Each winter, high school teams from Salinas to San Francisco travel to UC Santa Cruz to vie in the Northern California High School Regional Ethics Bowl.
Above: North Salinas High School students Denize Ignacio (center) and Aliyah Annis (left) at the 2018 Ethics Bowl high school regional. Photo by Stephen Marino
The topics discussed are relevant and easy for a high school student to relate to: “Is it ever OK to lie for a friend?” “Is it ethical for a school to punish or fire teachers for conduct that occurs off campus?” “Should a student confront the father of a friend making homophobic and sexist remarks in his own home?”

But the process is very different from traditional debates where teams are assigned a particular side for which to argue. Instead, the Ethics Bowl teams are asked to defend whatever ethical position their sustained reasoning has led them to endorse. The emphasis is on sincere, thoughtful reflection, as opposed to simply persuasion.

Kyle Robertson, assistant director of the Center for Public Philosophy, founded the regional high school program in 2012 when he was a Ph.D. student at UC Santa Cruz, and has watched it steadily grow. But his team soon noticed that most of the growth had come from socioeconomically advantaged schools and student bodies.

“We saw a need to reach out to schools that don’t have debate programs and students that don’t have these sorts of opportunities,” said Robertson.

As a result, in 2016, the center established an “Outreach Invitational” program for those schools. It trained undergraduate philosophy majors to coach the high school teams and brought in community leaders to serve as judges.

And by bringing the students to UC Santa Cruz for the main event, they made college a much more tangible possibility.

“A lot of our students are really not exposed to the college culture,” said Luis Ruelas, a teacher at Downtown College Prep Alum Rock High School in San Jose. “So being on a college campus was super exciting for them because they haven’t really seen themselves at a college before.”

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