Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Life purpose and "moral education"

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...

I find the question of finding meaning in life to be one that most people, including teachers, do not believe the school should address, even though this question is widely believed to be critically important. For most teachers, as well as most members of the general population, life purpose is provided by parents and especially by religious institutions.

Despite the growth of evangelical churches, organized religion, overall, seems to be less and less important in our country. With the decline of religion, life purpose is less and less seen as something that can be "discovered" through religious institutions and more and more seen as something each of must determine from our life experiences and personal commitments. I find this secularization of life purpose to be liberating, but many people are disoriented by this development. Coming to the conclusion that life purpose is to be personally "created" is a difficult transition.

But such a transition does provide an opening for public schooling to address issues of life purpose, if parents will permit such a role for the public schools. Many will not, feeling they know best how "their" children are to be raised vis-a-vis questions of life purpose. Will this perspective change? Will parents see the schools as a source for addressing life purpose issues? Its not clear, but for now I don't see much change in the belief that the public schools ought to be almost entirely an effort of learning and subject mastery.


Barbara Stengel said...

These are fair points, Alan -- especially for someone posting at 4:20 am!!

I suspect you're right that most folks don't think "meaning in life" is the purpose of schooling; schooling tends to have more instrumental purposes: developing good citizens, training productive workers, etc. I'd argue, however, that schooling must attend to meaning to be effective. Meaning is linked to motivation and learning depends on motivation in complex ways. Just as teachers and schools depend on and have an impact on a student's moral development (often unwittingly) so too do teachers and schools depend on and have an impact on a students self-understanding/life's meaning (often un- or sub-consciously).

[As an aside, some commentators are explicitly taking up "meaning in life" as an educational goal. Nel Noddings Happiness and Education -- an exploration of what education and schooling might be were we to consider "happiness" as our purpose -- is an example.]

The point you raise with respect to the origin of one's "meaning in life" -- the tension between being existentially chosen or religiously grounded -- is well worth exploring, but not easily resolved. I'm unconvinced that meaning was ever or can ever be EITHER a secularized choice OR a faith determination. We might better understand such issues with both/and thinking. I just read an exchange between Larry Nucci and Rob Kunzman in The Journal of Moral Education (September 2003) that takes up the matter of religion's role in one's moral development in interesting ways. They are trying to figure out whether morality can be taught/developed independently of religious faith/practice/ideas (Nucci) or whether moral development is inextricably intertwined with one's religious background (or lack thereof). Their discussion hinges partly (though not always explicitly) on the question of meaning in life.

Attending to and respecting parents' prerogatives is critical as you point out, but I do think that raising questions about life's meaning can be done in ways that open up family dialogue rather than drive a wedge among family members. Of course, there are developmental concerns -- but that's true in undertaking any educational effort.

Basically, I just want to maintain that educators are impacting students' views of the meaning of life whether they know it or not. Let's do it as consciously and carefully as we can.

Angie Kirkessner said...

Until I became a graduate student I would have to say that I found very little meaning in any of the content I was required to "learn." The world of education differs from the world of academia in the sense that the out-of-the-box constructivist type educators primarily reside in the realm of academia. It took me years to decide what I wanted my Master's Degree to be in because I could not find any true sense of meaning/purpose for the course work my fellow colleagues were recommending/pursuing. I only excel if I find meaning and a sense of purpose. I have observed this in many of my students and strive to bring meaning to everything I teach. While I am not always successful it is my goal. This concept relates to my beliefs in one of Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences...existentialistic intelligence. I ask you, what stronger force exists than that of pursuing one's life purpose?

Alecia said...

I think that often the specific subject matter, in this case biology and the concept of mitosis, becomes such a part of "curriculum planning" (plan-instruct-assess), that the connection and application to things larger gets lost. Students become disengaged because it is all part of this repeating cycle. While I'm undecided on how exactly the school should be responsible for life purpose, I do think it is up to the teachers to make the organic connection between subject matter and how students can apply it and make it relevant to their life and perhaps their "life purpose". If you see that a child is interested and talented in a certain area of the curriculum, explain the possibilities of future use, employment, study, etc. I think often teachers and students get so caught up in covering the necessary curriculum and material that time to make this connection is lost. I don't think our school set-up and structure is conducive to truly helping students develop their sense of life purpose- like it was said this morning, it becomes more important what you do rather than who you are. Our current school system is really not designed to cater to the need of developing that sense of self.

Anonymous said...

It seems more likely in today's educational climate the focus is not on helping students find their "life purpose." Rather, the goal now appears to fill the student with content that allows them to pass a state mandated test. Many educators would support the idea of brining in moral education and other life lessons into a classroom, but feel burdened by the weight of state standards and assessment, coupled with an unbelievable time crunch. Modeling is an important aspect of this, ut is it enough? Assuming this were to change, would educators then feel comfortable, and or willing, to address these issues in their classroom?

Anonymous said...

I do believe that it is difficult for students today to make a choice about the direction to take in life. Perhaps that decision is more difficult today than it was in the past because today there are so many more choices. I believe that it is more common today for people to change their career goals than it was in the past. Cathy G

Anonymous said...

I think that our job as educators is to make the curriculum that we teach meaningful for our students. They need to be able to grasp a real sense of purpose for what they are learning. If we are able to convey the message that we have a purpose for being in the classroom with our students in conjunction with making their learning meaningful, hopefully we can foster the growth of our students on their path of discovering their individual purposes. I think schools need to help students go beyond the walls of a building with standards, test scores, and agendas by creating experiences in the classroom which allow our students to question and discover on a daily basis. -HJ

Jfortier said...

Whether we want to or not, teachers are forced to face the reality of schools and kids today. It is unrealistic not to expect change over time, especially in our technologically advanced society. The set of issues facing kids today are far different than the problems even just 15 years ago ( remember life BEFORE the internet, cell phones, cyber bullying) This profession is ever changing (just like the rest of the business world-adaptations must be made) With these changes, more opportunities have developed for kids as well. I do not agree that kids are disengaged at all. I think they are simply taking the needed to time to sort through the issues with which they are faced. I am not sure that people removed from children ( perhaps people with out children, or with grown children) truly understand the depth of some children's issues in today's world. To me, as a teacher, it is remarkable how well some kids do make sense of the world based on the experiences in their lives. I think more than ever, kids need our positive attitude, guidance, moral guidance to help them navigate the challenges they face. Our job as teachers is to help children develop in all areas of their life... like it or not.

kevin kurtz said...

I do not disagree with your notion of biology; and I think appreciation for learned "information" is the key to making that information really useful for someone. My questions are: how can we encourage such appreciation in the face of testing the development of skills and accumulation? Isn't it necessary for a complete overhaul of educational programs for this to even be possible? Or can only exceptional teachers fuse it all so masterfully? Furthermore, since we are teaching in the age of entertainment, how can we combat students' notion that that which is not entertaining, and that which is challenging, is not worth putting a lot of time into? It seems like we have to combat so much to get them to even buy the idea that what they learn at school is even remotely worthwhile.

One idea I remember from a philosophy of education class that compared "student-centered" curriculum and "teacher-centered" was that the curriculum is worthwhile. My frustration from that class was wondering how we could bring that out in our current educational environments. I, for example, enjoy the History channel and their programs, but did not like History in school whatsoever.

So, in light of all the curricular requirements in schools: can we make education more than just an accumulation of facts and skills across the country? Or, asked differently, can we do it?

Tina said...

My first question to this blog is "what time?" What extra time do teachers have with the push for higher standards and state testing? Teachers can't help but feel overwhelmed by the amount of pressure they are getting from the community, state, federal government and other people around them. With that being said, we can also assume that most school structures, schedules and curricula designed along with principals and other administrators do not support the work of moral education even though it is obvious that we should and need to make time and support it. Teachers often try to address this in their classrooms, but I know of some that are overloaded and look at any type of moral development (i.e. in the form of a character education class)as another chore or lesson to teach that they simply don't have time for. This leaves morals to be taught in the home, and if not there, then not at all.

The real question is, knowing this, and with the high stakes testing in play, how can we change the role of schools and teachers to one that supports moral education and helps our students find their life purpose? Even if we can try to accomplish this as a school, how can we get our community to support us? Finally, how do we find time to squeeze it all in as we are trying to stay above water and meet AYP?

April said...

I think that maybe if we gave children more say in the content area curriculum that they studied it might be easier for them to feel connected to their learning. I understand that in most schools curriculum is set and there is very little opportunity for students to have input into what they are studying. I'm not sure however that this is the best approach. I plan in this upcoming school year to invest more time in having my students help me to design our curriculum. I hope in this experiment to show that I can accomplish the same goals/standards while having the students more directly involved in designing their own learning.

Anonymous said...

I hope that we, as educators, are trying to relate what we teach to the world around us. Students need to see meaning behind what they are learning, otherwise they will be disengaged. Some students learn a purpose for their life early, but many don't know what they want to do with it. Some may not figure it out until they are in their twenties or thirties or later. We need to provide students with ideas and options as to how to make their lives productive and meaningful. Students also need to learn values from various places in our schools such as the classroom, career guidance, extracurricular activities, and community service. It has been obvious to me that the more students are involved in such things, they seem to have it together more.

Anonymous said...

I have read and reread your post and I am still having trouble deciding what exactly Damon is looking for. Is he asking the young people what they want to be when they grow up or how they want to be when they get older. Is he looking for their career paths or looking for their views on life and how they hope to act? Whatever the question, I think they are very difficult for a young person to answer. Maybe his searching for answers about lack of direction in life is not such a negative thing. Maybe we are just overwhelmed by the amount of choice we have today. Maybe our job as educators is to expose children to as much as we can career-wise to help them find their life purpose while guiding them in the right direction morally.