Last Saturday afternoon I found myself standing in the middle of a series of curved wood and glass bookshelves with a group of students from Whitman College. We were at the Library of Congress and the shelves we gazed upon held many of the volumes, in Latin, French, Italian and English, once owned by Thomas Jefferson (Jefferson sold his personal library to Congress in 1814 to rebuild the nation's collection after the British burned parts of the Capital).
We quietly pondered the complexity of this scholar who was also a slave owner, this intellectual who also opened millions of acres of land for settlement and conquest, and about the relationship between learning and moral behavior. Knowledge and ethics are intimately entwined - that we understood - but how? What kind of leader would Jefferson be today?
We had travelled from Walla Walla, Washington, to America's capital to participate in the national championship of the Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl, a wonderful initiative of the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics.
Whitman has only had a team for a year and this was our first time to this event. We were thrilled to be together with hundreds of curious and enthusiastic college students who were bring ethical frameworks from a variety of the West's greatest thinkers (Kant, Mill, Leopold, Rawls, and Nussbaum were among the favorites) to analyze and offer suggestions about many complex ambiguous realities of modern life.
Should states mandate or prohibit insurance companies from providing expensive assisted reproductive technologies? Should the water-intensive California almond industry be abolished or subsidized? Does the presence of military psychologists during interrogations of prisoners hinder or encourage torture? Should we praise or condone President Obama for using the word "thug" to describe rioters in Baltimore last year? These were just a few of the many timely questions they considered during Sunday's day-long tournament.
These discussions, which were punctuated by challenges from the other team and the judges, were intellectually stimulating and often quite thrilling.
The students, while working hard, looked like they were enjoying this immediacy of the give and take of applying theory to fact. Yet, in unpacking their complex scenarios, they were also developing critical habits of mind that will last a lifetime. As Whitman's team's coach, Professor of Philosophy Patrick Frierson explained to me:
Ethics Bowl is gratifying because it is an example of the enormous value of the liberal arts for working through concrete problems, part of creating a generation of leaders who will not only have effective skills at promoting whatever their (or their company's, or NGO's) goals are, but also the critical, reflective, deliberative, and even social skills needed to set the right goals.
Indeed, research continues to show that a broad liberal arts education is associated with greater odds of being a leader, being seen as ethical, appreciating arts and culture and leading a fulfilling and happy life, including this compelling recent study which underscores Professor Frierson's reason for his support of the team.
It was highly gratifying that at the conclusion of the tournament Whitman's team was awarded the Spirit of Robert Landenson Award. This award, named in honor of the founder of the Ethics Bowl recognizes the one team from the 36 participating teams from around the country that best exemplifies the event's overarching spirit of engaged rational exploration of complex issues through civil discussion.
We felt that it was especially meaningful that the winner is determined by how many votes a team receives from the members of the three teams that it competes against, as well as from other people who interact with it, such as judges, moderators and other coaches.
While we didn't win the national championship (but we cheered loudly as our neighbor from Eastern Washington, Whitworth University did, in a terrific final round) we returned to Walla Walla delighted with the opportunity to participate in this valuable experience.
We were also grateful to have had the quiet moment among Jefferson's books to consider the complex lessons they hold for us. For our students, and all the thousands of participants in the ethics bowl tournaments around the country, these lessons are not just historical relics but an integral part of how they think about the world around them today and the world they will create in the coming decades.