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How to win at civil debate

At the High School Ethics Bowl, polite discourse is a competitive sport

By Jenni Gritters

It was early on a Wednesday morning in Seattle, and 14 bleary-eyed high school students were sitting in a fluorescent-lit University of Washington classroom, donuts and oranges in hand, discussing the morality of China’s social policies.

One of their coaches, Noah Zeichner, read a prompt aloud: “On June 14, 2014, China’s State Council announced a plan to establish a social credit system.” It was, he explained, a kind of personal Yelp score — administered by the government to determine whether people were virtuous enough to receive a home loan or travel on an airplane.

The students considered the experimental policy with more far open-mindedness than you’d probably find on Facebook or TV news. “We can’t take out loans here in the U.S. if we don’t have good credit,” noted Dillen Abbe, a brown-haired senior in a trenchcoat. With any government, “citizens agree to give up some liberties in order to create a better functioning society,” said Sonia Yuan, a petite 11th grader. “This is an issue of security versus liberty,” said Robin Truax, an enthusiastic junior. It was technically a vacation day, but these teens were engaged in a head-on ethics scrimmage and they needed to get it right — not just the argument, but the tone.

Coaches encourage rational, emotion-free conversations about tough topics. Teens who express gratitude win extra points.

For an American teenager today, there are precious few examples of positive, collaborative civil discourse in online media or the entertainment industry. But for motivated high school students in Seattle, there’s the High School Ethics Bowl, a six-year-old competition sponsored by the University of Washington’s Center for Philosophy for Children. One of the first events of its kind in America, the Ethics Bowl is similar to a high school debate or Model UN competition, but with a twist: Rather than arguing against the opposing team, the competition centers around who can best engage in civil discourse. Coaches encourage civil, rational, emotion-free conversations about tough topics. Teens who express gratitude win extra points. It’s even considered cool when you identify logical fallacies and then change your mind altogether.

“It’s not an intense, in-your-face argument. It’s more like, ‘Let’s explore all of the possibilities,’” says Zeichner, a social studies and Spanish teacher at Ingraham High School in Seattle. “Both teams might end up agreeing on their position, but they really have to make sure they’re not leaving out any considerations. It’s an exercise in critical thinking.”

Back in the classroom, Zeichner’s Ingraham High School ethics team sat across from a group of Rainier Beach High School students. They would spend the morning engaging in several rounds of civil discourse about a number of ethical issues. Every year, scrimmages and practices like this occur during the fall and winter months, eventually culminating in the Ethics Bowl itself. At the competition, more than 100 local high school students from both private and public schools join judges, lawyers, faculty from the University of Washington, and graduate and undergraduate ethics students to compete for the title of Ethics Bowl champions.

During a typical Ethics Bowl competition or scrimmage, teams of five work together to identify the many different perspectives that could come into play during an ethical dilemma. Each round involves looking at two ethical dilemmas out of a possible 10, some hypothetical and some realistic — involving such issues as workplace disputes, liver donation, gun control, using private funding in academic institutions, and social media use.

Judges determine the winners based on a detailed scoring rubric that prioritizes civil discourse, changing one’s mind, and close listening. Judges consider questions like: “Did the team clearly and systematically identify and thoroughly discuss the case’s central ethical dimensions?” and “Did the presentation indicate awareness and thoughtful consideration of different viewpoints, including those likely to loom large in the reasoning of individuals who disagree with the team’s position?” Teams also receive points for giving insightful commentary on the other team’s presentation, and for respectful engagement in a productive discussion.

The University of Washington’s Center for Philosophy for Children was founded nearly 23 years ago by Jana Mohr Lone, a lawyer who left her practice to become a philosophy graduate student — and, eventually, a philosophy professor. Lone was inspired by the way her own children asked big questions about the world, so she started to think about how she could offer a sense of confidence and wonder to the kids in her community, too. Eventually the UW Center for Philosophy for Children was born; in 2014, the Ethics Bowl followed.

