A Path to Purpose

Suzanne Fields
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Posted: Jun 06, 2008 12:01 AM
A Path to Purpose

"The Path to Purpose" sounds like the title of an autobiography of Barack Obama or John McCain. But it's not. It's a sad story about children who never get started on that path. These are children of the "purposeless" generation, and if that sounds too broad, the problem is broad enough. By one estimate, a quarter of our children who should be launched into adulthood with a sense of purpose in their lives instead are singing a reprise of "Gimme Shelter," that hymn to the self-indulgence of the '60s. You could call them the "boomerangers." Instead of moving on, they keep coming back.

William Damon, a human behavior scholar and director of the Center on Adolescence at Stanford University, in his book scolds society for indulging the young rather than instilling a sense of responsibility. Many who set out to "find themselves" put off the search by delaying a purposeful career. Others, bewildered by their choices, can't connect the dots between what they know and where they want to go. One of the reasons, Damon suggests, is that education offers "bits" and "pieces" of information without relating them to a higher aspiration. Teachers rarely discuss a broader purpose.

Neither do our politicians, who sound no appeals to the young to find ways to do something for others, for the good of society rather than seeking goods for themselves. Many of the young -- following the example of many of their elders -- concentrate only on what a job-seeking politician can do for them.

John F. Kennedy's ringing call to unselfish service sounds quaint today: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." Ronald Reagan's description of "the American sound" as "hopeful, big-hearted, idealistic, daring, decent and fair" sounds like something from Currier and Ives, too.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia describes how America is unique in the way Americans characterize themselves in relation to the Constitution. We all know, instinctively, what it means to be "un-American." But no one speaks of something as "un-French" or "un-German," he told Tim Russert of MSNBC. "We are a very strange people, that we really identify ourselves not by our blood or where we were born, but by fidelity to certain political principles."

We may no longer be inspiring the generation following us with the fundamental idea of what it means to be American. While these young adults cherish wide choices in their careers, they often put off marriage and children to keep their options open. This can delay the maturity that encourages the larger commitment to others that would give their lives meaning and direction.

Barack Obama was on to something in his speech the other day to the class of '08 at Wesleyan University: "At a time when a child in Boston must compete with children in Beijing and Bangalore, we need an army of you to become teachers and principals in schools that this nation cannot afford to give up on." The best teachers fuse idealism with practicality, with a little personal sacrifice on the side.

When John McCain came home from five and a half years of torture, torment and anguish at the "Hanoi Hilton," he wanted first to thank a teacher at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Va., who had taught him grammar, the structure of language, the meaning of literature and something more. "He helped teach me to be a man, and to believe in the possibility that we are not captive to the worst parts of our nature," he told the students where he once studied. "I wanted to tell him I finally understood there in Hanoi all the things he'd been trying to tell me about life."

He arrived too late -- the teacher had died. But such understanding never arrives too late. Such teachers show the distinctions that are driven by moral purpose. "Finding noble purpose means both devoting oneself to something worth doing and doing it in an honorable manner," says William Damon. High test scores won't reveal it. Emphasis on such test scores, in fact, can narrow vision and limit goals.

The good news is that there are signs of renewed interest in doing purposeful work. The non-profit Teach for America program, which sends college graduates into troubled schools in low-income communities, reports a surge in applications and placements. This fall, the organization will send 3,700 new teachers into urban and rural classrooms. Those who have worked in difficult classes know how teaching envelops their lives with a renewed determination to succeed. You could call it a path to purpose.