High-schoolers get taste of ethics debates

Popular lunch series engages teens in talks about the moral side of everything from the environment to embargoes

It's lunch time, and high-schoolers at the most popular tables are eagerly discussing some of the latest trends in ... ethics.

Eight times a year, about 50 students from around Santa Fe gather in local hotels for these roundtable talks, even volunteering to do "homework" to ensure they'll get the most out of the day's guest speaker.

"Usually your opinions are constructed by the media or your parents. I like to have the opportunity to form an educated opinion on my own," says Ethan Grunstein, a senior who's attending a discussion on environmental ethics.

The push is on among lawmakers and educators, both in the United States and abroad, to beef up "character education" in schools. But the ethics roundtables offer a different approach - focusing less directly on influencing behavior and more on treating kids as mature enough to think critically about broad societal issues.

"I guess you could call them 'idealistic,' but high school students really feel strongly about how things are done," says Ann Sieniki, who founded the program and teaches at Desert Academy, a small private high school here that sponsors the talks.

"I find 'ethics' to be a way to pull their passion for doing things right into an intellectual discussion about contemporary issues," she continues.

Subjects covered this year include biogenetic engineering, last year's United States presidential election, the US trade embargo against Cuba, the media, and capital punishment.

Ms. Sieniki recruits interested members of the community to serve as moderators for each table of four to seven students, but she cautions the adults not to impose their opinions. "The point is not to steer the students into one way of thinking, but to get them to explore all the options," she says.

An ecologist takes the mike

For this day's discussion, the presenter is David Abram, an ecologist and author of "Spell of the Sensuous." He makes a passionate pitch for a shift away from elevating humankind above nature. He points to the myths of indigenous peoples, which almost universally locate humans within a world where everything - not just plants and animals, but rocks and the wind - is alive.

"This perspective is radically different," Mr. Abram says, "from the assumption that we humans exist at the top of a hierarchy of evolved life and that everything that exists beneath us can be exploited for our own needs."

An animated storyteller, Abram engages students with a description of kayaking in an Alaskan ocean cove where he encountered nearly 60 belligerent sea lions.

He calmed the animals by singing a high-pitched melody, which "goes to show we do share a means to communicate with other species," he says.

Talk back live

After the 30-minute presentation, the students have their turn to respond. Among the discussion questions: Is it ethical for human needs to take priority over other species' needs?; Is it fair for first-world countries to "close the door" on further economic or technological development in third-world countries in order to preserve the environment?

Nick Robbins, from Bosque High School in nearby Albuquerque, declares that he's much more cynical than Abram. "I don't see our society as changing until it has to, until the water in the faucet stops coming out. Then we'll suddenly wake up to the need to do something different."

This was Nick's first time at one of the ethics luncheons, but his classmate David Canning had attended the session on biogenetic engineering several months earlier. "It was very interesting to hear the very different points of view," David says. It's not like there's one answer to this subject."

Angel Charly, a junior at the Native American Preparatory School in Rowe, says the issue of environmental ethics is very pertinent to her home at the Laguna Pueblo. Community members are concerned that their health is endangered by a nearby uranium mine.

Her classmate Faith Rosetta was somewhat offended, however, by Abram's characterization of indigenous people as separate from other people. "We're also responsible for the extinction of species," Faith says. "Just think of the mammoth."

A head start

Sieniki decided to start the ethics series after she accompanied Desert Academy students to similar roundtable discussions held for adults by the Council for International Relations in Santa Fe. Students liked the events, but didn't talk as much as she thought they might if only other young people were present.

Ethan agrees: "The CIR members tended to be condescending. After all, they are mostly retired professionals, and they saw us as know-nothing kids."

Sieniki gathered funding from local foundations, and now finds that there's a waiting list for the events. Although all area high schools are invited, private schools tend to send more students.

"[Students] don't receive a grade or any other kind of carrot; they come because they like it," Sieniki says.

It appears she's managed to tap into groups of teens who are ahead of their time. According to Brian Drybowski, a Christian Brother and professor at the College of Santa Fe who has taught ethics at the high school, college, and post-college level for more than 30 years, "It's only when people grow older that they value and appreciate ethics."

Exposure may be all that's needed to get young people thinking about ethics.

Katia Hoerning-Silva, a Desert Academy sophomore, says she dreaded participating before coming to her first roundtable talk, but now she relishes the opportunity. By reading in advance about the topics, she realized, "I knew what I was talking about."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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