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Teachable Moments

In USC College's new Teaching Ethics Program, undergraduates instruct high school students, using controversial case studies as discussion points.

Lauren Slak, a senior majoring in international relations and creative writing in USC College, teaches ethics to Manual Arts Senior High School students, with Richard Sidhom, a philosophy freshmen in the College. Photo credit Pamela J. Johnson.
Lauren Slak, a senior majoring in international relations and creative writing in USC College, teaches ethics to Manual Arts Senior High School students, with Richard Sidhom, a philosophy freshmen in the College. Photo credit Pamela J. Johnson.

So the United States government wants to read your private e-mails and texts. Not too hypothetical after the Patriot Act was signed into law in 2001 easing restrictions on intelligence gathering within the U.S.

Is that 2G2BT (lol) or 2MI?

“How do you feel about security vs. privacy?” USC College undergraduate Lauren Slak asked the Manual Arts Senior High School students. “Would it make you feel better if the government oversaw only who you were sending e-mails to and receiving them from?”

“They should read only suspicious e-mails,” one high school student replied.

“How can they tell if it’s suspicious?” asked Slak, a senior majoring in international relations and creative writing.

“If it comes from a different country?” another student surmised.

The slippery slope of security vs. privacy that can be debated a million different ways held the class in rapt attention. That is exactly what Lyn Boyd Judson had in mind when she initiated the Teaching Ethics Program (TEP) with the Center for Active Learning in International Studies (CALIS) based in the College.

As director of the College’s Levan Institute for Humanities and Ethics, Boyd Judson looks for ways to add an ethical component to existing programs.

“We don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” Boyd Judson said. “But sometimes we just need to add an ethical spoke to what is already rolling in College programming.”

CALIS has for 10 years operated outreach programs through the USC School of International Relations in the College. In the Teaching International Relations Program (TIRP), international relations students visit local high schools and teach global issues in world and U.S. history, government and economics. Rather than solely international relations, TEP draws USC students from various disciplines who want to teach high school students about ethics. The USC students use case studies as launching pads for discussions.

Fall was TEP’s inaugural semester, with 32 USC students visiting five high schools.

“The CALIS team heroically coordinated everything with the high schools and made it all happen smoothly based on the TIRP model that has worked extremely well for years,” Boyd Judson said. “TEP, we hope, will act as a model for expansion into many departments across the College.”

Slak is among the CALIS student staff coordinators. She taught students at Manual Arts with philosophy freshman Richard Sidhom and Adreena Finks, a senior majoring in health and humanities in the College.

At 18, Sidhom initially worried that the high school students might consider him as too much a peer and not a teacher. The opposite was true. The high school students said they related to him and looked up to him as someone they’d want to emulate.

“They saw me as their equal and really opened up,” Sidhom said. “It was good to be able to cross boundaries back and forth from teacher to peer. When we gave them a tour of the USC campus on the last day, they asked me for advice about how to become a student here.”

Sidhom, whose emphasis is politics in law, wanted to teach ethics to high school students for two reasons.

“It’s a crucial time in the world and it’s a crucial time in their lives,” Sidhom said. “They’re coming of age at a time when we have wars going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, when the country has serious health care issues. This is an opportunity for them to look at these ethical dilemmas.”

 


The Teaching Ethics Program discussions in class carried over to students' home lives. After a debate about the state of health care in America, Michael Luna (center) talked to her mother about what happens to ill people without insurance and learned that her own family has issues with health insurance. Photo credit Pamela J. Johnson.

During a visit at Manual Arts, students talked about some of their favorite debates during the four-week program. One had them imagine they were witnessing a trolley headed for five people tied to the tracks. Would they pull a lever and divert the trolley to a track where only one person was tied?

“I would pull the lever,” one student said. “So fewer people would die.”

But students had a harder time answering whether they would push a larger person off a bridge in order to stop the trolley before it could reach the five people tied to the tracks.

“Doing the right thing isn’t always the same for all people,” concluded student Odalis Argueta.

CALIS worked with Levan to develop an introductory core set of lessons for TEP. The core uses analytical tools from the field of ethics that students apply to moral dilemmas. In the trolley case, for example, students considered three ethical perspectives: consequences matter; intuition that some things are just wrong to do regardless of consequences; and considering what a good person would do, rather than what would lead to best consequences or what moral rules apply.

The discussions at school carried over to their home life. Several students said they presented the scenarios to their parents and learned something new. After a debate about the state of health care in America, Michael Luna talked to her mother about what happens to ill people without insurance. She was surprised to learn that her own family has issues with health insurance.

“You have to pay so much to see a doctor,” Michael said. “Then if you’re too fat or too skinny, insurance won’t cover you anyway. This worries me.”

Student Omar Zelaya discovered that his mother, a nurse, was well aware of the problem of turning away potential patients because of a pre-existing condition.

“My mother said she has to deal with that every day,” Omar said. “I had no idea.”

Their teacher, Renee Basford, said her class bonded with the USC students. One highlight was the discussion about health care.

“We had multiple discussions about the ethical responsibility of doctors and HMOs when either denying or providing health care to the sick,” Basford said. “It was at this time that the students really began to apply their ethical reasoning skills in a way that made our class discussions grow from simply engaging to thrilling and dynamic.”