Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Life purpose and "moral education"

This has been cross-posted at Smart and Good.

The most recent issue of Education Week included a piece highlighting Bill Damon’s new book, The Path to Purpose:  Helping our Children Find Their Calling in Life.   Damon is a Stanford psychologist and long-time moral development researcher whose earlier work, The Moral Child, sets out a worthwhile vision of what makes a child good.

Damon’s work is a hermeneutically-enriched form of survey research.   He is asking large numbers of young people aged 12 through 26, through paper and pencil surveys and selected in-depth interviews, about their lack of direction in life.    The work, still in progress, has a comparative dimension in that Damon and his colleagues are trying to determine whether the youth of today differ from past generations in their ability to frame meaning and purpose in their lives.

Damon’s preliminary answer is that more than a quarter of young people are “disengaged” and about a fifth have actually found something meaningful to which they wanted to dedicate their lives.   The vast numbers in between have not given up on meaningfulness but haven’t found a way to make sense of their lives either.    Damon calls on schools and communities to address this “malaise.”

Damon’s on target here in my estimation, and this may be one of the premier ways that “moral education” can – and must – be integrated with academic purposes in schooling.   When a young person (in high school or college) learns biology, the purpose is not that he will know the difference between mitosis and meiosis.   One purpose is that he will understand himself in the world as a form of life, as a walking miraculous process, as a complex system, as an atomic unit in a much larger complex system, and so forth.   Another purpose is that she will possess the resources (knowledge, analytic skills, skills of appreciation/communication) to respond in a fitting way to the day’s practical issues re health, innovation, nourishment, etc.   And if he finds himself fascinated with either the mechanisms of biology or the issues that biological understanding illuminates, he may find a pursuit (of employment or leisure) to which he can commit large amounts of time and energy.   Each of these purposes is about life meaning, about one’s way of being in the world, and about the actions that turn meaning into meaningfulness.   This is moral education (as Damon’s background and life purpose would portend)  -- without the direct weight of  moralizing or evangelization or indoctrination.  

These are unquestionably educational issues though perhaps not narrowly academic ones.   Are our school structures, schedules and curricula designed to make it likely that this work is being done?  Are teachers willing and/or able to take up these issues even when time – and administrative fiat -- “permits”?  I’d answer no.


Anonymous said...

Word. During my time in grad school, the topic of the purpose of school came up quite often, but would-be teachers ended up just learning the mechanics of effective and even motivated teaching with regards to subject-based material. The cool thing was, many of my peers came up with innovative ways of integrating ideas of leadership, globalization, and even "the meaning of life" type topics. I'm sure I'm not the only one who changed up majors several times over; but the reason was that high school (or even before earlier education) didn't prep us for "what's the purpose of life" and "what's going to be your role and contribution to it". Issues that are at the heart of our humanity. I think the whole move away from religion, also included anything to do with morality, character development, and purposeful reflection. As you pointed out, time and teacher training, among a long list of ETCs, does really give opportunities to include and develop themes of this like. However, I do think teachers can take an active role (although arduous) in integrating questions and thought provoking statements that get young people to start thinking about issues like this before they go to college and hit Philosophy 101.

Thanks for the post chief,

Brian Burtt said...

One of my oddball intellectual interests is reading sociological accounts of generations, such as Strauss and Howe--particularly those that focus on my own, "Gen X". The common wisdom among that genre is that Gen X is a "lost" generation--that (to simplify) they will forever find it difficult to find their meaning and place in the world. However, that those young people who are currently college-aged, the Gen-Ys or Millenials, have a much better time feeling a part of their communities and finding their meaning through productive engagement with them.

I wonder, Barbara, since you mentioned Damom's comparative interest, if he address this at all or finds this distinction to hold? (Trends in institutions of schooling--what your post focuses on--comprise a different dynamic that likely pushed in a different direction...)

Barbara Stengel said...


Your question is a good one but one I won't try to answer because I haven't read Damon's book, just the write-up. You are right that institutional trends would push in a different direction, but my suspicion is that Damon IS interested in the kinds of cross-generational comparisons you suggest. My guess -- and this is only a guess based on talking with him a bit and being familiar with his past work -- is that he wants to say that all young people across generations are looking for the same sense of purpose but that the seeking will look different based on cultural expression. Guess we'll have to read his book :-)