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September 1, 2008
Vol. 66
No. 1

The Moral North Star

How do we help students understand that academic excellence can get them where they want to go?

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When I entered high school, achieving excellence was about the farthest thing from my mind. I had no reason to believe I could excel in coursework, and I saw no particular reason to try. I did care about not getting in trouble, but that required only a modicum of effort. Like many students, I quickly learned the lesson that Theodore Sizer (1984) formulated in Horace's Compromise: As long as I did well enough not to humiliate myself or the school, most teachers would leave me alone.
But two things happened during 9th grade that changed my attitude toward academic pursuits forever. Neither experience seemed dramatic or strange, nor did their significance dawn on me immediately. Yet they remain memorable because they ignited sparks of motivation that still endure. What's more, in my recent research I have found that the academic awakenings of students who find their own "paths to purpose" (Damon, 2008) often occur in ways that are strikingly similar to the initial stirrings of interest that I felt so long ago.

Two Turning Points

Early in that first year of high school, for one of my weekly assignments in English class, I handed in my usual half-finished and thoroughly mediocre piece of work. But this time I made the mistake of muttering a feeble excuse as I passed the essay to my teacher, along the lines of "I didn't spend much time on this, but I know these weekly assignments don't count for much." My teacher, a crusty old gentleman who had undoubtedly seen thousands of similarly lackadaisical efforts in his time, nevertheless took the time to pull me aside for a word of advice. He peered over his glasses, fixed me in a stern gaze, and said, "Mr. Damon, everything you do in this world counts." Perhaps because of the earnest way he said it, or perhaps because the idea was so foreign to my careless way of thinking at the time, the message left an impression that kept ringing in my ears from that day forward.
My other memorable experience came later that year when I worked on the school newspaper. I joined the newspaper to cover sports: I wasn't a good enough athlete to make the teams, but I enjoyed watching the games and hanging out with the players. My first assignment was to cover a game that was of little interest to anyone. A group of Eastern European immigrants had formed an amateur soccer team and had requested a practice match with our varsity team. It was a pretty good game, with the visiting team more than holding its own, but that was not the story that captured my imagination. I stayed to talk with the immigrants after the game, and they spoke passionately about coming to America, the hard lives they had left behind, what political freedom meant to them, and their hopes for themselves and their families in this new land. This conversation opened a world of cultural and historical understanding that went far beyond what I had been learning in social studies. What's more, when I wrote a story for the newspaper about these immigrants' lives, my friends read it and commented that they were fascinated.
I had found an enthralling purpose. In my 14-year-old mind, the act of discovering previously unknown information and then communicating it to others seemed incredibly worthwhile and powerful. After that, I had no trouble devoting attention to my school writing assignments. I was determined to learn the skills that I would need to successfully pursue the mission I had found so captivating. My eventual choice of a career as a scholar and researcher began with the personal passion I discovered that day.
These two 9th grade experiences had a number of things in common. First, they increased my motivation to learn and gave me a reason to strive for excellence. Second, they made me think about what kind of person I was and what I could accomplish with the knowledge my school offered. Third, they imparted to me the idea that my efforts could serve a useful purpose if I made good choices about how to spend my time.
In the first incident, I became aware that my actions matter. In the second, I found a way to contribute something of value through an engaging activity that drew on academic skills. The notion of accomplishing a worthy purpose captured my imagination, guided my choices, and spurred my energies toward the pursuit of excellence.
My 9th grade experiences had one other commonality that I note with regret: Despite the invaluable educational benefits that they imparted, both experiences are —al to the main concerns being expressed about U.S. schools today. Across the education landscape, policymakers, experts, and practitioners are engaging in great debates about the need for testing and accountability, the content of the curriculum, and the proper uses of instructional methods such as computer technology. I do not mean to diminish these essential concerns. But largely missing from the debates is a central question: How can we get students to see the knowledge and skills we expect them to learn in school as important to their own lives and aspirations?
This is not simply a matter of academic motivation in the conventional sense—motivation to study hard enough to get good grades and fulfill course requirements. Rather, it is a question of the purpose behind the requirements. Why is schooling useful in the first place? On a personal level, why should a particular student bother to learn the knowledge offered in school and strive to use it in a masterful and ethical way—that is, aim for intellectual and moral excellence?

