Rudderless Youths

Are young people today more disengaged than previous generations? William Damon addressed questions about today's generation in his new book, The Path to Purpose: Helping Our Children Find Their Calling in Life.

June 25, 2008

Rudderless Youths

  • William Damon, a noted scholar on children’s moral development and contemporary child-rearing practices, is a professor of psychology at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. He combines his research with common-sense suggestions for ways to lead teenagers and young adults toward finding more purposeful life directions.
  • Debra Viadero (Moderator):
    Hello everyone and welcome to today’s live chat with William Damon, the author of the new book “The Path to Purpose: Helping Our Children Find Their Calling in Life.” I’m Debra Viadero, an associate editor here at Education Week, and I’ll be your moderator. We already have some great questions so we’ll get the discussion started right away.

Question from Alexandra Cork, Student, Johns Hopkins University:

Mr. Damon, What role do you think parents are playing in perpetuating students’ disengagement from schooling?

William Damon:

Parents need to raise the big issues of life in conversations with the kids - questions of what matters and why. When parents focus only on short-term goals, such as passing tests or getting good grades, they fail to spur the child’s interest in more enduring aspects of learning. In the end, students must find compelling reasons to care about schooling if they are to invest all their talents and energies in their work over the long haul. This is wnat I describe as a purpose, or an “ultimate concern”, in my book.

Question from June K. Miller, Prof.,Science Ed., Queens College:

Have you discerned patterns or correlations of academically successful college students (4 yr. completers) and their high school records or background factors?

William Damon:

We are looking into this question right now in our data set. By the time I finished writing The Path to Purpose, we had not yet done these analyses, but I am hoping that by the end of this summer we will know more about how purpose is linked to school completion and high school grades.

Question from Tan Wee King, Snr Lecturer, NR, AHS, ITECE:

Could the increased disengagement be due to the accelerating pace of life on the whole? Do those who are less endowed are increasingly disadvantaged and when they can’t catch up they give up and opt out?

William Damon:

I don’t think that it’s a matter of things being fast-paced, because the most highly purposeful youth in our sample are extremely busy and yet feeling quite good about their lives. It’s the kids who don’t know why they are working so hard who express anxiety, stress, and disengagement. Things don’t cohere for them, so they have trouble finding meaning in any of their activities. What is especially difficult for young people today is the complexity of the choices that they are facing in our shifting globalized economy. This is a problem that I address in more detail my book.

Question from stacey reeves, foster care parent, NYC Dept. of Ed employee and charter school board member (Harriett Tubman - Bronx).:

As a foster care parent, I come into contact with many teens who are so institutionalized that they are unable to do the mental gymnastics necessary to mature - they are unable to plan their daily lives, they engage in childish /reckless behaviors. While their condition or attitude may be justified -- what I find even more remorseful is that their caseworkers are ill equipped to give these orphans guidance. Have you ever had a look at the stats concerning youth in foster care and how many of them fall into this drifting life style?

William Damon:

I haven’t seen these statistics, but I did a brief stint myself as a caseworker for two years after I graduated college, and I had some contact with the kinds of youth that you mention. One impression that I had was how difficult the conditions were in these kids’ former lives -one four-year-old girl, for example, had spent 48 hours in an abandoned building before I was called to remover her to a foster home. But the other impression that I had was that these children still remained responsive when some adult offered them care and guidance. So I came away convinced that you should never give up on a child.

Question from Dan Turner, Science Teachers, Vandenberg Middle Scho:

Can it be they lack direction because Education has become to University Oriented and not enough hands on career orientation is available to young students? ie we worry about NCLB and university entrance when most kids are really just looking to find a job orientation and those that want to go to university/college will get there anyway and maybe we need to refocus education on what kinds of careers are available? How do they find a place in a career field? e.

