Ethics Certificate students critique morality tale The Giving Tree

This spring, students in Professor Ruth Grant‘s course “Challenges of Living an Ethical Life” were given the chance to evaluate the view of ethics presented in Shel Silverstein’s classic children’s tale The Giving Tree. In the tale, a boy begins a friendship with a tree by playing in its branches and eating its apples, but as he ages he becomes increasingly demanding, as the tree gives all with no questions asked.

As an option for their final assignment, students could either defend the morality of the narrative in The Giving Tree  or rewrite the story and explain their choices in an accompanying essay.

Student Lauren Hansson  chose to adapt the story by building in greater consequences for the child and increasing reciprocity between the child and the tree (illustrated at right). She wrote that Silverstein’s original “has the potential to teach children about environmental ethics and how it fits into their everyday lives, but as it stands, its message is ambiguous and presents a flawed depiction of our relationship with the environment.”

Jamie Bergstrom illustrated an adaptation titled “The Helping Tree.” Bergstrom also created a more reciprocal relationship in the narrative. She emphasizes the ethics of giving as a way to help others better themselves through beneficial relationships with mutual respect.

Grant’s course is the gateway for KIE’s Ethics Certificate, a pathway of courses meant to supplement any undergraduate course of study by infusing ethics into their daily, academic, and later professional lives. The students in this course learned to address ethical dilemmas through the lens of different cultural viewpoints, reading texts from the ancient era to modern day.

Educators can find the related case study and teaching notes on the teaching caselettes web resources page.