Is it immoral to steal to save someone's life? Or to not try to save someone from drowning?
The questions electrify the classroom, and one by one, students offer measured observations to help resolve these perennial ethical quandaries.
Each week, fifth-graders at Cherry Hills Elementary School spend an hour learning to apply moral reasoning not just to hypothetical situations, but to problems they are more likely to confront, such as racism or peer pressure. Leading the exercise is volunteer Michael Sabbeth, a lawyer who developed his own curriculum more than a decade ago. He has since instructed some 500 elementary school classes here in the Denver area.
Character education in some form is mandated or at least encouraged in the vast majority of states. It's seen as an important tool as teachers try to enlist students in efforts to reduce bullying, drug abuse, sexual harassment, and the presence of weapons in schools. Some of these programs rely primarily on motivational posters and slogans, while others use children's stories to engage students in discussions about discerning right from wrong.
Whatever form it takes, character education springs from the idea that, as Cherry Hills teacher John Mollicone puts it, "there's more to education than making sure these kids know the three R's. We need a balance."
What seems to set Mr. Sabbeth's curriculum apart is the degree to which his conversations with children take on an adult tone. "They know what's right. It's not about lack of knowledge," Sabbeth says. "It's about teaching them the skills to work through these dilemmas. The basic premise is to use current events, historical events, and children's life events, and place them in a program of ethical theory."
Students say they appreciate the fact that he doesn't talk down to them. That's important to Sabbeth, because he's concerned that people tend to underestimate children. "The consequence can be that children are not challenged. This [class] gives them an opportunity to speak about issues they usually don't get to discuss. And someone is listening."
Any doubt about whether fifth-graders possess the sophistication to debate complex ethical questions is put to rest today by the students' thoughtful responses. They use terms Sabbeth has taught them, like "sanctity of life" and "beneficence," as coolly as if they were discussing the latest Harry Potter movie. When discussion turns to the classic Hans Christian Andersen tale "The Little Match Girl," one child draws a link to modern-day societal attitudes toward homelessness.
As the class discussion shifts toward personal values, Sabbeth reminds students that morality is based on truth, not opinion. "If all you have to have is a 'good reason,' you can justify anything," he says. "Hitler thought he had a good reason. Tim McVeigh thought he had a good reason. Good reasons are not enough to justify doing immoral things. Write that down," he instructs.
Sabbeth encourages the children to ask fact-based questions when reasoning through situations. In the case of the drowning swimmer, does the potential rescuer know how to swim? Would it be a child trying to rescue an adult, or the other way around?
As the class contemplated the morality of stealing to save a life, the children piped up with questions about whether the one who was stealing was rich or poor and whether there were other ways to save the person's life. One offered an absolute: "My mom said it isn't moral to steal anything - even to save a dying child."
According to the students, the lessons they glean are practical, not abstract. "He's taught us what to do if someone is in trouble - to think of what you can do to help them," fifth-grader Alex Granis says.
"He teaches us how to make choices, and what to do if someone is a bully," Ryan Groos adds.
Ethics is never just personal, Sabbeth says, because it involves "how you deal with other people, how you elevate humanity."
Teaching ethics is extremely personal for Sabbeth, however. He developed the curriculum as a way to repay a "cosmic debt" he felt after surviving major surgery 13 years ago. "I felt very blessed to have survived, and I thought, now that I've had this good fortune, what can I do?"
He began teaching various grade-levels at Cherry Hills in the early 1990s, when his children attended the school. He has been working with Mr. Mollicone's fifth-graders for the past four years, and he's also volunteered at a dozen other Denver-area schools and numerous churches and synagogues.
"What I enjoy is seeing the expression on a child's face as they say, 'I get it!' There's this visceral sense of joy," Sabbeth says, his eyes gleaming with pride.
After the shootings at nearby Columbine High School in 1999, the local fire chief asked Sabbeth to teach firefighters how to discuss ethical behavior during fire-safety presentations in schools. These efforts were so well received that Sabbeth has since presented the classes to fire departments around the United States.
Despite treading in territory some might consider parents' domain, the ethics program has had unwavering support from Cherry Hills parents. Some even visit the weekly class and join in on the discussions.
Sabbeth is eager to have the dialogue go beyond the classroom. Any parent or teacher can do what he does, he says. "I'm just giving the kids an opportunity to grapple with real, relevant, adult issues." Parents, for instance, can weave ethical discussions into everyday conversations - while driving to soccer practice or clearing dishes after dinner. To guide parents, Sabbeth is working on a book about the nuts and bolts of discussing moral issues with children.
While character-building programs shouldn't be considered a quick fix, Mr. Mollicone says, the benefits of the classes are apparent in the children's behavior as the school year progresses. "This helps them to think before they act," he says. "Kids react, and we need to teach them to respond. These kids are going to become the next leaders, and we have to make sure they're making ethical decisions when they do that."
One of his students, Kasha Scott, says she's confident she'll be able to think back to Sabbeth's lessons about choices and consequences when she gets to middle school next year. "If someone asks me to try smoking or to take drugs, I'll know what to do," she says.
Michael Sabbeth's curriculum is based on 11 ethical concepts, which he refers to as "The Moral Measures."
Four are "universal" ethical principles, drawn from Aristotle's writings: autonomy, beneficence, justice, and sanctity of life.
The others are the "Seven C's," a list that Sabbeth himself devised: character, choices, compassion, competence, consequences, conscience, and courage.