William Damon:

Yes, this is just what I write in The Path to Purpose. Education in our country needs to pay more attention to the vocations that schooling is supposed to lead to. This is one way that schools can convey more of a sense of purpose, and stonger motivation to elarn, to students. I mean vocation in the broadest sense - as a calling in life. This is why I used the word “calling” in the subtitle of my book.

Question from Amanda Skinner, Education Researcher Josephson Institute:

In the book, The Path to Purpose, you mention a group of students you spoke with who had started a teacher education program. Some of them were older students who had dropped out of past careers to become teachers, you say they had never acquired a sense that they were doing something that really mattered to them. Which leads me to my questions: are some teachers modeling the sense of disengagement they feel in their profession as teacher resulting in more disengaged youth? Do teachers begin disengaged, or do they become disengaged?

William Damon:

Yes, I think that you are onto something here. I comment in my book that I have never observed a teacher talking to students about the joys of helping students learn, the fulfillment that such a career can lead to, or the idea that teaching is a calling that provides meaning in life. If teachers did this more offer, they would become great role models for kids who are heading towards all sorts of careers other than teaching. Unfortunately, some teachers are disengaged themselves these days. There are a lot of conditions in out current system that can lead to cynicism. But many others have managed to keep the faith, and of course its always best to resist cynicism. Teachers can accomplish a lot for their students by demonstrating a positive attitude towards their own work.

Question from Birch Walker, President Federated Publishers:

The age group you studied includes the first generation of children raised by institutions, such as day care centers, and the first generation that had adult planned and supervised activities substituted for play. What part do you feel this has played in “direction less ness”.

William Damon:

I have worried about the descreasing opportunities for spontaneous play in our society. The kids are not spending as much time on the playgrounds, or on the streets playing stickball and such, as when we were young. This change is as much a function of TV, the Internet, and increased parental protectiveness as of day care and such. But yes, play is essential for the development of inner-directed pupose during youth.

Question from Bruria Schaedel. Ph.D. of education, Western Galilee College, Israel:

What could families and school and home partnerships in primary schools do to prevent this phenomena?

William Damon:

Organize activities that give children a chance to “make a difference” in their schools and communities. Children need to acquire a sense that the things they do matter. Families working in partnership with schools should be able to create lots of occasions for children to do things that contribute in a way that matters.

Question from Steve Rose, coordinator of secondary education, Simpson College:

Many of the “at-risk” indicators--drug use, teen pregnancy, even dropout rates--are actually lower now than they were 20 years. Are we to believe that this generation of youth is more rudderless than the preceding one? If so, why?

William Damon:

I address this specifically in The Path to Purpose. Yes, we are in better shape now than we were ten years ago in terms of the most serious problems of youth behavior. That’s the good news. Today’s problem is that many young people are feeling empty, directionless, unmotivating, and so they are drifting. This does not show up as the kind of crisis that makes newspaper headings. But it’s a serious problem for the kids and for our society, because these kids are in danger of stalling and not finding a way to fulfill their potentials.

Question from S Campagna, Special Education Teacher, Souderton High School,:

Do you think kids are more disengaged because they have so much technology to stimulate them when they are young. Why go out and get a job or explore a career when you can get that kind of stimulation at home with video games, MP3 players, TV, etc?

William Damon:

Well, some of our highly purposeful kids actually found their purposes in the area of technology, so I don’t think that we can condemn this sector as a whole. But I do think that whenever escapist fantasies dominate a young person’s life, the young person may stop acquiring practical skills need for success in life. So if today’s technology is luring kids away from real learning enagements, that’s not good - but it’s the escapism that’s the problem, not the technology itself.

Question from Stephen Gessner, Ph.D., Chief Academic Officer, American Institute for Foreign Study:

Your research shows the problem, but I would like to hear more about strategic solutions that can help educators provide more balance in the school program so that issues of values, beliefs, sense of coummunity, meaning and purpose in life, and a search for self-knowledge can be addressed in the face of the demands for overwhelming time to be spent on testing and test-preparation. How can we both improve academic achievement and also help students explore issues of ethical, moral, social values, and personal development?

