Last Sunday, Feb 9, we held the 1st high school ethics bowl for students in the Boston area. We fielded 7 teams from a mix of public and private schools at Tufts University from 8am to 6pm.
The day started with coffee, donuts, orange juice, and some fruit as we dove straight into issues about arming other countries working through political change…quite a doozie!
Luckily, ethics bowls are structured in a way that limit the typical confrontational attitudes – aka screaming matches – that issues such as marijuana legalization and physician assisted suicide tend to incite when accidentally brought up at holiday dinners. Teams are given 5 minutes to present their arguments followed the another 5 minute commentary – not criticism – by the other team. Judges then ask questions, a new case is drawn and the roles are reversed.
The students participating this weekend seemed to have mastered this skill with no team earning less than a 9 out of 10 for “civil discourse” points…yes we score them on politeness.
After a 4 part round-robin stage of discussion, 4 teams were selected to move onto the semi-finals based on W-L record. The semi-final matches, featuring cases on forced fatherhood and adoption, were very close, but teams from Newton North High featuring seasoned debaters and brilliant minds and a group of fresh-people – 9th graders – from Phillips Exeter squared off.
Exeter won the coin toss and deferred the first case to Newton. A case exploring the potential exploitation of college athletes was drawn, and Newton took a strong position arguing that college athletes should be compensated based on “the amount of work” they do. They qualified work in this sense by level of effort, time, and commitment required to participate in their sport, thus avoiding the obvious pitfall of arguing that athletes should be compensated by what they produce or bring into the university. Their conclusion was that college athletes should be compensated with more than room, board, and tuition with the understanding that most college athletes will not turn pro, and even more will fail to graduate, supposedly because of the expectations set by coaching staffs and the implicit competitive demands to succeed in difficult leagues.
They opened themselves to criticism from both Exeter and the 5-judge panel when analogizing playing college sports to an internship with a very low probability of payoff. The judges suggested that most internships are not guarantees for future employment, but it is still widely accepted that work done by interns in a scientific setting for example remain the intellectual property of the lead scientist. Newton responded that athletics is different because of the physical risk the teams are taking and the lack of development of marketable skills, distinguishing a marketable skill from work ethic.
The judges scored Newton, and it was Exeter’s turn. Their case explored whether or not not-for-profit CEOs should receive salaries similar to executives of for-profit organizations. They argued that leaders of charity groups should receive high salaries in order to attract talented individuals from the private world. The discussion then revolved around questions of talent such as exactly what kind of talent not-for-profits should be looking for and what actually motivates people to work in the not-for-profit sector. Exeter defended their argument admirably by carefully answering questions and responding to potential problems raised by the judges.
After each team had a chance to demonstrate their argumentation skills, the judges convened and unanimously determined that Newton North had performed more effectively, and awarded them the opportunity to compete at the National High School Bowl in early April!
Tufts and the Newton coaches will be working hard to prepare the students for the national stage, and hopefully they can bring home an Ethics trophy for their school and the Boston community.
The team will be heading to North Carolina wearing hats provided by Harding-Lane. In true New England style, the hats will don a lobster and in homage to David Foster Wallace, one of Boston’s star brains of the last 20 years or so, will read “consider the lobster – ethics 2014”.
Thank you to everyone who participated, donated, and cared! Next year we hope to grow like crazy, so visit nhseb.unc.edu and contact me at email@example.com for information on how to get involved.