the Ethics Bowl, the event moderator for each session distributes a pre-elected single topic for the two teams to discuss. When the session ends, the teams move on to other rooms and engage with other teams. Each new session has a new question, and that continues throughout the day.

What I Saw and Heard

In our group, the teams were given questions on whether smokers have rights in the workplace, legal responsibilities involving driverless cars, and whether pit bulls should be regulated. In each case, team A presented the assigned issue as best they could, team B responded with questions and challenges, and team A then responded to those points.

I participated in three sessions. I only observed the first, to learn the dynamics and see how the two teams presented. I was then an active judge in the second and third round.

In one session, an intense young man with a shock of wavy hair spoke in an impassioned manner about the need for fairness, regardless of gender, race or appearance. He was particularly concerned about women being objectified.

Another challenged the notion that dogs can be regulated by breed: “dogs should be allowed to live meaningful lives,” as loyal and loved companions.

A young woman, who was clearly experienced in debate, succinctly articulated the position her team was required to argue, and added her personal values as supporting evidence. She was then directly challenged by the other team who were not as experienced; they were initially shy and hesitant, but eventually found their voices, and presented and countered with intensity.

Most were well prepared with some background in the principles of the common good, individual liberties and social responsibility. I remembered my discussions in college, long ago, and I wondered if we were in any way as able to identify an argument, present it without prejudice, and listen closely to the replies. I suspect we were not in their league.

What Students Learn by Participating

What surprised me the most was that these high schoolers — mostly 16 and 17 years old — love the process of engaging with others. Since an Ethics Bowl is not adversarial, yet competitive, it seemed to energize the participants to think hard, clearly explain their thoughts and feelings, and find ways to communicate without manipulation or artifice. There was no distraction of cell phones or text messages; they were fully engaged and participating with all their energy and attention.

I heard students say that they appreciated the non-competitive nature of the event. Some seemed to struggle to express themselves, but would suddenly have an insight, or find a phrase, and their demeanor would quickly change from doubt to self confidence. The excitement, wonder and energy that I saw on those young faces was simply amazing to me. It was inspiring to observe and participate.

I loved asking them questions that I assumed they had not though about; sometimes, it turned out they had given these topics a lot more thought than I had. That was a bit of a shock! I was delighted to learn from these young people, since they see the world with eyes that have not been dulled over the years. Their vision is still fresh and open.

I attended UC Santa Cruz many years ago, and I remember other students whose parents had never attended college. For some it was initially intimidating or too challenging; some continued, while others dropped out.

The town of Santa Cruz is within an hour’s drive of many agricultural communities like Watsonville and Salinas, where children often grow up without encouragement to attend college and find professional careers. Some of the Ethics Bowl students were apparently on a college campus for the first time ever, and for others, it was their first time participating in a serious academic exercise.

The beauty of the Ethics Bowl is that it gives these teenagers a taste of college life without requiring tests, admissions, acceptance. It’s just a weekend spent in a new environment not far from home, engaging with other students. But it’s an event that can open a world of new possibilities.

Why Does This Matter?

The last point is perhaps the most important: we currently live in a world that is fractured, adversarial and increasingly divided up into regions, camps and tribes, all shouting at each other across widening divides. We tend to live in “echo chambers” that encourage us to communicate mostly with those who agree with us. For a democratic society, this is toxic and destructive.

The Ethics Bowl is hopefully one way to pry the lid off of our echo chambers and let it some fresh, different and even contradictory ideas and beliefs. If today’s teenagers grow up with experience in speaking, listening and communicating with others, we’ll all be the beneficiaries.

Learn More About the Ethics Bowl and the UC Santa Cruz Center for Public Philosophy

An all-day event hosting a hundred high school students for dozens of managed sessions requires a lot of work, planning and coordination. Kudos to the staff and volunteers at UC Santa Cruz, the coaches, the parents and all the participants for a successful and impressive event.

Learn more and get involved.

The UCSC Ethics Bowl is sponsored by the Center for Public Philosophy:

To learn about the UC Santa Cruz Ethics Bowl activities:

To learn more about the nationwide Ethics Bowl agenda and how you might get involved in your area:

Note: The National High School Ethics Bowl is modeled on the Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl (IEB), which is sponsored by the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics.