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CHHS Ethics Bowl Team Finishes Strong

When Americans typecast the country’s high school students, philosophers and ethicists probably rank low on the list of categories. Yet CHCCS high school students have taken two of the last three titles in the NC High School Ethics Bowl. East Chapel Hill High School won in 2019, and this year, a team of seven students from Chapel Hill High School (CHHS) won the school’s first state championship and placed 12th out of 26 teams nationally. The virtual National High School Ethics Bowl (NHSEB) took place April 9-11, and by the end of the weekend, the CHHS members reported extreme Zoom fatigue, but also genuine excitement and pride at their success after many months of preparations.

Social Studies Teacher, Tim Campbell, arrived at CHHS in 2015 and began advising the Debate Club, formed several years earlier. “Since then, as the team advisor, I have had the privilege of watching the students in the club engage in discussions about pressing ethical issues and dilemmas frequently based on current events,” Campbell said.

This year’s competing team members were senior co-captains Meredith Wall and Kate Berreth, seniors Isabel Sharp, Amelia Solum, Ava Widener, Chloe Elbogen and junior Benjamin Knight. Many of them have been a part of the Debate Club and Ethics Bowl journey with Campbell since they were freshmen. Yet despite their experience together in competitions, they generally expressed surprise they had brought home the North Carolina title. “They went undefeated, and defeated three straight top seed and traditional powerhouse high schools in the quarterfinals, semifinals, and championship,” Campbell said.

The NHSEB is hosted by the UNC Parr Center and Philosophy Department; created in 2012, it has expanded from a regional competition to a nationwide tournament, this year hosting 40 regional events in 32 states with more than 3,500 high school participants. The mission statement of the NHSEB notes, “By engaging high school students in intensive ethical inquiry, the NHSEB fosters constructive dialogue and furthers the next generation’s ability to make sound ethical decisions. Our collaborative model rewards students for the depth of their thought, their ability to think carefully and analytically about complex issues, and the respect they show to the diverse perspectives of their peers. As a result, it enables students to practice and build the virtues central to democratic citizenship, thus preparing them to navigate challenging moral issues in a rigorous, systematic, and open-minded way.”

Co-captain Wall said, “We normally compete at the state level, with a mindset to enjoy it and not put any stake in winning. That is why it was surprising this year that we got the opportunity to keep advancing! We were all overjoyed when we won, but also realized we would have to refocus and learn a whole new 15 cases for the national competition. Nevertheless, we were able to find that focus, as well as have some great conversations about glowing dogs and Netflix-sharing along the way! The Nationals competition was an amazing experience, since we got to compete against teams from across the country- from New York to California to Florida. I really enjoyed competing at Nationals, and I could tell how we had matured as a team from the first competition.”

Her fellow co-captain Berreth said, “Ethics Bowl has been one of my most fulfilling high school experiences. I have absolutely loved my time in the club, and we really have been working for the past four years to make it to this point. In the past, we always told ourselves that we weren't there for the competition, and that we didn't care about how we did. This sentiment helped us through a tough loss last year at States where we lost all of our rounds. Going into States this year, we weren't expecting much, but we really came together as a team and ultimately won. We were definitely prepared for Nationals. We had low expectations because it was the first time Chapel Hill High had ever made it, so we didn't know what to expect, but we performed really well.”

The Bowl format sets up matches between two high schools in each round; the teams receive a question about one of the cases they have reviewed, researched and debated all year. The cases are familiar but the specific question is not. In less than five minutes, students must create a presentation on their team’s ethical stance on the case.

Matches are scored by three judges, who are typically UNC professors and other respected members of the intellectual community, such as journalist and published author Jessica Lahey. Team scores are based on the quality and civility of the discussion. Campbell said, “It is quite subjective, but also quite interesting to watch these conversations unfold.”

The NHSEB releases the set of cases each fall, with two to four guiding questions provided for each case, in order to initiate debate on the topic. Students conducted independent research on the topics and then came together weekly to present their own views and discuss as a group.

Campbell said of Wall and Berreth, “They did an excellent job of getting everybody ready by preparing each week’s case, organizing the meetings, making the announcements and then leading the discussion in the Google Meet platform. Roughly two dozen students participated at times throughout the year with a core group of about 10-12 who showed up and participated most weeks. These conversations helped everyone on the eventual roster for the Ethics Bowl team develop their views on these issues in such a way that they were able to adapt to the quick processes and rapid fire Q&A sessions where judges at times flip the script and force students to adapt their ethical stances based on changes in situations with no time to confer. It is not easy to be on the spot in those moments.

Isabel Sharp said, “I've been in Ethics Bowl for all four years of high school, and it's definitely my favorite club, despite the fact that we've never done well at competition. But this year, being able to actually see our hard work in preparation for the Bowl pay off in a win, it's been such a gratifying experience. Being able to talk to people with a similar interest in philosophy but different opinions about ethical issues is so great, no matter how we do at the competition. I really love all my teammates this year, and I think we're the most deserving we've ever been of winning the Bowl, so I'm glad we got to see the fruits of our labor this year.”

Chloe Elbogen is also a four year veteran with the Ethics Bowl. "I think it has been one of the most meaningful experiences of high school," she said. "Every single discussion topic is always so interesting, and I love hearing what people decide to talk about when they read a case. It was so surprising to win the state competition this year because I never really think about the club like a competition, it's more like an open discussion about the topic of the week."

“Ethics Bowl this year was an amazing experience,” said Amelia Solum. “In past years we rarely won single rounds, let alone the state championship, so we were thrilled with the results! We had a really great time studying and researching the national cases, which were on topics such as the ethics of the medical brain drain (when medical professionals leave developing countries for higher income countries), the morals behind COVID vaccine distribution and diplomacy, and when dangerous or controversial art exhibits are no longer permissible. I have gotten to know my teammates so well through these discussions and the journey to nationals really helped me broaden my perspective on some crucial ethical issues.”

Ava Widener said, “This was my first year being a part of the competing team, although it was not my first year in the Ethics Bowl club, and I was completely surprised when we won the state tournament. Preparing for nationals was definitely a big time commitment (it was two and a half hours every Sunday plus other meetings), but it was totally worth it!”

Benjamin Knight said, “I'd  like to express our appreciation for Mr. Campbell. Throughout the process, he emphasized the importance of defining success for ourselves and enjoying ourselves, which was very refreshing and allowed us to enjoy the cases and the experience. This was my first year doing Ethics Bowl, and it was an interesting contrast with Model UN, which I have done for many years, because it prioritized deep thinking and civil discussion over rhetoric and style. I also appreciated the deep collaboration that we had as a team over the past two months where we developed a good rhythm and got to spend lots of time working through the difficult issues that the cases presented.”

Berreth said, “As captain, I am so proud of what we have accomplished this year and I am forever appreciative of my incredible team and my wonderful co-captain Meredith Wall.”

Anyone at CHHS who enjoys thinking through interesting ethical issues should join Ethics Bowl Club next year!” Wall added. “It's a blast!”