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Who needs finals when you have Symposium?

Instead of your typical final exams at the end of each semester, high school students at Areté roll up their sleeves and open their minds for an engaging two-week educational challenge called Symposium. Students dive deep into questions, ideas and topics that interest them and then write and present what they’ve discovered or defend an idea they’ve put forward. 

Before the actual work begins, a student-run group selects an over-arching theme for the whole school. Each individual student then picks her or his Symposium topic based on this theme. This year there were three themes students could choose from:

  1. Ban this. The student defends why something that is acceptable in society should be banned, often because it makes society worse or doesn’t contribute positively. 
  2. Unban this. The student defends why something that is illegal/banned in society should be allowed/unbanned.
  3. You don’t know squat. The student shows how something isn’t what everyone thinks it is or defends some new idea or way of thinking.

Several days into Symposium, we asked some students about their topics. They were busy researching, discovering and devouring academic and other reliable sources as they prepared their own papers to be turned into interactive presentations the following week. Think college-level academics. Think Ted Talks. Think students getting passionately engaged with ideas, the world, life!

It was impressive, and we wanted to know what each student came up with.

We asked: What is your Symposium topic? Why is this topic important to you? Why might this topic be important for others? 

Here’s what the students said. 

ASHTIN – 11th grade 

Topic: Ban first impressions. The argument is that first impressions can be influenced by our biases and prejudices, and these can be incorrect or simply wrong. Ignore assumptions because they’re often incorrect. It’s better to learn about a person than making your own assumptions.
Why is this topic important to you? I learned about it in my English class in this book called Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s about snap decisions and thin-slicing—a type of rapid cognition that’s often wrong.
Why might this topic be important to others? It’d be easier to interact with people without relying on their biases. Because of what I look like, people make assumptions of who I am.

CAMILLE – 11th grade

Topic: Unban suicide. It should be socially and legally permissible because it’s an act of individualism and aligns with the tenets of capitalism because it’s self-serving and individualistic. Not that I’m saying to overthrow capitalism, but since we allow it, we should allow suicide because there needs to be an escape from the highly competitive system where only a few can succeed. Capitalism is also eco-suicide. If one is allowed, the other should be.
Why is this topic important to you? I’m not unsupportive of capitalism. It’s just that I’m seeing similarities. It’s interesting that we have stigma around one and not the other.
Why might this topic be important to others? Because people wouldn’t have to be sheep in a system that goes against them. I have benefitted from capitalism, but most people don’t benefit from it. They are cogs in the machine. And if you take the cogs out of the machine, it breaks. I’ve done studies of blue-collar workers and mental health, and monotony and lack of autonomy lead to depression.

DIEGO – 9th grade

Topic: Ban pseudoscience. This is false science like in the wellness industry, health care, anti-vaxxers, climate-change deniers. The wellness industry uses no science to obtain profit from the medically vulnerable or helpless. They market themselves as an alternative to actual medical care, when in reality, they were originally a lifestyle choice like eating a healthy salad or taking a hike. They lie – multilevel marketers selling to the medically vulnerable.
Why is this topic important to you? I know someone that’s been brainwashed by a multilevel marketing company. And the truth is important to me.
Why might this topic be important to others? A lot of pseudoscience threatens the safety of all people on earth. At first glance, it’s like no harm no foul, but when it comes to climate change deniers and vaccine hesitancy, there are great threats to the health and safety of people on this planet. According to WHO, vaccine hesitancy is one of the greatest threats to world health today.

ELLA – 9th grade

Topic: You don’t know squat about the words good and bad. There is no reason to define things by the words good and bad because they’re much larger than that. Also ban the judgement words.
Why is this topic important to you? It’s something I was thinking about for a while.
Why might this topic be important to others? There are plenty of internal problems, and if we could actually look at those in society, we could open up the issues and possibly get us closer to creating a utopia.

HENRY – 9th grade

Topic: Unban film tropes. Even though film tropes can be overused and bad, they can still be well-done and important.
Why is this topic important to you? I’m passionate about film, and it’s something I follow. It’s interesting to talk about.
Why might this topic be important to others? Because people always say film tropes are bad. They might not be.

