- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 25, 2009


Most discussions about the state of our schools are animated by serious concerns about the achievement gap, dropout rate, too many children being left behind, declining international competitiveness and more. Almost all the prescriptions for addressing the concerns involve such issues as teacher training and quality, innovation, standards, accountability, choice, and funding.

One missing link is whether we are doing enough to connect with the students themselves, to reach them in ways that truly engage them and inspire their full attention and best efforts. At the center of this is the question of purpose: Why are the children in school in the first place, and what path will they take after graduating?

In his new book, “The Path to Purpose: Helping Our Children Find Their Calling in Life,” William Damon bemoans the “sense of emptiness that has ensnared many young people in long periods of drift.” A leading scholar of human development and director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence, Mr. Damon has traced this emptiness and lack of purpose to an array of issues that inhibit the healthy development of youths and their successful transition into adulthood and work. Backed up by decades of work and fresh research, his findings “reveal a society in which purposefulness among young people is the exception rather than the rule.”

Mr. Damon says, “Purpose is a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at the same time meaningful to the self and consequential for the world. … A true purpose is an ultimate concern. It is the final answer to the question of ‘Why? Why am I doing this? Why does it matter?’ Too often, the answer is, ‘I have no idea.’ ”

According to Mr. Damon’s research, in which he surveyed more than 1,200 young people between the ages of 12 and 26 and interviewed about a quarter of them, only 20 percent of the young people were “purposeful.” Twenty-five percent were “disengaged,” expressing virtually no purpose and showing no signs of seeking one; 25 percent were “dreamers” who had purposeful aspirations but had taken few steps, if any, to act upon them; and 31 percent were “dabblers” who had tried a number of potentially purposeful pursuits but didn’t have a clear sense of why or whether they would continue. (Because of rounding, the percentages add up to 101 percent.)

Mr. Damon is not alone. Barbara Schneider and David Stevenson, who orchestrated a study that followed 7,000 U.S. teenagers from eighth grade through high school, say: “Most high school students … have high ambitions but no clear life plans for reaching them. … [They are] motivated but directionless.”

The problem continues after high school. In a 2005 PBS documentary, “Declining by Degrees,” disillusionment and disengagement were found to be pervasive among university students.

Why does this matter? It turns out that purpose has implications for happiness, work fulfillment, health, relationships and more. According to a National 4-H Council study of U.S. fifth-graders, those who felt they had purpose had levels of depression that were 36 percent lower than youths without purpose - and made contributions to their community at a rate 18 percent higher. Youths who did not report feelings of purpose were more than twice as likely to experiment with nicotine, alcohol and marijuana and to engage in fighting, vandalism and stealing.

The stakes are high, and the importance of purposefulness increases over time. According to a 2008 MetLife study of 1,001 individuals between ages 45 and 74:

• People with a sense of purpose are more likely to report being happy.

• Sixty-six percent are completely content with their lives, compared with 26 percent of those who do not have much purpose.

• Eighty-two percent report they are very happy, compared with 43 percent of those who not have as much purpose.

This message is beginning to resonate with the public. (Witness the blockbuster books on the subject, including “The Purpose-Driven Life” by Rick Warren and “A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose” by Eckhart Tolle.)

The problem here is there is a void in our school systems and a design flaw in the typical school-to-work trajectory for youths. Sure, students have guidance counselors who encourage them to go to college and career counselors who run them through batteries of personality profiles, but purpose and the notion of finding a calling in line with that purpose are mostly absent. When it comes to one of the most important decisions students will face - what they should do with their careers and lives - we leave them mostly to their own devices.

We spend more than $700 billion per year on U.S. education (kindergarten through 12th grade and postsecondary, public and private) and yet more than a million students drop out of high school annually (one every 26 seconds) and it is estimated that just half of graduates leave high school prepared to succeed in college, a career and life.

If we’re looking to give our students a decent shot at a bright future, shouldn’t we show them how their studies are relevant to their lives and guide them through a thoughtful process for determining how they should live, work and lead?

• Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek are founding partners of New Mountain Ventures, a personal leadership development firm. They can be reached at [email protected]

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