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
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
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
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
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
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. …