“I believe that the more all of us can do this, the less we will feel like we are separate from one another.”

Today, the center offers ethics-based programming for nearly everyone. Lone and her colleagues hold trainings, workshops, and seminars for local teachers who want to bring more philosophy into their classrooms. Philosophers-in-residence visit local schools a few times each week, mentoring teachers and students. Lone even launched a series of ethics workshops for parents after getting positive feedback from students’ families; they saw how their kids took a more level-headed view of the world’s most divisive topics and asked how they could get involved, too.

These programs are rooted in deeply-academic philosophical theories, but they’re also designed to teach children — and adults — that deep thinking matters, especially during a politically divisive time in American history. Recent research shows that Gen Z will grow up with more access to technology and less face-to-face human interaction than any generation in history. Depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation rates have skyrocketed for American teens between the ages of 12 and 17, a finding that some social psychologists tie to the rise of social media. Add to this the fact that today’s news is full of cruel language and ad hominem attacks, and you have a recipe for continued discord.

“It’s becoming harder and harder to have real exchanges with people who think differently from you,” Lone says, “so I believe that the more all of us can do this, the less we will feel like we are separate from one another.”

A timer rang loudly in the middle of the scrimmage. Quickly, the Ingraham team members completed their assessment of the case. Then they leaned back, breathless and proud, looking across at their opponents. The Rainier Beach team presented a rebuttal. The Ingraham students conferred and offered gratitude to their competitors before responding. In the end, neither team declared the Chinese policy fully good or bad. (Teams are allowed to take sides but are encouraged to think more broadly about the problems at hand; in ethics, as in real life, there are rarely just two answers.) Instead, they presented every pro and con argument they could think of.

Finally, both teams engaged in a five-minute segment of civil discourse. In a few instances, they disagreed with one another politely, but their discussion never devolved into the snarky, divisive interaction that’s common on cable news. The students ended the practice round on an emotion-free, curious note.

This back-and-forth is a hallmark of the Ethics Bowl, and even the coaches sometimes marvel at the judgment-free interaction. “You’re bringing together students from very different backgrounds: We have high-income and low-income kids, private school and public school students,” says Zeichner. “You’re putting them together to discuss pretty controversial topics. They are pushed in this competition to engage as civilly as possible even if they fiercely disagree. How can they show that they are really hearing the other side?”

Zeichner and Lone both say this way of thinking seems to trickle down into students’ personal lives beyond the competition, too. “One of the things that is inspiring about the Ethics Bowl is to watch students who start with a particular point of view,” says Lone. “Then they take in what the other team has said and think on their feet about how that might change their perspective.”

At the end of the 2019 season, neither team from the scrimmage won the Ethics Bowl. Ingraham made it to the semifinals, then lost to Chief Sealth High School, which went on to win the entire competition. But winning seemed to matter less than expected, at least for the Ingraham team. “Hopefully next year we can break that cycle [of losing], and I’m confident we’ll be able to if we continue working as we have,” said Yuan.

No matter who wins, Lone believes the atmosphere of the Ethics Bowl keeps students, judges, and coaches coming back every year; it’s a hopeful event that feels less fraught than the world beyond the competition’s doors. Yuan agrees: “The sheer amount of brain power means that there’s always something to learn from another person, be it a judge or a member of the opposing team,” she says.

If there is any hope for an increasingly divisive political system, it may be found at the High School Ethics Bowl. And Lone suggests that the magic comes from taking the time to wonder deeply about the big issues facing today’s world — with the open-mindedness of a young person who hasn’t fully learned how to be cynical about communication.

“Kids often get the idea that wondering is a waste of time and they shouldn’t spend time thinking about what it means to be a person, or the point of life,” Lone says. “But it’s important to keep wondering about the mysteries of the world. It’s part of the joy of being a human being.”

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Jenni Gritters is a writer based in Seattle.


Illustration by Cristina Spanò


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