With so much chatter about the importance of finding an organization’s “why,” it’s surprising to me we aren’t having quite as many conversations about individual people, human beings, finding their “why.” In my little corner of the world, independent schools live their “why” in the form of a mission statement that informs curricula and programming, but we don’t always place the same degree of emphasis on helping individual students find and live their why. It’s perhaps assumed that the school’s “why,” its mission, will be rich enough to meet the needs of each student. The assumption seems to be that individualized pathways, closer student-teacher relationships, and diverse educational opportunities will be enough to propel students towards a “why.” The unspoken formula: an inquisitive student + the richness of the program = graduates grounded in a strong sense of meaning and purpose. Sometimes that’s exactly the case. Perhaps that’s often the case. I’m not sure. Unlike much of the education corner of the internet, I’m not posing as the authority, but an educator with some observations and ideas to share. My contention: our schools can be doing much better work helping students locate their “why,” and that this work, in light of the realities of COVID, is increasingly important. I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts.
A quick historical detour before we get back on the main road again:
We are living in an increasingly pluralistic, post-modern world. We’re surrounded by competing understandings of what’s true and good, of what is right and wrong, of what is moral and immoral. The notion that objective, absolute truth exists, and human beings are able to access it, is largely a thing of the past. Instead, postmodernism proclaims that such truth claims are mere expressions of power, wielded in the interests of the powerful. The meta-narrative is dead, replaced by fluidy, a plurality of stories, and morality that is not universal, but entirely personal. As philosopher Charles Taylor writes, “We live in a world where people have a right to choose for themselves their own pattern of life, to decide in conscience what convictions to espouse, to determine the shape of their lives in a whole host of ways that their ancestors couldn’t control. And these rights are generally defended by our legal systems. In principle, people are no longer sacrificed to the demands of supposedly sacred orders that transcend them.”
Meaning in our society is an individual pursuit, not a collective one. A sense of shared values has unravelled, our worlds are becoming disconnected, our politics more polarized. Ultimate meaning has been reframed as the pursuit of individual self-interest and freedom is the freedom to be allowed to pursue that self interest in a kind of autonomous bubble, pursuing one’s own versions of what it means to have a good life. Such an approach to life fits snugly with a consumerist society: you can now choose an identity the way you choose a product. “You do you” is the slogan of the age. If I sound a little critical, I am. I think such relativism is fraught with numerous problems, including a loss of ultimate meaning and purpose. I’m reminded of teaching Brave New World ten years ago and having students remark that the world of the novel was no better or worse than ours because “Who’s to judge? If that’s the life they’ve chosen, that’s their choice.”
However, such a world comes with incredible advantages for the pursuit and protection of individual freedoms; we’d be lying to ourselves if we suggested the postmodern world had replaced some meaning-filled golden age.
“Very few people want to go back on this achievement. Indeed, many think that it is still incomplete, that economic arrangements, or patterns of family life, or traditional notions of hierarchy still restrict too much our freedom to be ourselves. But many of us are also ambivalent. Modern freedom was won by our breaking loose from older moral horizons. People used to see themselves as part of a larger order. In some cases, this was a cosmic order, a ‘great chain of Being,’ in which humans figured in their proper place along with angels, heavenly bodies, and our fellow earthly creatures. This hierarchical order in the universe was reflected in the hierarchies of human society. People were often locked into a given place, a role and station that was properly theirs and from which it was almost unthinkable to deviate. Modern freedom came about through the discrediting of such orders.
But at the same time as they restricted us, these orders gave meaning to the world and to the activities of social life (emphasis mine). The things that surround us were not just potential raw materials or instruments for our projects, but they had the significance given them by their place in the chain of being. The eagle was not just another bird, but the king of a whole domain of animal life. By the same token, the rituals and norms of society had more than merely instrumental significance. The discrediting of these orders has been called the “disenchantment” of the world. With it, things lost some of their magic.”
How we arrived at this point in history is outside the scope of this very brief outline, but keep in mind we’re talking about large periods of time here– shifts that have taken place over centuries– and shifts that continue to take place as post-modernity rubs shoulders with traditional societies around the world through the expansion of global markets.
Ok, back to the highway: the burden placed on the individual to figure it all out is a new one in human history and it’s a burden young people are largely unequipped to bear by themselves. We see a meaning-sized hole in the lives of too many students that is temporarily filled, but ultimately exacerbated, by social media distraction and virtual escapism, and is reflected in rising rates of anxiety and depression. We see the hole filled with extreme ideologies, niche online communities, or brass-ring driven perfectionism by students who become “excellent sheep.” Substitutes for meaning and purpose take many forms and are often dictated by socio-economic status and the values and assumptions that accompany such status. What they all have in common, however, is that they’re flimsy. They don’t last. They’re not strong enough to withstand real storms.