William Damon:

Thanks - this is an important question, but it would require too long an answer for this context. I have 3 chapters in The Path to Purpose about such solutions. One quick point for here is that schools need to make space in their regular programs for reflection on exactly the issues that you ahve mentioned. I have written a lot in my recent book as well as my prior work about how schools can do this.

Question from Mike Huhndorf Anchorage, Alaska:

I don’t see much wrong with deferring until one is old enough and doing a variety of things in life as long as one is meeting the basic living obligations. I personally think that is what life is about. That is how we find what we want to do unless it comes earlier. When one is in school it is hard to get practical experience unless summer jobs are a personal choice. By waiting five or six years a person is old enough to make a choice based on jobs and life experience. Another approach is to get into some kind of trade school or apprenticeship, save money, get a degree and have the best of both worlds.

William Damon:

That’s right - as I write in The Path to Purpose, the delay itself is not the problem. It’s OK for kids to take some extra years to find themselves, especially in these complicated times. But there needs to be movement forward during this period, a sense of learning and reflection towards a long-term set of goals. Without that movement, there is stagnation rather than personal development. The problem that I discuss in my book is that too many kids these days are not showing a determination to move forward in this way, and some of them may have even given up hope of doing so.

Question from Mark Alberstein, President, Educate For A Change, Inc.:

Do you see a connection between the way we grade and promote students, and their disengagement?

William Damon:

When we focus on grades as ends in themselves rather than as means to the important ends such as learning and accomplishment, we promote disengagement among students.

Question from Judith Munday, Educational Consultant, Help in School:

Don’t you find that parents tend to abdicate more of their responsibility as the schools take it on. Areas of moral development, values and personal responsibility can be reinforced in school - but can the schools really take on that job as a primary task?

William Damon:

This should not be an either-or issue. Parents and schools both must take responsibility for imparting good values to kids, and in fact they will be most effective when they work in concert to do so. Neither parent nor school can avoid moral instruction - moral problems arise everywhere, and adults abslolutely must respond in an instructive way whenevera child acts in a way that signals a lack or moral understanding.

Question from Peggy Hakanson, SDC 7th and 8th, El Dorado M.S.:

Due to the fact that we are living in a global economy in which people will be expected to change jobs more frequently and wear many more hats in their jobs, shouldn’t we be preparing students to be well-rounded for many vocations and being open to constant change?

William Damon:

Sure, but we can’t do that in the abstract. We must give students lots of opportunties to discover their interests and talents in a wide variety of domains. They will be the ones who must determine how to use what they have learned to the futures they will face. We can’t write the script for them, and of course conditions may change again in ways that we can’t predict. The essential things that we must give them is a chance to discover their own goals and a realistic way to prepare themeselves to pursues these goals.

Question from Michelle Montali, Teacher, Torrey Pines:

Could this lack of direction and purpose be an outgrowth of the prevalent skill-and-drill dominated, testing-based curriculum?

William Damon:

It certainly contributes to it, yes; but there are other adverse influences as well, such as a celebrity mass media that projects goals such as fame and material fortune the only worthwhile objectives in life.

Question from Tina Kissell, Student Services Moore County Schools:

When graduation requirements demand that students focus their attention of studies in the 8th grade, adolescents truly have little time to “explore” their interests anymore in high school. I’m not surprised that young adults are floating from job to job, searching for themselves. How can we fulfill the requirements of the NCLB mandate, while supporting the social/emotional growth of students as they explore who they are and how/where they fit into the world? This is a HUGE issue for those of us in Student Services whose access to students becomes more limited as the accountability pressures for ACADEMIC growth increases.

William Damon:

Yes, you are correct, this is one of the major challenges that we face today. In The Path to Purpose I address this by urging educators to help students and teachers keep the NCLB mandates in perspective - that is, to treat them as means towards larger ends (having to do with vocations and callings), and to make sure that students in particular understand this. Otherwise there will be no authentic motivation to learn - hence the drift and the apathy that we see too much of today.

