The Great Debate
The Great Debate
Imagine trying to draw democracy. What would its core values look like sketched out in thick black marker on a large easel? What about libertarianism, or socialism? What position would you take in a debate about the ethics of loading a person’s mind into a robot body? And what if, after that, you had to create a game that used the mechanics of Monopoly to explore life under Stalin’s regime? How would the game work — and, more importantly, how might your ideas about communism change after you land in the gulag?
Those are the kinds of big ideas and activities that students wrestle with each summer at the Future Leaders Institute, an intensive residential summer camp facilitated by Professor of Classics Scott Smith and Professor of Philosophy Nick Smith. The program completed its second session in July. For two weeks, high school students from around New England spent their days discussing and debating wealth, power, corruption, leadership, and classical and contemporary views on philosophy and government.
FLI participant Nate Stewart throws money around during a game of Stalinopoly (the game Monopoly is used to explore life under Stalin’s regime).
Students take part in a Congress to discuss campaign finance reform.
left to right: Professor Nick Smith, Alex Freid, Professor Scott Smith. Fried, one of several guest lecturers at FLI, founded a waste reduction program at UNH that he is now implementing nationally.
FLI participant Piper Gibson at a seaside outing.
“These ideas are powerful, dangerous, exhilarating, and so fun to argue about with your peers. Scott and I try to introduce historical arguments and then get out of the way and let the students run around the conceptual playground,” says Nick Smith. “They will stay up all night doing philosophy if we let them — it reminds me of the energy many of us once felt during the first weeks of our own college experiences.”
That’s the kind of atmosphere that brought student Nate Stewart back for a second year in the program. A debate on the last day of FLI’s 2014 program convinced Stewart he had to return the following year.
“We went over a philosophy called transhumanism … (which is) based off the idea that … humans will discover a way to make an artificial brain, therefore upgrading our own biological and mental functions … and maybe even making us functionally immortal,” Stewart says.
Nick Smith introduced the idea during a lecture, and soon a debate was in full swing.
“We kind of went wild with it for an hour,” Stewart says, talking about how space travel, crime, ethics and everything else might change in a world where human minds lived in robotic bodies.
“It was an amazing experience to have all these discussions happening so rapid-fire, and to see the progression of ideas move at a pace I haven’t seen anywhere outside of FLI,” says Stewart.
About 20 students, ages 14-17, have participated each year. The program is funded through the Responsible Governance and Sustainable Citizenship Project (RGSCP), which sponsors programs that promote ethics, citizenship, and responsible leadership and governance. Students from throughout the region can attend, and scholarships are available for New Hampshire students through RGSCP.
“We want to train people to think big,” says Scott Smith. “It’s about an appreciation for dialectic. One of the things we focus on is debate … where one’s ideas can be moderately and gently shifted to approach something closer to the truth.”
During the program, students live in dorms on campus and are supervised by a staff of teaching assistants. They attend lectures and classes during the day and have meals together. In between are field trips to local beaches and other chances to debate — and form friendships — outside the classroom.
“The first night, we got together (in the dorm) and we talked about a moment that we were proud of in our past,” says Piper Gibson, a 15-year-old homeschool student from Connecticut. “Usually in situations like that, it’s about some sports award … but we had this moment where people were really getting into things that moved them and changed their lives. It created this group dynamic that was amazing.”
That’s the sort of atmosphere that helps leaders grow, Scott Smith says. Students leave with a taste of life at UNH, what it’s like to be a college student, and a head full of new ideas about feminism, economics, the classics, and politics. But beyond that, participants find their voice.
“You see their ideas shifting,” Scott Smith says. “But what we find most rewarding is seeing the students who don’t have a voice at the beginning — by the third day, they’re in there wrestling with the others” in a debate.
For student Samantha Khatchadourian, her two weeks at FLI were transformative. She signed up for the program as a way to build her resume, she says.
“I wasn’t really into politics or economics … but then listening to Professor (Nick) Smith talk about Aristotle and John Stuart Mill, and the difference between politics and economics” changed her mind, she says. “I went in thinking that I knew I was a Democrat … and I still came out as a Democrat, but they really ran me through it, and almost changed my mind at one point. It’s just a rewarding experience, no matter how you look at it.”