COVID has exposed deep fissures and inequities in our society; it has also forced many of our students, perhaps for the first time, to confront ultimate questions and realities: realities our society is very good at hiding– the fragility of life, in particular. It’s long been noted that ours is a death-denying culture. Add to this all-pervasive climate doom and our challenging national conversations (competing monologues?) on political and social issues, delivered to us in our algorithmically pre-determined virtual silos, and the youth mental health crisis we were talking about a few years ago might have just been the beginning.
Are schools responding to these challenges? Do our schools know how to? Should we be responding, or is ultimate meaning strictly the domain of the family, the church, the mosque, synagogue, and the humanist society? Can our “Secular Age,” to use the title of one of Charles Taylor’s most famous works, contend with such a crisis? Are new political “tribes” now emerging to take the place of the long-dead overarching meta-narrative? Do certain strains of puritanical activism serve as a kind of religious revivalism, full of zeal, righteousness, and absolute certainty?
I want to reiterate that the burden to “figure it out” on one’s own, to pursue the quest for solid ground in the absence of the all-pervasive worldviews of the past, is harrowing work for anyone. But I think that the development of this “skill,” the ability to explore, find, refine, and act on one’s “why,” is perhaps the most pressing concern of our era. Many of our kids simply aren’t well.
So what can schools do? First of all, beyond “character education” and empathy development, I don’t think secular schools should be in the business of attempting to impart “ultimate meaning” to students. Our secular age has no agreement on ultimate meaning, so how could we? That being the case, I think we need schools that focus on questions and dialogue inherent in the already-existing, ongoing work of schooling. Schools that invite discussion and reflection while giving students exposure to the thinkers and wisdom traditions that have pondered ultimate questions for millennia. I’m fortunate to be in a school that is actively participating in this kind of work through ongoing reflection and academic “program pillars” that center purpose and community.
Some ideas schools might pursue:
- Center the question: “Why do I have to learn this?” as a school-wide reflective question and encourage students to move beyond answers that focus on competitiveness or skill acquisition for the sake of employment
- Engage regularly in reflective practices or even all-school reflection “events” that ask students to reflect on their emerging understanding of content, skills, and social-emotional development. Embed these practices into advisories
- Help students connect the practices above to actions they might take to make the world a better place. That is, make it clear how students can get outside themselves and make a contribution to the world (purpose lives at the juncture of what you love, what you’re good at, and what the world needs)
- Strengthen student-centered, collaborative learning and student voice and choice in terms of both process and product
- Move beyond fear of the messy and introduce classes, seminars, or semester or year-long advising programs focused on meaning-making, ethics, and the pursuit of justice over time. We should avoid pre-formulated approaches to what constitutes justice or ethical decision making, and create real space for the exploration of the age old questions: How do I know what’s true? How do I know what is good and just? Etc. These programs should be supported by a variety of texts and resources representing a diverse range of approaches to these questions, as well as ongoing opportunities for students to reflect on their developing understanding. Presenting single answers to questions like “What is justice?” does little to encourage critical thinking or meaning-making, however good our intentions
- I’ll likely catch heat for this one, but require students to take a survey course in the world’s religions. Why? Because taught thoughtfully and non-dogmatically, a survey in the world’s religions provides opportunities for students to reflect on their own beliefs and values in a way that not many other subject areas can. For more ideas on how to do this, please be in touch
- More deeply embed reflection and conversation on meaning, purpose, and ethical decision making into the teaching of literature and history
- For more ideas and ongoing conversation on these topics, look into the work of the Berkeley Greater Good Magazine and the Human Restoration Project. HRP has created a primer on this topic which includes a helpful bibliography
I have lots of questions and, as you can see, only a few potential answers. Ultimately, I’m concerned with helping kids weather the storms of life in a way that allows their humanity and their inner lives to blossom and flourish. But such work is, in a sense, counter-cultural, and runs against the stream of the dominant culture. This work also requires adult guides who are both reflective and concerned with ultimate questions. It will be challenging work, as Viktor Frankl writes in Man’s Search for Meaning:
“To be sure, man’s search for meaning may arouse inner tension rather than inner equilibrium. However, precisely such tension is an indispensable prerequisite of mental health.”
The deep inner work will, however, produce the greatest reward. He goes on to write:
“There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life. There is much wisdom in the words of Nietzsche: ‘He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.’”