Aspen High School hosts virtual “Braver Angels” debate
Moderated debates aim to find common ground
Zane Zachary has witnessed firsthand the impacts of what he sees as a polarized environment at Aspen High School.
“We all think similarly, we all have the same goals, we all want the same things,” the high school senior said in a phone conversation earlier this month.
Yet conversations on those topics often veered into divided, heated territory among students and adults alike, according to Zachary.
“There really isn’t an environment at the school where I think kids can deal with these kinds of issues appropriately, and it’s the same with the administration,” he said.
So Zachary decided to do something about it. He reached out to Braver Angels, a national organization that leads moderated debates focused on finding common ground, to organize an event where participants could discuss difficult topics without feeling like they would be attacked for their ideas.
The school hosted its first virtual Braver Angels debate Wednesday; an in-person event scheduled last year was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The topic of the day was climate change, based on a survey in which about half of the student respondents ranked it as a top pressing issue.
Participants mostly discussed different ways to address climate change and its impacts rather than debating what the impacts themselves might be.
“It was about being able to talk to each other about actually an effective solution that would work,” Zachary said in a phone call after the debate. “Everyone knew that these climate issues were actually issues that need to be dealt with. In the end everyone realized we really have to go for the most logical choice so we can protect the most vulnerable and find the best solution.”
Just shy of a dozen people attended the debate, among them Luke Nathan Phillips (a moderator from the Braver Angels organization), two debate “whips” to offer tech support and a handful of Aspen High School students.
Turnout was lighter than expected — 24 students had expressed interest in attending — perhaps due in part to an asynchronous learning schedule Wednesday and the fact that many underclassmen had just finished taking the PSAT that day, Zachary said.
That’s a much smaller crowd than the typical Braver Angels debate; there are usually 30 to 50 participants at in-person events and 100 to 200 attending virtual debates, Phillips said in a phone call after the debate.
“Despite the very small size, I was just happy that it wound up being as vibrant and productive as it wound up being,” Phillips said.
There are some limitations to a small pool of speakers — there’s less of an ideological spectrum for participants to engage with, for instance — but also some benefits, because everyone who wants to speak can do so and can spend more time exploring the ideas on the table.
The first debate was a test run of sorts — and a successful one at that, according to Zachary.
“For those that showed up, those conversations between them went surprisingly well — much better than what I’ve seen in the classroom, so definitely it was a fantastic format for everyone’s voice to be heard and actually find that common ground,” he said.
He already has his eyes on future debates in the Aspen area that could involve teachers and community members, too.
“Now we know that the Braver Angels organization can help our community and school a lot more as long as it’s implemented in bigger formats,” he said.
Broadening the reach of local Braver Angels debates is a key component in addressing the polarization at Aspen High School, according to Zachary. He hopes conversations like these will help set an example for thoughtful, open-minded discussion among students, teachers, administrators, parents and other members of the community.
“How we are behaving ourselves now as a country and sometimes what we see in the school, it just really isn’t appropriate and it’s very — it really tears us all apart and it’s not constructive, it’s definitely very, very destructive,” he said. “We just want to find a way where we can start building a constructive future for ourselves.”
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