High School Student Philosophers from Michigan and Manitoba Discuss Timely Topics at the Virtual Six Feet/Two Metres Apart Ethics Symposium

Ann Arbor, MI –During a typical spring, A2Ethics would announce their Case Writing Awards at the annual celebration known as the University of Michigan High School Ethics Symposium. The Symposium gives the stage to high school student philosophers from around the state who present brief and reasoned arguments about ethical problems they find compelling, and also gives them an opportunity to respond to questions about their ideas from other philosophers at the gathering.

That’s what happens in a typical spring.

But except for the weather, there was nothing typical about this spring. The coronavirus emptied streets and public buildings, closed schools, moved entire populations into quarantine, and resulted in the cancellation of events large and small. Among them was the fifth annual University of Michigan High School Ethics Symposium.

Wishing to highlight the urgent ethics issues introduced or revealed by the pandemic, A2Ethics—like so many other organizations—was forced to rethink the fundamentals: what are these gatherings for?     

As A2Ethics’ president Jeanine DeLay recalls, “Producing the 2020 Symposium was a signal of resiliency and resolve. Its lineage flashes back to the convivial confabs where philosophers-to-be and philosopher rock stars, like Socrates and Plato, shared their thoughts on the vital ethical issues of the time. It’s a philosophical party of sorts--students have a chance to show and tell what they have been thinking about and to hear from others what they think. In my mind, it’s a combination of TED talks and ‘America’s Got Talent’ without the pretension, flashiness and competition. And what’s so wonderful is that there’s alot of talent on display.”  

Named Six Feet and Two Metres Apart in a nod to the necessity of social distancing, the new virtual symposium format has several advantages: there can be more than one; familiarity with online meeting technology eliminates the need for training; and the technology easily enables participation of diverse students, not only from across Michigan, but from other countries.   

Toward that end, the first-ever international Six Feet/Two Metres Apart Virtual Symposium brought together two schools: one from the Canadian province of Manitoba and the other from Michigan’s lower peninsula. So, in reality, the “social” distance between the two schools was not six feet but 1,109 miles, or 1,785 kilometers.

Held on May 20, the event featured 14 students from Winnipeg, Manitoba’s École Secondaire Kelvin High School and from Saline High School in Saline, Michigan.

The obvious theme of the event was The Pandemic and Ethics: What Do We Owe to Each Other?

The three discussion questions focused on whether or not social distancing restrictions are too severe and impede personal freedoms; whether democratic governments should be permitted to force private manufacturers to redirect supplies from foreign governmental purchasers to the company’s home country; and finally, how this pandemic sheds light on an ethical problem related to secondary education in the students’ state or province.

Given the considerable pressures and anxieties of online learning and the emotional impact of the pandemic, Saline High School teacher and Ethics Bowl coach Shelly Venema was somewhat surprised when nearly all of her students agreed to participate in the Virtual Symposium format. “When given the chance to talk about the COVID-19 pandemic with students in another country,” she notes, “the excitement of team members was even greater than at the Ethics Bowl itself. Much emphasis was placed on what helps the most people, what our obligations are to each other and the government’s obligations to us, the global economy vs. individualism, and the autonomy of choices and the necessity to fund the ‘have-nots’ after the quarantine.”

The enthusiasm she refers to was evident in the feedback from Saline students such as Kaitlyn Eckermann. She describes the discussion as eye-opening, noting that “the way Canada is dealing with the virus is vastly different from ours, and yet our opinions remained somewhat similar. I believe more schools would benefit from these types of discussions because it gives us a chance to compare knowledge, perspectives, and solutions. Our meeting with the Canadian ethics team was certainly a step in the right direction towards global understanding and collective problem solving.” Her fellow student Finn Boulter agrees, adding that comparing each country’s response to the pandemic was especially interesting because of the differences in healthcare systems.

Likewise, Canadian team members appreciated the opportunity to share ideas, facts and points of view. According to Hannah Torchinsky, the Symposium was “a wonderful opportunity to trade ideas across the border at a time when we are feeling closed off.” Marit Stokke notes that, for her, “It was a relief to have a discussion about fundamentals like our respective health care systems without it descending into insults.” Fellow team member Pearson Montgomery described the Symposium as a very welcome opportunity “to examine the cross-border dichotomy,” break away from stereotypes, and “be afforded the insights from Americans.”

Raymond Sokalski, their teacher and Ethics Bowl coach, was impressed with the collegiality of the exchange. “In true Ethics Bowl fashion,” he explains, “the students were clearly there not to score points but to listen to each other and to test their ideas in a reflective, responsive forum.” The event has left him hopeful that, in his words, “this framework, shared and practiced in ever broader circles, will draw more of us together to puzzle through the dilemmas that we face locally and internationally.”

For event co-host Estelle Lamoureux, who serves as chair of education for the Manitoba Association for Rights and Liberties (MARL) and the Canadian Commission of UNESCO, one of the most significant outcomes was the collaboration and respect displayed by the students, and their genuine need to connect on a more personal level. “They immediately wanted to know about each other, which is the very key of why this event was significant and important,” says Lamoureux. “Getting to know one another brings out our humanity and caring, which ultimately builds trust and dispels fear.”

As Jeanine DeLay points out, the Six Feet/Two Metres Apart Symposium was truly a group effort. “In addition to Estelle, Shelly and Raymond, this unique international discussion could not have happened without the enthusiastic and active support of Professor Nic Tanchuk of Iowa State University, who also served as co-organizer and moderator; Laura Soter, Ph.D. student in the University of Michigan Departments of Philosophy and Psychology, philosopher coach at Saline High and moderator; and the technological expertise of Wayne Eaker and his firm Zengenuity, Inc.”

DeLay also offers assurances that this new forum will continue. “We are looking forward to hosting several Virtual Symposia in 2020,” she explains, “and plan to make them a permanent offering to students and schools interested in participating in the Bowl and its ancillary programs such as the Case Writing Awards, Visual Scribes and Ethics Youth Council. The post-pandemic era will, no doubt, present several new unsettling, troubling and profound ethics questions for future Symposia supporters to think about--together. And that will be true whether we’re meeting in traditional spaces face-to-face, at a distance of six feet, or whether we’re 1,109 miles apart.”