With the help of Mitchell Green, a philosophy professor in the University of Virginia’s College of Arts & Sciences, and fourth-year government major Tory Klein, The Covenant School in Charlottesville became the first Virginia high school to compete in one of the National High School Ethics Bowl regional competitions.
The event took place on Nov. 17 at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where Covenant competed against 13 North Carolina schools, most from the Chapel Hill area. The third annual North Carolina Ethics Bowl was one of 12 similar competitions held throughout the year in the U.S.
As the program, modeled after the Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl, continues to grow nationally, Green hopes to garner enough interest among Virginia schools to host a future bowl at U.Va.
Green has been working to incorporate philosophy and ethics into high school curriculums through his Project High-Phi, a resource for teachers and students that supports philosophical education through essay contests and by providing online source material. Klein took Green’s course, “Internships in Philosophy: Teaching Philosophy in High Schools,” last spring, leading him to become involved at The Covenant School.
After student-teaching philosophy at Covenant in the spring, Klein sought to continue her involvement into the fall. Green suggested that she help start an Ethics Bowl team at the school. “It can be more productive engaging in philosophy through participation in fun and competitive events like the Ethics Bowl, rather than just writing essays,” Green said.
“They‘re talking about things that are interesting to them, too,” Klein said – for instance, a question about whether or not people should be required to give their Facebook passwords to their employers.
The Ethics Bowl allows students to broaden their academic base, Covenant teacher Bryan Verbrugge said. “Two words describe what we hope to cultivate in our graduates: wisdom and eloquence,” he said. “The Ethics Bowl helps students to think more clearly through ethical questions and also teaches them how to speak about them intelligently.”
At the beginning of the school year, Covenant’s team received the sets of cases that comprised the competition – a broad range of topics that covered topics from classroom ethics to personal relationships, social and political ethics and global issues. With Klein’s guidance, the team of six freshmen and one senior then had several months to construct their arguments and prepare for any counterpoints.
The actual competition consisted of three preliminary rounds, where up to five team members presented their cases to the panel of judges. The Covenant School won one round and lost the other two.
Although they did not qualify for the quarterfinal round, Klein said that the experience was a success and that the team members were proud of the results, especially since it was their first time competing and because they were the only team with any underclassmen. One of the teams they lost to – by only a few points – went on to win the bowl for the second year in a row.
This year, the winner moved on to the first-ever National High School Ethics Bowl, to compete against the other 12 qualifying schools in April at UNC-‘s Parr Center for Ethics.
Meanwhile, the Covenant team hopes to compete again next year and to hone its skills in mock bowls in the spring.
Green said he is pleased that the Ethics Bowl has put down a root in Virginia. In an earlier interview, he said that studying philosophy in high school can help students perform better in college and in their chosen careers, as well as generally enriching their lives.
“Those properly exposed to philosophy develop a skill that is surprisingly uncommon – namely, the ability to tell good arguments from bad, regardless of the subject matter,” he said. “As future voters, consumers, parents and policymakers, secondary-level students exposed to philosophy are better equipped to spot fallacious reasoning in public discourse, advertising and elsewhere.”
— By Lisa Kessler