JIYEN — 10th grade

Topic: You don’t know squat about how you’re not a machine with understanding as pattern recognition. We don’t know if our understanding is real or if it’s just that we’re recognizing patterns. I’m looking at the way we understand patterns and comparing it to how AI does it. I’m looking at it through the lens of functionalism, which dictates that if two systems have the same ultimate output given the same input, or if two things have the same output or task, no matter how the systems work, the two systems are the same. If we have the same output as AI, we’re functionally the same.
Why is this topic important to you? I wanted to learn more about neural networks and how humans perceive patterns because we, as humans, have the unique ability to perceive patterns well. But we have a scaled-up version of AI neural networks.
Why might this topic be important to others? If we combine aspects of AI science and neuroscience through looking at the ways they work, we can develop AI better and find new ways to develop or train our minds through the science of AI.

KATIE – 11th grade

Topic: You don’t know squat about history.
Why is this topic important to you? When I was in 7th grade, I had a teacher that did a game of telephone, and I realized that I can’t trust anything anyone tells me. Everything can essentially be altered. I did some background research while we were deciding on topics, and I came across the historical relativism theory, which essentially states that all history is relative and, essentially, there’re two histories. There’s the one that actually happened and the one that we see. That one is relative to the one that actually happened but not the same. Therefore, all history is not completely actual.
Why might this topic be important to others? As it currently stands, people are not taught to question. And when you question perceived history, you come to realizations that can completely alter the known perception. You can get a heightened level of correctness. And you can build upon that and better it.

LUKAS – 9th grade

Topic: Ban appeasement. Appeasement is giving concessions to someone in order for them to do something that you want or to not do something that you don’t want. The focus here is in the geopolitical sense. An example of when appeasement went awry is the Sudeten crisis and the Munich agreement in 1938. Britain and France gave Germany parts of Czechoslovakia so as not to start a war, but then Germany annexed all of Czechoslovakia and started a war anyway.
Why is this topic important to you? Because it affects the world a lot so it’s important so that we don’t do this again. Also, it’s just quite interesting.
Why might this topic be important to others? Because it concerns the world – it influences who owns what and who has power and influence.

MARK – 9th grade

Topic: You don’t know squat about LGBT people in Brazil. There is prejudice because the president has prejudice. He follows the religion because it’s a Catholic nation. The president is openly homophobic so that’s damaging as well. People think there are laws protecting LGBTQ people. It seems safe but the laws don’t reflect what people think.
Why is this topic important to you? It’s interesting and it’s personal
Why might this topic be important to others? Brazil has the most violence against LGBQT people in the world.

MYLES – 11th grade

Topic: Unban Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC). In San Francisco, it’s currently banned in high schools. It’s not for everyone, and it’s completely voluntary.
Why is this topic important to you? I believe that JROTC helps better character. It also encourages discipline and better teamwork.
Why might this topic be important to others? JROTC is specific to certain people. The people that are in JROTC think it’s important, and it’s helped them a lot. One of my close friends is in it and he says it’s helped him a lot.

TERRIN – 9th grade

Topic: We don’t know what we don’t know.
Why is this topic important to you? It’s fun to do. It’s a scientific thing.
Why might this topic be important to others? People think you can know everything about science, and it’s important to know that with advanced technology, you can’t know everything. It’s just impossible. There can’t be a theory of everything. Even with impossible technologies, we still don’t know anything.

TRISTAN – 10th grade

Topic: Ban targeted advertising online – on Instagram, Facebook, etc.
Why is this topic important to you? It’s interesting to me. I always run across ads.
Why might this topic be important to others? It’s an invasion of privacy. Ads target your privacy. Your privacy is your right, and you get to keep that. You own your privacy.

WINSLOW – 11th grade

Topic: You don’t know squat about irrationality in moral psychology. We’re trying to be more irrational than logical. It’s about why we’re moral or rational.
Why is this topic important to you? It’s interesting, especially how people are discerning and priding themselves in being more logical or emotional.

ZACHARY – 9th grade

Topic: Unban anarchical primitivism. Today, we have a society based around modern innovations, and in order to achieve those, we have factories that build the necessities. With those factories come harmful emissions. If we lived in a primitive society, that wouldn’t be an issue because people rely on communal effort to be self-sufficient.
Why is this topic important to you? I’m a vegetarian, and there is industrialized farming which systematically abuses and kills animals. I’ve seen the impact that industrialization has on our environment, and it’s not pleasant. Companies don’t care about that. They care about their profits not the planet.
Why might this topic be important to others? People would be happier — a true sense of happiness rather than relying on computers to be happy. It would encourage more communal effort.

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