By Petra Dreiser
A lone, forest-green banner fluttered in the breeze outside the University of Toronto Mississauga’s (UTM) Instructional Building on the morning of Saturday, March 4, 2023. It offered a rare flash of colour in a landscape blanketed in layers of frosty white by the season’s most intense snowstorm the night before. Weather conditions seemed forbidding—but not for the determined, enthusiastic crew who had come to breathe life into that banner and all it stood for: the 2023 Ontario High School Ethics Bowl.
For the fourth time since its creation—and for the first time in person since the COVID-19 pandemic—the Ontario Ethics Bowl drew together teams of high school students from throughout the province to debate each other on a broad range of ethical questions. The nuances of territorial acknowledgments came under scrutiny as much as the finer responsibilities of friendship, the morality of rules, charitable “rights and wrongs,” compassionate robots as stand-ins for elder care, and more.
While the inaugural 2020 Ontario Ethics Bowl had brought together 11 passionate teams of three to five members, this year’s event glimmered with the sheen of expansion and slick professionalism. The number of teams had more than doubled to 25 (from a pool of 104 contenders), their Grade 9 to Grade 12 members proudly uniting—often in matching outfits—under such colourful names as Kant Stop Won’t Stop (Rockway Mennonite Collegiate, Kitchener), Geremy Bearimy (Dr. G. W. Williams Secondary School, Aurora), and Northern Mandibles (Northern Secondary School, Toronto).
As they maneuvered—flush-faced, gesticulating, astonishingly eloquent—through three rounds of debate, the semi-finals, and a championship match over the course of the weekend, an extensive crew of organizing associates captured their every move on camera, producing stills for immediate projection on lecture hall walls, shooting documentary video, and doing ad hoc interviews for Instagram reels. Gen Z to the core: pics or it didn’t happen.
For participating students and their teacher mentors, the excitement-filled two days at UTM were the culmination of months of sometimes grueling preparation. Not only did they have to familiarize themselves with the various cases but they needed to research and develop arguments for all possible sides of an issue, practice public speaking, become adept at rapid responses to unexpected questions, and learn to function as a team that displayed grace even under pressure.
“It was a lot of work,” said Taiya Peckham, a first-time member of the Canterbury Folklore from Ottawa, admitting that memorizing the case details sometimes felt like a chore. But she agreed with her teammates: bonding as a group and discovering the value of having one’s viewpoint repeatedly challenged made it all worthwhile. Plus, of course, making new friends in person.
Meeting in Person
After two years of online competition, the palpable energy of an in-person championship invigorated all involved. “It’s been wonderful having the students here,” said Gurpreet Rattan, professor and chair of the Department of Philosophy at UTM who also served in a consultative role for this year’s Bowl and judged a few of the matches. “The weekend has left me happy about the prospects for philosophy in the future,” he added; “we’ve witnessed a lot of great intellectual raw material here.”
Another judge, Christine Sypnowich, a professor and the head of the Philosophy Department at Queen’s University, couldn’t agree more. “I am in awe of the students’ talent, dedication, enthusiasm, and willingness to think creatively,” she said. “We live in a time of great irrationality, self-deception, illusion, and anti-democratic forces; the more we can bring reason and careful thinking to the complex issues of our present, the better.”
For the first time this year, Queen’s, like Carleton, McMaster, Guelph, and Western, served as institutional partner for the expanding Ethics Bowl, alongside the tri-campus Department of Philosophy at U of T.
According to Gaby Ruggero, an Ethics Bowl alumna, meeting face to face brought the event closer to its original purpose, which she describes as “a series of conversations.” Because in the end, while the sweet taste of victory certainly inspires, organizers and participants agree that the Ethics Bowl is not about winning; it’s about community.
It is a point that the event’s director, the severely underslept but consistently generous and deeply committed Jeff Senese, cannot stress enough. “Of course we want high school students to think through prickly topics they might not have learned about in the classroom,” he says. “We also want to refocus their definition of debate; it’s not a zero-sum game.” Ethics Bowl teams are encouraged to cultivate active listening skills. They are not punished for changing their position during a match if they can show that their shift in thinking has resulted from engagement with the opposing team’s questions or counterarguments.
Yet these educational and pedagogical aspects are rooted in the overarching idea of community building. So it made sense to extend the Bowl’s offerings beyond the debate matches to include a Philosophy Fair of lectures, an evening talent show, communal meals, and many social media engagements.
In addition, many of the event judges return year after year, while the great majority of Senese’s impressive organizing team are Ethics Bowl alumni—university students who once debated in the event themselves, and didn’t want to leave the experience behind like just any old extracurricular.
Alador Bereketab, a Health Sciences student at McMaster University who helped lead her high school team to success in the 2021 Bowl, for example, stepped into her role as director of media and marketing with unrelenting vigor. Currently spearheading the Team Spirit Award initiated by her colleague Jess Strachan in 2022, this year, Bereketab also brought into existence a tournament dinner that doubled as a curated talent show. Sitting beside strangers (team mates had been separated), students were all chatter, oohs, and giggles, any sense of competition evaporated.
Yet when the time came to return to the matches, students tackled their topics, and each other, with eager focus. In the end, first and second place went to two teams from the same school, Kingston Secondary. The KSS Champions—Samuel Zhang, Kolsen Shunk, and Rafael Adrik—lived up to their name, surpassing their schoolmates, the InterlocuBears. Both teams—first-time participants in the Ethics Bowl—had come in on the support of the same French teacher, a thrilled and incredulous Megan Koob.
Asked about the secret to their success, the KSS Champions pointed confidently in a perhaps surprising direction: their struggle during the first round of the competition, where they had received their lowest scores ever. “It reminded us to listen—to each other and to the other teams, and really incorporate what they were saying into our own considerations,” Zhang noted. He, Shunk, and Adrik will head to Winnipeg later this year to represent Ontario in the National Ethics Bowl, alongside team Canterbury Folklore, the highest-ranking semi-finalist.
Perhaps the Bowl’s sweetest moments, at least to this observer, occurred unscripted: the hand placed reassuringly on the arm of a team mate who, in the middle of final arguments, had completely lost their train of thought and fallen into stunned silence; the impromptu dance party that erupted between members of opposing teams as they awaited the results of their debate performances; the raucous applause that met Senese’s ad hoc decision to have not only the 2023 competition winners come to the stage to hold up the trophy but also the winners of previous Ethics Bowls. The latter had taken their crowns online during the height of the pandemic and so never got the chance to bask in the particular glory of onstage appreciation by their peers. It was testament to their commitment and sportspersonship that they had remained in the audience to applaud this year’s victors—despite their obvious disappointment at not making it as far on this round.
In that regard, as Rattan suggested, the prospects for the future indeed look bright.