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.

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