The Center For Public Philosophy garners national recognition for its unique Outreach Invitational High School Ethics Bowl

The team discusses what they want to say. Photo credit: Stephen Marino

Students from CIEBA College Preparatory Academy celebrating after the event. Photo credit: Jay Shapiro

University of California, Santa Cruz’s Center for Public Philosophy (CPP) is a one-of-a-kind institute that brings philosophy to the general public. 

Guided by the belief that philosophy can be a force for positive change, the CPP,  which is housed at Cowell College and was created in collaboration with The Humanitiies Institute at UCSC, seeks to share the joy of philosophy beyond the confines of higher education through community outreach and public events. 

The CPP’s programs range far and wide, from running an Ethics Bowl program at San Quentin prison to leading philosophy programs in elementary schools. The Center has developed animations and other media about thinking and reasoning, including recently the "TEQ Deck: Technology. Ethics. Questions" for use in assorted curricular and public modalities, a collaboration with the Baskin School of Engineering. 

But it is their Outreach Invitational High School Ethics Bowl program that has recently garnered national recognition, and in 2023 received the Prize for Excellence and Innovation in Philosophy Programs from the American Philosophical Association and the Philosophy Documentation Center. 

The award recognizes organizations “for creating programs that risk undertaking new initiatives in philosophy and do so with excellence and success.” It was presented to CPP on January 16 in New York City.

The Outreach Invitational came out of CPP’s experience with the regional and national High School Ethics Bowl (HSEB), where it became clear that most of the participating schools were well-resourced. The Center decided to develop a program to bring the Ethics Bowl to under-served high schools that “would not otherwise have the resources or coaching to experience the special form of collaborative debate.”

The Ethics Bowl is an alternative form of debate activity, which serves as a kind of counter-programming to traditional high school debate. 

In traditional debate, competition teams are assigned to defend one side of an issue at random, whether they agree with the position or not. Associate Professor of Philosophy Jonathan Ellis, who founded the Center for Public Philosophy in 2015, observed in a New York Times editorial co-written with Francesca Hovagimian (B.A. philosophy, 2017): “The goal is not to determine the most reasonable or fair-minded approach to an issue, but to defend a given claim at all costs.” 

In placing persuasion ahead of inquiry and understanding, traditional debate fortifies habits of reasoning that serve primarily to defend the conclusion one wants to reach, Ellis and Hovagimian argue. In contrast, the structure of the Ethics Bowl rewards meaningful listening and the disposition of an open mind in contexts of disagreement.

Lorenzo Barranco, the English Language Development Department Chair at Alisal High School and long-time Ethics Bowl coach, spoke of the impact of the Outreach Invitational Ethics Bowl in particular: “The UCSC Invitational Ethics Bowl has opened up opportunities for my students to participate in an academically rigorous debate that helped them grow personally and as 21st century students delving into contemporary issues,” Barranco said. “The Invitational is an enriching opportunity to learn the rigors of debate and the need to articulate one's ideas clearly in the context of collaborative teamwork while being receptive to other ideas. Many of my students have shared that the Invitational was a milestone moment in their high school years.”

There are three especially innovative features of the prize-winning program CPP created. The first is the role that undergraduate students from UCSC play.  CPP trains select students, many of them drawn from the college Ethics Bowl team, to serve as coaches at the schools. For eight to 10 weeks, the undergraduates, and sometimes also graduate students,  visit the high school to which they've been assigned to work with the teams in preparation for the culminating Outreach Invitational on the UCSC campus in April.

Another distinctive feature of the CPP program is its Spanish track. In 2019, Juan Ruiz (MA, philosophy, 2019) – who created the Outreach Invitational with Jon Ellis and Kyle Robertson (lecturer in Philosophy and Politics, who runs the regional HSEB event and coaches the undergraduate Ethics Bowl team) –  – noticed that many students at the schools where he was coaching were intrigued by the Ethics Bowl.  Yet the idea of participating in their second language in an already difficult activity kept them from signing up. 

In response, Ruiz, who is now a PhD student in Latin American and Latino Studies, spearheaded the creation of a Spanish-only track, in which students, coaches, and judges participate throughout in Spanish. “The Outreach Bilingual Invitational represents a horizon of possibilities to nurture equity, diversity, and inclusion in higher education with students from communities not included in our transformative platforms,” Ruiz said.

Marian Avila Breach (Cowell ’20, politics and philosophy), who is now in her second year as a J.D Candidate and Public Interest Scholar at UC Berkeley Law School, was central to building the Spanish track.

“As a Spanish Ethics Bowl coach, I enjoyed going back and forth with my team, trying to find the words to express already difficult philosophical concepts and ideas,” Breach said. “Part of what I discovered is that Spanish allowed me a space for greater philosophical expression, as I was able to give shape to concepts that were natural to Spanish, but uncommon or less intuitive in English.”

And then there are the judges. Unlike traditional forms of school debate, judges in the Ethics Bowl are more like discussion participants who engage with the teams on their arguments, participating in the inquiry themselves. That makes all parties involved in the Ethics Bowl committed to engaging in substantive but collaborative dialogue.

Ellis describes how everyone works in tandem on the day of the event to make it so memorable: 

“You have this incredible forum of groups coming together on the day of the event. Judges are drawn from the community—from medicine, local politics, industry, non-profits—along with faculty from across campus, along with undergraduate students and graduate student coaches. All of them join the high school students and one another to discuss difficult issues, but in a mode where everyone's trying explicitly to practice real intellectual hospitality.”

The low-stakes competition offers students from under-resourced schools an empowering and eye-opening experience on a college campus, making a university education feel both personally meaningful and accessible. 

Marcia Ochoa, provost of Oakes College and Associate Professor of Theater Arts, and Critical Race and Ethnic Studies, has served as a judge in the Spanish track since its start and offered this observation: 

“In Latin America, when someone comes to your house, to tell them they're always welcome back, you say ‘ya conoces el camino’ – now you know the way here,” Ochoa said. “The bilingual Invitational Ethics Bowl does important work to build relationships with surrounding communities, welcoming Latinx students, parents, and teachers to our campus and letting them know we belong here.”

The award for Innovation and Excellence is another testament to UCSC’s identity and commitment as a  Hispanic Serving Institution. 

Watch the CPP program in action in this documentary following students in the lead-up to the culminating event on the UCSC campus. On CPP’s program at San Quentin, see UC Magazine 2019 story “How to find truth in today’s partisan world.” Read more about these and other programming at CPP on its website.