Students with Purpose—and Without

Some educators may worry that introducing the big "why" questions that help students find purpose may distract attention away from the subject matter that schools are expected to convey. The opposite is true: Only when students discover personal meaning in their work do they apply their efforts with focus and imagination.
The question of purpose is what psychologists call an ultimate concern(Emmons, 1999) because it gives meaning to short-term goals (such as passing tests and getting good grades) by asking where these short-term goals will lead. Purpose acts as a moral north star on the route to excellence: It offers a steady beacon for inspiring and directing students' best efforts over the long haul, within the classroom and beyond.
Unfortunately, highly purposeful students are the exception rather than the rule in our classrooms. In research for the Stanford Youth Purpose Project (Damon, 2008), we found that about 20 percent of students in our diverse national sample were approaching their studies with a clear sense of purpose. These youngsters stood out from their peers because they knew why they were in school: They had found a meaningful direction for their lives, and they wanted to prepare themselves for it. They appeared to be thriving in the classroom and beyond.
  • Ryan, a boy who became concerned about families in Africa without enough clean water to drink. By age 12, Ryan had raised millions of dollars to build drinking wells in developing countries and had started a foundation to further these efforts.
  • Nina, who after witnessing the ravages of lung cancer in her West Virginia town spent years of her adolescence leading a youth chapter of the American Cancer Society to support cancer research and social policy and is now pursuing a medical career.
  • Pascal, an aspiring jazz musician who combines a creative flair with serious study, intense practice, and a good grasp of the pragmatic realities of succeeding in a music career.
  • Barbara, who by age 16 had joined with a friend to lead an organization called "Don't Be Crude!" which promotes environmentally cleaner ways for Texas farmers to dispose of used oil from their tractors than simply dumping it on the fields.
At the other extreme, approximately a quarter of our sample had little interest in long-term goals of any kind. It was difficult to talk with them about purpose because they were not looking for much beyond their day-to-day existence. Some were content with their purposelessness, seeming to enjoy the hedonistic opportunities that this state of mind offered. Others felt dejected, anxious, apathetic, or some combination thereof. Not many of these students were making good use of their school years, let alone seeking excellence.
In the mid-range of our sample, between the purposeful and purposeless students, we found a large group (55 percent) who had experienced moments of purpose but who had not yet sustained a commitment to any particular aspiration. Some among this group were dabblers who were skipping from one interest to another without quite knowing why; some were dreamers who had visions of what they would like to become but no realistic sense of how to get there. With the right kind of guidance, all of these students could find the unique purpose that would give meaning to their work in school—and in life. But to make this happen, teachers must address the question of why academic knowledge is important.

Addressing the "Why" Question

Teachers can address this "why" question across the curriculum. Why do people need to learn history or math? Why is it useful to read and write well or to spell words correctly? Why do we expect you and your fellow students to excel in the work that we assign you?
In my work with high schools, I have found that instruction in the sciences offers a vivid context for raising "why" (and "why not") questions. Such questions can spur students' interest in what many of them see as an obscure and difficult subject. Some years ago, I tried out this approach during a summer school program for gifted high school students. We discussed research in microbiology in the context of ethical questions such as the desirability of human genetic engineering and cloning. Students applied themselves vigorously to the difficult scientific readings, motivated at least in part by their enhanced appreciation for the contested moral issues at stake.
Beyond the curriculum, teachers and school counselors can raise questions of purpose in the context of vocational choices. "Why have I [the teacher] chosen teaching as my occupation?" Addressing this question with students, which teachers too rarely do, exposes students to a respected adult's own quest for purpose. The idea that teaching is a calling for a dedicated individual would provide inspiring insights into vocational possibilities for our students.
In a broader sense, students could benefit from more discussion in school about the vocational implications of the coursework that they are doing. Not only, What kind of jobs can people who excel in algebra do? but also, What does this kind of work accomplish? Why is it important? How can I find out more about where my math talents could take me and how I could use them to establish a fulfilling career?
To foster the pursuit of moral excellence, teachers can introduce students to figures from recent history who have acted with integrity and courage in the face of pressure and personal risk, such as Nelson Mandela, Václav Havel, Katharine Graham, and Boris Yeltsin. In addition, teachers and other school staff can address ethical problems that arise in schools not simply as rule breaking but also as violations of deeper moral purposes, helping students reflect on the question, Why do we have rules against cheating in the first place? If students realize that the moral purpose behind such rules is to preserve standards of fairness, honesty, trust, and integrity, they will endorse and uphold the rules with far more determination than if they merely see the rules as another set of demands from school authorities.
  • Engage in regular conversations with students about their hopes, dreams, and aspirations in life.
  • Recognize student accomplishments that indicate beyond-the-self concerns.
  • Link present school activities with the future life plans of students.
  • Probe for deeper thinking by frequently asking, Why? when students give cryptic answers to questions.
  • Connect school lessons to larger world issues.
  • Provide students with the pedagogical reasons behind a particular activity or lesson.
  • Develop lessons that make visible how students' actions contribute to wider systems (for example, a science unit that links student behavior to ecological impact).
  • Introduce students to purpose in discussion of vocations.
  • Create biographical units about purposeful people that include both famous people and locals who have direct contact with students.
  • Nurture civic purpose by encouraging responsible citizenship within the school and beyond.

Building Purposeful Citizens

This last item, nurturing civic purpose, is crucial today. Among all the causes that inspired the purposeful youth in our study, civic leadership came in dead last. Few young people today aspire to positions of civic responsibility (mayor, council member, senator, president, and so on).
There are many possible explanations for this finding, such as the paucity of admirable political leaders as portrayed by current media accounts. Whatever the reason, the lack of civic purpose is a grave concern for the future of democracy, which relies on constant renewal by new cadres of committed young people. A democratic society will wither if it does not benefit from the talents and energies of each generation as it comes of age.
Schools must live up to their responsibilities to prepare students for full citizenship, and they must do so with the same standards of excellence that they hold for more narrowly defined academic pursuits. As in all areas of learning, the surest way to encourage dedication to informed citizenship among students is to help them understand why their participation is important—why it matters, how they can make a difference, and where they can find their personal sense of purpose.

Damon, W. (2008). The path to purpose: Helping our children find their calling in life. New York: The Free Press.

Emmons, R. (1999). The psychology of ultimate concerns. New York: Guilford.

Sizer, T. (1984). Horace's compromise: The dilemma of the American high school. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

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