Sunday, December 16, 2012

HS Ethics Bowl at Stevens Institute of Technology

L to R: Josh Davis, Phoebe Mattana, Joe Murphy, Jamie Spingeld, Matt Wang
at Stevens Institute of Technology

The Stevens Institute Ethics Bowl on Saturday 12/15/12 was a great experience for my students. It was Dwight-Englewood School’s first. Now we have one under our belts and will proceed to deepen our knowledge and practice.

I had been skeptical of Ethics Bowl events, competitions. My a priori opinion was that they were competitive events similar to high school competitive debates in which an affirmative or a negative side is defended regardless of one’s own real considered view. One in which a position is defended because it is the one assigned to the speaker or her team.  I imagined them to be more argumentative for the sake of it and positional rather than open, sincerely considered, and reasoned philosophically. I was wrong. Ethics Bowls are competitions, yes, but they are genuine, well reasoned and philosophical. They are competitions in which both competitive sides may actually agree, bow to the other’s greater reasoning or, perhaps, adopt the opponent’s argument and try to further it. Their energy and excitement, even maybe their passion is competitive, but their spirit, their deeper motivation and reasoning is philosophical to the best of their pre-collegiate, adolescent, but intelligent ability.

I am grateful to Roberta Israeloff of the Squire Family Foundation for being persistent with me. She listened to my a priori skepticism about Ethics Bowl competitions and understood and paid attention to some of my concerns. But she was gently tenacious.  After about a year of discussions, Roberta invited me to judge an Ethics Bowl event at Malloy College on Long Island in New York. I did that last year. I came away not only with an understanding of Ethics Bowls, but with enthusiasm for their goals and the process. Also, I can now imagine what the High School Ethics Bowl may become and how it may evolve. I appreciate it now and am committed to its further development.

The week after I returned from Malloy College I spoke to one of my students. Josh Davis had taken my Ethics course that year as a sophomore – it’s a required course for all sophomores at Dwight-Englewood. In a Friday afternoon conversation I briefly explained to Josh what an Ethics Bowl is, as I had come to understand it. I gave him an essay about it and a few websites addresses with videos for him to watch over the weekend. I told him to take a look at the essay or one of the videos. If he found himself becoming intrigued, pursue it, I encouraged him. Then talk to me on Monday if you're interested. When Josh came in to see me on Monday, he asked me how we could form a Ethics Bowl team at our school. He was intrigued and I smiled.

We created an Ethics Bowl Club through the normal channels at school. Josh recruited more than 20 club members. About half of them have become serious members. Since September we've been meeting once or twice a week. The most serious members read two books I recommended (a brief history of philosophy and an introduction to ethics beyond the book we used in our sophomore course). They also watched college and high school videos about Ethics Bowls and some actual events. We talked a lot and eventually started to prepare some cases for the Ethics Bowl at Stevens.

On Saturday, 15 December, there were 18 teams that came together at Stevens to ‘compete’. Each ‘debate’ or formalized dialogue could end in a win, tie, or lose. Beyond that, teams were also assigned points for various aspect of their discussion style and philosophical argumentation. I will quote from the Stevens Institute of Technology HS Ethics Bowl description of How to Debate. This is found on the SIT website. Dr. Michael Steinmann is the director of the Ethics Bowl at Stevens.

“Discussions are not structured as pro/con debates. Therefore, teams do not have to defend one specific position, and they also do not have to disagree. Rather, they have to compete in their analysis of the problem and in bringing about the best answer or solution. A team's performance will be judged according to the following criteria:
·         Clarity of the presentation
·         Awareness of the complexity of ethical problems involved in each case
·         Feasibility of practical solutions
·         Creativity in imagining the different stakeholder concerns related to a case, and in presenting a solution that is both sensitive to these concerns and opens a new way of thinking or acting
·         Capacity to engage in a fruitful and serious discussion with the other team and the judges.”

Of the 18 teams who met at Stevens on this Saturday in 2012, only four had two wins each. D-E was one of them. The 18 teams were divided into two groups, one of eight and the other of ten teams. Group 1 had two teams with two wins each: Middlesex 1 with 92 points and Piscataway 1 with 91 points. Group 2 had two teams with two wins each: Middlesex 2 with 96 points and Dwight-Englewood with 93 points. So, depending on how one looks at this, D-E placed either second – with number of wins and points – or third – because the top team from each group debated in the final. But there were also two schools with one win and one tie each with high point scores, too: Ridge 1 and Ridge 2 with 101 and 97 points respectively. Middlesex 1 and Middlesex 2 did the final debate. Middlesex 1 will go to the National Competition in North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the spring of 2013.

But for us at D-E more important than any of the competition was the actual preparation in ethical thinking and discussion at school and also the consideration we gave to the cases. Finally, the actual formal discussion/dialogue/debate between the two teams at the event deepened our team's thoughts about the ethical problems presented in each of the cases and about the language and concepts we used to address the problems. After the event was over we started to do some self-reflection that took into consideration our own thoughts, feelings, values, language style and conceptual framing of the problems and the event. We'll continue this and deepen it in our Ethics Bowl Club meeting on Monday.