Ethics Bowl will bring high school students nationwide to Carolina

The National High School Ethics Bowl was born at Carolina in 2012 to promote respectful discussion of ethics issues among high school students nationwide.

Focused high school students write down thoughts
High school students came to Carolina Jan. 26 for the state-level Ethics Bowl, competing for a chance to attend the national event in April. Photo by Donn Young.

Let’s say that in 2019, driverless cars are found to be safer than human drivers. Should we continue to allow human drivers at all?

That is the type of question that high school students across the country are grappling with as they compete for a chance to participate in the National High School Ethics Bowl right here at Carolina.

Every year in April, UNC-Chapel Hill students, faculty and staff organize and host the bowl, where student teams from every region of the U.S. discuss ethical dilemmas ranging from heavy-hitting political issues to personal family difficulties.

The road to April’s National Ethics Bowl kicked off at Carolina Jan. 26 with the state-level competition, which drew more than 150 students from 24 North Carolina schools to Chapel Hill.

Dominique Déry, who directs the national and North Carolina High School Ethics Bowls from the Parr Center for Ethics in Carolina’s philosophy department, describes the event as an alternative to debate club that focuses on open dialogue. Students are judged on their spirit of collaboration and open-mindedness toward opposing teams, as well as their ability to articulate and think through complex questions.

“It’s a competition, but it’s really about lifting up high school students’ voices and encouraging them to think about relevant issues in a way that’s productive,” she said. “It’s really inspiring to watch them do that and to envision a future where they’re bringing those skills and ideals of civic discourse into their communities. It’s amazing to see students come together across divides.”

From the state-level competition to the national championship, UNC-Chapel Hill undergraduate students play an essential role, serving as volunteer moderators alongside a judging panel made up of Carolina faculty members and graduate students.

But undergraduates aren’t just involved during the competition. As part of a philosophy course taught by teaching assistant professor Steven Swartzer, students travel to high schools throughout the state beforehand to coach and prepare participants for the big day.

While students in Swartzer’s class learn about great philosophers and philosophical theories, they also have the opportunity to teach those concepts to high schoolers, serving as judges during mock Ethics Bowl rounds, raising potential counterpoints and helping the high schoolers refine their arguments.

For Mariah Evans, a junior philosophy major who is pursuing in a career in teaching, the course offered a meaningful opportunity to engage in learning-centered classrooms — both Swartzer’s and the class at Eastern Alamance High School where she volunteered.

“I had the opportunity to work with a really cool bunch of students, and they already had that zeal for debate and for ethical inquiry,” she said. “Our job was to facilitate the philosophical discussion and engage with them as a learning community — not necessarily to say, ‘This is what you should think about it,’ but rather, ‘Here’s how Immanuel Kant approached this problem; what do you think about that?’ It was such a great opportunity.”

Swartzer said the collaboration between Carolina students and high school students is impactful for both parties.

“I think working with high school teachers and students in the Ethics Bowl context helps put my students in a mindset that makes them more empathetic and understanding of others — and especially people who might have different answers to these questions,” Swartzer said. “I hope they come away better able to engage in mature, reflective, and productive deliberation about controversial ethical issues, both individually and with others.”

That kind of mutual exchange, Déry said, is what the Ethics Bowl program is all about.

“A wonderful part of the program is that it enables folks within the University community to engage with their local community in a really meaningful way,” she said. “When high school students come to Carolina, engaging with the undergraduate students makes university feel accessible and relatable to them. It’s mutually rewarding for people both on the University and community sides.”