Ethics is defined as the “moral principles that govern a person’s behavior or the conducting of an activity.” In the 1950s when I went to high school and college, there was not much need to consider ethics, much less discuss it. We mostly did as we were told. If we were caught doing otherwise, we were punished. It was that simple – for me anyway. Not so today, when social issues and student activism have taken center stage. Authority figures are no longer calling all the shots.
Ground zero for this change at MIA is the Ethics Bowl Team, a little known group who have been immersed in ethical issues for the past three years. On January 27, the current team won the Florida State Ethics Bowl championship and will get a shot at a national championship, beginning on April 20 at Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The issues they discuss are provided by the National High School Ethics Bowl (NHSEB), headquartered on the campus of the University of North Carolina. The NHSEB oversees both regional and national competitions.
Mentoring and coaching the MIA team is math teacher, Chris Liebhart, who doubles as head baseball coach and assistant coach on three other varsity teams at the school. The state Ethics Bowl champs meet for practice during 4th period in Liebhart’s classroom. They are seniors Caitlin Carlson, Cassidy Carlson and Chelsea Casabona, and juniors Teagan Havemeier and Lauren Johnson. Due to a number of factors, it is almost impossible to get them all together at one time. I paid them a visit during a practice session on March 27, when only Cassidy Carlson was absent. It was among the most invigorating and stimulating experiences I have ever had in a classroom at any level.
For the national championships, the NHSEB had provided them with 16 case studies which were laid out like a law school hornbook, complete with references and case citations. The topics ranged from the Electoral College, Confederate monuments, male circumcision, and eminent domain, to dating on Tinder. The team would have to be prepared to discuss eight of these cases, but would not know in advance which ones they would draw.
On March 27, the girls were discussing case #9 – eminent domain. Vinnie Piranio, the president of MIA’s former STEM Club, dropped by to lend a hand. At first it seemed more like a shouting match than a discussion. The girls were voicing the results of the research they had done and were doing on their laptops, and all seemed to be doing it at once. It was like watching “The View” on TV. Liebhart let them go, with only a nudge here and there. “When is eminent domain good?” he asked.
The group finally coalesced around a controversial 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision (Kelo v. New London) which allowed the taking of private property, for mixed use development by an independent contractor. The City of New London CT had fallen on hard times, and the city council felt that development of this run down area was necessary to give a much needed boost to the economy. Eminent domain is normally used so that public infrastructure can be built. Of the 115 properties involved, all but 15 had sold out to the city. The remaining 15 took it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, claiming that this was an unconstitutional taking, under the Fifth Amendment. Not if it was for the public benefit, said the court.
The team was finally able to agree that eminent domain falls disproportionately on the poor [and should be used sparingly]. “It is gentrification in a different form,” said one, “Giving someone compensation doesn’t mean you’re giving them the means to continue the life they have built.” “What about taking a farm for a purpose like this?” said another, “There you would clearly be taking away someone’s livelihood.” Sentiment seemed to come down in favor of the underdog property owner facing the considerable muscle of a government entity.
Then the team took up case #10 – “Expose The Alt Right?” The case centered around the August 17, 2017 “Unite the Right” rally at Charlottesville, Virginia after which videos and photographs of purported neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and Alt-Righters were put out on social media. Close-ups with the names and hometowns of some of them were retweeted tens of thousands of times. Some of the radical group members were misidentified; one was publicly disowned by his family, and another was fired from his job as a result. “Does a person who attends a public event have a right of privacy?” Liebhart asked, “Is it morally permissible to publicly ‘out’ radical demonstrators [who are exercising their First Amendment rights]?”
There was some controversy within the team on this one, and a spirited discussion followed. One of less outspoken Ethics Bowlers felt constrained to join in. “You shouldn’t do something which will ruin someone’s life,” she said. “Is it OK to ruin someone’s life just because you disagree with them?” asked another. “I think we should draw the line that it’s not morally permissible to do something like this unless there is some benevolent purpose,” another said, “It is not benevolent when you do something malevolent.”
Thus did these girls continue to grapple with some of the most thorny contemporary issues in our nation and world today. It almost seemed cathartic for them to do so. They were totally absorbed in something outside of themselves – something that could actually make a difference in the larger scheme of things. This was something worth doing.
Melissa Scott, MIA’s pert and forward thinking principal, instituted the Ethics Bowl at MIA three years ago. She may be forward thinking, but in some ways, she is a throwback to the days when moral values were held in higher regard. Students don’t want to get on the wrong side of Miss Scott. She is a strong believer that ethics should play a bigger role in society. “Students, thinking and pondering over ethical decisions, will never hurt young men and women as they grow and mature into adults,” she says, “It is a chance for team members to expand their minds outside of the classroom and truly think.” The girls on the team would seem to agree.
When I write stories about what is going on at MIA, I often give the students a chance to respond to emailed questions. The responses I got from this group were mind boggling in their depth of thought and erudition. Their excitement and enthusiasm was palpable. If this is the kind of students our schools are turning out, I thought, this country has a bright future.
The recurring theme was the fact that the team was forced to look at things from different perspectives. “It taught me that middle ground isn’t impossible to reach,” said Chelsea Casabona. Teagan Havemeier saw some cases at regionals, which made her question her own moral values. “For some, the answers were obvious,” she said, “but right now I am finding that the answers aren’t always so clear cut.” Lauren Johnson found that looking at issues relevant to current events from an analytical standpoint changes the way she thinks about these issues. “It has allowed me to open my mind and to be more informed,” she said. Caitlin Carlson agrees. “Ethics Bowl has taught me to take issues that are relevant to current events and look at them from a very analytical standpoint. It has allowed me to open my mind more and to be more informed.
Chris Liebhart is beloved by the girls for the guidance and autonomy he gives them. But he isn’t the only teacher at MIA encouraging the students to think for themselves. An informed open minded electorate may seem like an impossible goal right now, but MIA is taking a whack at it.