The most pressing problem in education today is student disengagement. This problem is not confined to disadvantaged neighborhoods, failing schools, or poorly-run classrooms (although it may have especially devastating impact in such settings). Even in the most privileged schools, there are students who find little meaning in the work that they are expected to do. Some of these disengaged students do their work dutifully but without interest, getting by with whatever will earn them good enough grades to keep out of trouble. Others shirk their academic assignments entirely. With the exception of a relatively small proportion of students (in the diverse national sample of my recent study, about one in five), young people in our country do not see the link between what goes on in their schools and their aspirations for their lives.1
When young people spend countless hours, days, and weeks on activities that they find meaningless, there are psychological and social costs. I document the psychological costs in The Path to Purpose. They include, for some, a pervasive sense of emptiness, boredom, or apathy; for others, a debilitating anxiety; and for still others, an ensnarement in the lures of hedonism and cynicism.
Disengaged students are the ones who are most “stressed out” in school, even though (and this has not been widely understood among those who worry about stress among today’s young) they are not the students who are working most intensely. In contrast, students who have found purpose in their schoolwork gain so much satisfaction from their efforts that long hours of dedication can fly by without difficulty. Working hard is not the problem; rather, the problem is working without knowing why you are striving.
What does any of this have to do with the federal government, or the presidency for that matter? Traditionally, the federal government in the United States has stayed out of classroom matters. But that has changed in recent years, especially with the passage of No Child Left Behind Act and the focus on testing that it has brought. This focus may have resulted in modest gains in some students’ reading and math skills (the jury is still out on to what extent this is the case); and all such gains are welcome, as any increase in these basic skills is valuable. But the big prizes of academic learning — a desire to learn more, an understanding of why academic learning is important, a spirit of resourcefulness that enables a student to determine what’s known and to go beyond it, and a commitment to use whatever is learned to make a positive difference in the world — all have been left unaddressed by current federal legislation.
Indeed, it may be that the recent legislation, well-intended as it may be, has had the effect of diminishing the attention that our teachers pay to the more vital objectives of education. When schools put pressure on teachers to aim first and foremost at improving students’ scores on standardized, bubble-checking types of tests, the results are less than inspiring. Some children will do fine, as they would in practically any learning context; others will struggle with the standardized formats and lose interest in academic learning altogether; and most students will muddle through with mediocre performances and little awareness of why they are being taught the material that their teachers present to them. Not only does an overemphasis on test-taking restrict teachers’ judgments about how and what students should learn, it crowds out time for discussing with students the broader questions of what a person can and should do with academic knowledge in the world beyond school, the all-important question: What is the purpose of learning?
Above all, schools must address this “why” question about everything they do. Why do people study math and science? Why is it important to read and write? To spell words correctly? Why do we expect you, and your fellow students, to excel in the work that we assign to you? The answer to such questions must be more substantial and more stirring than the generic response, “You need to do well in school in order to graduate and get a job.”
Every part of the curriculum can be taught with the “why” question squarely in the foreground. I have found in my own work that instruction in the hard sciences offers a vivid context for raising the “why” and “why not” questions; and, as an added benefit, the questions spur students’ interest in the often obscure subject matter by adding excitement to the material. Some years ago, I was given a chance to try out this idea during a summer school program for gifted students. We discussed recent research in microbiology in the context of ethical questions such as the desirability of cloning. Students tore into difficult scientific lessons with zest, motivated, at least in part, by their enhanced appreciation of the enormous contested moral issues at stake.
Beyond the curriculum, schools can introduce students to a rich array of options for purposeful pursuits through programs in art, music, sports, language, theater, and all the other extracurricular activities that schools at their best have offered students. I found my own passion for research and writing not in the classroom, but while working for my secondary-school newspaper. It was only then that I became motivated to pay attention to my English teacher in order to learn how to write well. Yet extracurricular programs have become targets for elimination in many of our schools. Our single-minded focus on test scores has crowded out the exact activities that may best kindle the flames of learning in many students.
Students need schools that are more than test-prep training grounds. They need schools that stir their imaginations and give them a chance to discover their deepest and most enduring interests. During their crucial formative years, students need schools that help them decide what kind of person they wish to become. Ultimately, they need schools that provide knowledge, mentoring, and encouragement that will help them identify their own moral north star, a compelling purpose to guide them through their journey in life.
Moreover, if schools are to live up to their essential role in preparing students to be full citizens in our society, they must encourage them to engage in their communities in constructive ways. American schools have done a good job over the past decade in offering students opportunities for community service. But there is much more that we must do on the civic engagement front. Political knowledge and interest among today’s young is so fragile that we have good reason to worry about the future of our democracy. Most young people have little admiration for civic and political leaders and see no role for themselves in governing our society. Social scientists have estimated that there has never been a time in American history when so small a proportion of young people aspire to leadership roles in government or civic organizations.2
The decline in civic purpose among our young can be traced directly back to the psychological effects of disengagement that I note above. When students drift through school finding little meaning in their work — even if they complete their work dutifully – they begin to doubt the value of their own efforts. As I discuss in The Path to Purpose, going through the motions in a purposeless manner year after year is a prescription for apathy and cynicism over the course of development. In this manner, the overemphasis on preparing for tests during the crucial school years sets the stage for alienation from active civic participation later in life. Thus, the stakes of a meaningful education include the preservation of a participatory democracy that relies on the full commitment of every generation of citizens.
As president, you will have the opportunity to speak out for an educational system that does more than aim for high test scores, that gives teachers mandates to raise the big questions of meaning and purpose with students, that offers a rich array of activities that inspire the interests of every member of our diverse student body, that shows students how to engage positively in their community, and that fosters civic commitment among our young. Naturally, such a system requires sufficient funding. It is especially vital that we provide good funding to schools that are located in less advantaged neighborhoods and that are severely under-funded at present. Only in this way can we ensure that all students in our society will have access to high-quality teachers who can help every student find a purpose that matches that student’s interests and abilities. This is an urgent matter that is not only essential for equity and fairness but also for the thriving of our democratic way of life.
And one more thing: education in civic purpose extends beyond the classroom. As our most prominent political leader, you will bear a special responsibility to be a positive role model for our nation’s young. Young people always observe the adults in society for clues about what’s worth pursuing and how best to pursue it. As contemporary historians have pointed out, national politics in our country have taken on a polarizing, cynical tone that is out of keeping with the best spirit of the American tradition. If the adults that children observe tend to be cynical and divisive in a self-serving manner, we can be sure that the children will take that as a cue for their own aspirations (or lack thereof). Public officials must act in honorable and trustworthy ways if young people are to develop a sense of civic commitment. None of this can be regulated. Public figures must understand and accept their responsibility to set positive examples for the young in our society. They must answer with clarity and candor the “why” question about the goals they are trying to accomplish. This will enable us to remove the veils of cynicism and detachment that now obstruct many students’ views of what it means to be a citizen in a democratic society.
1. Damon, W. (2008) The Path to Purpose. Simon & Schuster (New York).
2. See, for example, Diana Owen (2004) Citizenship identity and civic education in the United States. Paper presented at the Conference on Civic Education and Politics in Democracies, San Diego, CA, Sept 26–Oct 1, 2004.