Wednesday, April 28, 2021

If I Were In Charge of the World . . .

This week I read the poem "If I Were in Charge of the World" by Judith Viorst with a group of 9-11 year old students in our weekly online philosophy session. Using a lesson plan created by our Education Director Karen Emmerman, I asked the students to consider what they would do if they were in charge of the world. 

The students each wrote for about 5 minutes and then went into breakout rooms, in groups of three, to share their ideas and talk about what they thought as a group would be most important if they were in charge of the world. When they returned, they put their ideas in the chat, coming up with the following:

If I Were in Charge of the World


Racism and all ethnic, religious, and racial hate would end.

I would unite the world under one country. 

I would stop climate change.

COVID-19 would be banned.

I would make forever ice cream and candy.

There would be lots of veggies for me whenever I wanted no matter what.

Whenever I bought something it would be free for only me.

I would make ice cream have every single vitamin.

Climate change, tuna salad, and COVID-19 would be cancelled.

I would make peace in the world stopping wars.

Gasoline-powered cars would turn to electric.

I would make TV watching and video game playing healthy.

Pollution would be banned.

Baby penguins would be the symbol of America.

Grown-ups would have to stop being boring.

Everyone would have rights. 

After a short break, I asked the children which of the items on the list they saw as really important or as items that shouldn't be included. One student offered that she thought that the idea of uniting the world under one nation should not be on the list, because there was always the possibility that the one nation would be taken over by a dictator or other oppressive government, and there would be no other options for people. The student who suggested the idea conceded that this was an issue, but said he thought it would be most likely that the "one nation" would be a democracy, and if people didn't approve of the government it could be changed. I mentioned Germany in the 1930s, and the rise of Hitler and racism after Hitler was democratically elected, and asked whether being elected was always a safeguard against the emergence of an oppressive government. The students talked about the benefits of having a diversity of nations to protect against a government like Hitler's, while noting that the existence of many nations created other problems, like war. Everyone agreed that making peace in the world and ending wars belonged on the list. Several students commented that part of making that happen would involve requiring nations having disputes to talk with each other.

We then moved to the suggestion that "grownups would have to stop being boring." The student who suggested this said that she thought adults should have to talk about more interesting things than money and politics, which led to a thought-provoking discussion about the responsibilities of adults, the differences between adults and children, what counts as boring and to whom, and whether anything can reasonably be said of "all adults" or "all children." I think many of the other items on the list could have led to equally interesting conversations, but we were out of time!

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

HIgh School Ethics Bowl

Since 2014, the University of Washington Center for Philosophy for Children has organized and run the Washington State High School Ethics Bowl. Modeled after the Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl, the High School Ethics Bowl involves teams of students analyzing a series of wide-ranging ethical dilemmas. The competition utilizes case studies relevant to youth, such as questions about plagiarism, peer pressure, abuse of social media, free speech, gun control, cloning, parental consent, and stem cell research. 


Although the High School Ethics Bowl is competitive, it is intended to promote collaboration. Teams do not have to take adversarial positions; in fact, they can agree with each other. They are not required to hold fast to an assigned perspective or refute each other’s points. Instead, students have a forum in which to engage in dialogue, and they are judged on the quality of their analysis and the degree to which they engage in a thoughtful, civil exchange.


The Ethics Bowl is about giving an insightful perspective on each case, one that an intelligent layperson should be able to follow. The competition values students’ reasoning abilities, and the emphasis is more on the broader ethical implications of the cases and less on a rule-oriented approach. It's not about memorizing ethical theories or important philosophers, but is designed to promote thoughtful, civil dialogue about difficult questions. Judges for the Washington State High School Ethics Bowl are drawn from the local legal, education, and philosophical communities.


After consulting with all our coaches in fall 2020, we decided not to hold a formal event in 2021, but instead arranged a series of two-hour virtual scrimmages between schools between April and June 2021. In the fall, participating schools were all given 10 cases to consider and discuss over the course of the year, with some schools beginning to meet in the fall and others waiting to start until winter. There was no fee to participate this year.


Scrimmages each include two cases, both involving a presentation, a commentary on the presentation, a 10-minute open dialogue, and judges’ questions. They are not scored, but each scrimmage involves three judges who provide detailed feedback at the end of each scrimmage, often engaging in an extended conversation with the students about how the scrimmage went.


Across the board, the feedback from the coaches and students has been enthusiastic. Appreciating the flexible opportunity this year's format has offered, students have appreciated the thoughtful and interesting conversations they have had with one another about topics such as:

·      Should schools hold classes virtually during the pandemic? 

·      Should buildings and institutions be renamed if their namesake has a problematic past?

·      Is it ethical to dine-in at a restaurant during a pandemic?

·      Is it unethical to buy fast-fashion clothing? 

Read these and the rest of the 2021 ethics bowl cases here