Credit: UC Santa Cruz

Students visited San Quentin State Prison for an Ethics Bowl debate with inmates. This was the first debate held in San Quentin.

“Thinking is not agreeing or disagreeing. That’s voting.” — Robert Frost, poet

Twice a month from last September to February, UC Santa Cruz philosophy lecturer Kyle Robertson woke up early, dropped his kids off at school, drove north for one hour and fifty minutes, crossed the Richmond Bridge, and went to San Quentin.

He would park in the prison lot, walk past a gift shop selling art created by death row inmates, and enter the main gate, where he would sign in at the first of three consecutive checkpoints. Finally entering the prison yard, he would walk past prisoners playing on the basketball courts and others engaged in games of chess, to get to the education center of the prison.

Robertson was there to teach a course in Ethics Bowl — a non-confrontational alternative to the traditional competitive form of debate — in collaboration with the Prison University Project (PUP). At the same time, he was also teaching an undergraduate course and coaching a team in Ethics Bowl at UC Santa Cruz. He soon suggested and arranged a very unusual debate between seven philosophy students from UC Santa Cruz and a team of prison inmates from San Quentin. It took place in the prison chapel — in front of an audience of nearly 100 inmates.

“This is the first time there’s been a debate inside San Quentin,” says Robertson, who served as moderator. “And it’s one of the first Ethics Bowls that’s ever happened in a prison.

“It was a smashing success, but it was no small feat logistically,” he adds. “Because in the prison environment, everything runs on a tight schedule, and control of that schedule is entirely in the guards’ hands, not mine. We had to alter the format a little — for example, we made a 10-minute break in the middle of the round, because all of the inmates had to file outside for a count at that point. All inmates in the state of California are counted around 4 p.m., whether they are relaxing on the yard or competing in an Ethics Bowl.”

The event at San Quentin is just one of the many outreach activities of the Center for Public Philosophy (CPP) at UC Santa Cruz. Founded in 2015 by associate professor of philosophy Jon Ellis, it is supported by The Humanities Institute, an incubator for humanities research on the Santa Cruz campus.

The center is also coaching and conducting regional Ethics Bowls for high schools throughout Northern California; creating short animated videos about philosophical problems that teach reasoning skills and how to avoid biased thinking; teaching moral philosophy and ethics in Santa Cruz jails; working with biologists to study how language affects conservation efforts; and even introducing philosophy, ethics, and critical thinking to children at three elementary schools in the local community.

The idea is to move philosophy away from the stereotype of the old bearded man pondering in the mountains and instead apply its principles to crucial problems we all face in today’s world. And in an era of intense partisanship, rabid fighting on social media, “fake news,” and “alternative facts,” the center promotes a new normal of how to talk about the really big issues confronting us today — in a civilized, rational, and much friendlier manner.

For the full story on the Ethics Bowl, check out the special feature “How to find truth in today's partisan world” on the UC Santa Cruz site.

Cover photo: San Quentin State Prison Warden Ronald Davis observes at an Ethics Bowl debate at the prison. Jonathan Chiu/San Quentin News