Nurturing the Next Generation of Citizen Leaders

One of the hallmarks of modern democratic society is the existence of disagreement on a variety of issues. In order to function well, such a society needs citizens capable of engaging in respectful deliberation and dialogue about a vast array of controversial and complex issues, with emphasis on reasoning, not rhetoric. This requires not just critical thinking, but also a respect for others’ values and perspectives, and an understanding that the world is not one in which everything is black and white.

Philosophy, more than any other discipline has a long history of wide-ranging reasoned inquiry into fundamental moral and political questions. In keeping with the primary goal of ancient and contemporary philosophers to prepare citizens to participate in democracy, the UT Department of Philosophy founded the Tennessee High School Ethics Bowl(THSEB) in 2009 as an outreach program with the goal of helping prepare area high school students to be informed critical thinkers who will be active and engaged citizens in their local and global communities.

They hosted the first ethics bowl in November 2009 with modest participation. Only two schools competed in the tournament, Knoxville Catholic High School and Tennessee School for the Deaf, but it was a good beginning.


Since then the program has grown every single year in terms of actual participation, growing from two participating schools to fifteen. This year the coordinator expects to work with teams from fifteen schools and to engage more community partners, including recruiting more judges for the ethics bowl from the local community.

The importance and success of the program has attracted support of the UT Humanities Center (UTHC) UT Humanities Center (UTHC).  This year the center is partnering with the Department of Philosophy as a co-sponsor of the THSEB.

Tom Heffernan, director of the UT Humanities Center said the THSEB is a good fit for the goals and outreach mission of the center. “Democratic freedoms only exist in open and tolerant societies where opposing points of view can be exchanged with civility and mutual respect. The THSEB seeks to nurture and promote these timeless values in our future generations,” he said. “This effort is our contribution to sustaining our democracy.”

The THSEB is coordinated by Alex Feldt, lecturer in the philosophy department. He says he is passionate about the program because it provides students early exposure to critical thinking skills that will benefit them no matter what they do in their lives. “It isn’t just about promoting a particular narrow area of interest, or promoting the humanities. It is about helping students better understand not just their own views, but also those of others,” he said.  While educators often focus on particular technical knowledge, the THSEB offers an alternative focus. Technical knowledge is always important, but students need to be able to not just communicate technical knowledge, but they need to be able to reason through it.

“There will always be value judgments, no matter what one is engaged with. The THSEB helps students think more about how those value judgments are formed, and then when a disagreement occurs, they can hopefully see that they should not immediately dismiss those who disagree with them,” Feldt explains.

The THSEB, like any ethics bowl, is a collaborative yet competitive event, in which teams analyze a series of wide-ranging ethical issues and then present their ideas to judges and other teams in a fun and friendly atmosphere. Topics range from those of particular interest to high school students, such as bullying, social media, and cheating, to more general topics such as free speech, gun control, and stem cell research.

The THSEB is a discussion, not a debate. Teams are not required to choose opposing sides, nor is the goal to “win” the argument by belittling the other team or its position. The focus is on reasoning, rather than rhetoric, and has many benefits for student learning, including honing critical thinking and problem-solving skills that are proven to boost ACT and SAT scores and that are explicitly targeted by the TNCore standards. Additionally, the event encourages the consideration of other perspectives, beyond one’s own, when making ethical judgments.

While aimed at promoting collaborative, respectful discussion, the THSEB is still a competitive event, with the winning school getting the opportunity to compete at the National High School Ethics Bowl in Chapel Hill, NC. Monetary prizes are awarded to the top three winning teams (First-Place Team – $750/Second-Place Team – $500/Third-Place Team – $250) with the intent of helping subsidize participation costs.

Planning is underway for the 2016 THSEB.  Registration and bowl dates will be announced next month.

While the THSEB is only a start in helping students develop critical thinking skills, it introduces them to the reasoning process.  Perhaps it will also inspire them to want to further develop and hone these skills in college through studies in the humanities.

To learn more about the Tennessee High School Ethics Bowl, visit us at or send an email to