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New Ethics Bowl team furthers Harpeth Hall's focus on cultivating civility

When Harpeth Hall Upper School English and Media Arts teacher Joe Croker was a freshman at the University of Kansas, the school’s debate team defeated Harvard to win the national championship. Several lifetimes later, he jokes, the American style of academic debate has not changed much.

“As a former debater myself, I can say that the American style emphasizes speed over deliberation, quantity of argument over nuance,” he said.

At Harpeth Hall, students focus not on winning an argument but on reaching an understanding. Through the guiding principles established by the school’s Center for Civic Engagement, which is supported by generous donors such as alumna Crispin Davis Menefee ’94 and her husband John, students engage in information literacy, active citizenship, and civic dialogue.

The next step in this strategic civic engagement initiative was the introduction of the National High School Ethics Bowl. On Feb. 5, 2022, Harpeth's Hall inaugural Ethics Bowl team took part in their first-ever competition, The Regional High School Ethics Bowl, which is held each year at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

Different than a traditional debate team, the Ethics Bowl format focuses on collaboration, and problem-solving.

“The Ethics Bowl is centered on civic discourse, listening to the opinions of others, and engaging respectfully with people who may think differently,” said Amy Miller, an Upper School world languages teacher and sponsor of the Ethics Bowl club. “These goals mirror what we want our students to be able to do in the classroom and are at the core of the creation of the Center for Civic Discourse. 

“The Ethics Bowl and the preparation for it teaches students how to present their ideas respectfully to another group, and it also aligns perfectly with teaching our students how to think critically.”

The National High School Ethics Bowl was created in 2012 at UNC Chapel Hill through a partnership between the Squire Family Foundation and the Parr Center for Ethics. As of 2021, nearly 4,000 students representing 335 schools nationally participated. Teams are given a case to prepare and must focus on the ethical aspects of the case. Unlike in traditional debate, each Ethics Bowl team chooses a side to defend based on its own beliefs. Points are awarded for how well students defend their position, how respectfully they engage with the other team, and their breadth and depth of thought in the context of the given ethical scenario.

“The very nature of Ethics Bowl is collaborative,” Mr. Croker said. “Instead of attempting to overwhelm an opponent, the idea is to find common ground, build consensus, and acknowledge strengths in opposing positions even while advancing one’s own. As you can imagine, civility is built into the system itself.”

Well aligned with the Center for Civic Engagement, Ethics Bowl furthers the initiatives taken during the 2020-2021 school year. For example, the center introduced students and faculty to the Difficult Dialogues Toolkit and a campus discourse statement, encouraging thoughtful consideration of multiple perspectives and preparing students to participate constructively in dialogues both in the classroom and in the public sphere. The center also initiated faculty in-service training and student workshops to promote a vibrant, diverse, and inclusive intellectual community on campus.

For the 2021-2022 school year, the Center for Civic Engagement expanded its work to include the creation of a CCE Student Advisory Board. This student board will work with the faculty to plan activities, events, and workshops that promote community and reinforce civic engagement and critical dialogue skills. In addition, the Center for Civic Engagement will send students to compete in Ethics Bowl competitions for years to come. Donor support is essential in helping this emerging endeavor get off the ground. In particular, gifts in support of the Center for Civic Engagement help fund students who choose to become involved in Ethics Bowl, allowing girls to participate in events beyond Tennessee.

“In politically-charged times like we are living in now, it’s important for young people to feel that they can be heard, whatever their particular leanings may be,” Mr. Croker said. “... Naturally, not every student will come to the same conclusions, but outsiders who see our students in action affirm again and again that our students are deft at not only seeing nuances in complex problems but also at persuasively addressing them.”