Question from Dr. Ami Hicks, Roosevelt University:

I have been in education for 40 years teaching high school business subjects. I do not see much difference in today’s youth as I did throughout my career. I feel the diminish of vocational education in our schools a real problem. When students take career & technical education courses, they are more driven, more focused, and find a career path that suits their skills. How have you addressed the issue of schools eliminating career programs? What are your thoughts on this.

William Damon:

That’s one of the main points that I keep making, today and in my book: Schools need to take the key objective of preparing students for careers (meaningful vocations) far more seriously than they do in our current educational system.

Debra Viadero (Moderator):

We have a backlog of questions so we’re going to extend the chat for a few more minutes so Dr. Damon can answer questions that are already in the queue. At this point, though, we won’t be taking any new questions. Let’s return to the discussion now.

Question from Nancy Hahn, Language Arts teacher, Everitt Middle School:

In the 60s many voices asked my generation to stand up for something, in the 40s many voices asked my parents’ generation to stand up for something. Do you think that maybe we need to ask more of young people to get more from them?

William Damon:


Question from Deborah Janeczko, Director of Education, Central Florida Institute, Palm Harbor, FL:

What are your thoughts on a more career focused secondary education? As an educator in the postsecondary, proprietary, arena I see many students who “suffered” through classes they describe as irrelevant in high school and entered the workforce with no or very little skill. Now they realize they need educational training to enter a career rather than simply going from job to job. Do you think providing a more relative education, both through options and classroom presentation, the student might begin a journey toward a lifetime career sooner?

William Damon:

Yes, again I am in favor of a more dedicated effort on the part of schools to link academic learning with career preparation. But this needs to be done in a broadly-conceived sense - we want to give students skills and motivation that they can use in an number of ways, according to their own imaginations, not train them for specific careers that may not be relevant for the futures they will choose.

Question from susan krivichi, former educator and parent of two teenagers:

While I agree with Mr. Damon regarding the narrow focus of No Child Left Behind based curriculae, it seems to me that parents must also take a stand first, against this type of teaching (and honestly, testing) and second against the rampant overscheduling that our children are now being subjected to. Schools and families are interpreting ‘well rounded’ in terms of the number of activities rather than evaluating the quality of the activity in providing life lessons or some type of sustainability for future enjoyment. This is leading children to burn out, perhaps leading to this extreme opposite reaction of not wanting to be scheduled into anything again, forever. Please share your thoughts on this phenomenon and describe some ways that parents (and educators) can direct children toward fewer and more meaningful activities that encourage intellectual growth, maturity and decision making--things that seem to be sorely missing in many young people today.

William Damon:

This is a good goal for parents. The first step is to do a lot of careful listening to find out what the child’s own interests are, rather than assuming that the parent knows what the child need to spend time on. Then find ways to help the child extend these interests - and yes, encourage focus and coherence rather than an overload of frantic, scattered activities. In The Pat to Purpose I give examples of thes kinds of dialogues that parents can have with their kids towards this end.

Question from Regina Gilchrist Ash, Director of Instruction, Swain County Schools, North Carolina:

In your opinion or your research, have you insight to this: Are recent reports that youth today are volunteering/participating in community service in higher numbers than at any point in history an exploratory attempt by youth to find meaning or some negative correlary to your findings?

William Damon:

The increased amount of voluntary service that the present generation of young people has been engaged in is one of the highly positive changes for young people in recent times. There have been many benefits from this change, both for the youngsters and for their communities. In my book, I do not say that everything is going in the wrong direction. Youth voluntary service is on the plus side of our current ledger.

Question from Karen Alexander, Assistant Principal, Lee HS:

You mentioned teachers making connection betwween skills & contents learned in class and the sharing of personal stories. “Can you give an example of what you would share with urban high school students/class who are apathetic about learning and do not see the usefulness of the classes they need to take to graduate, let alone perform their best to earn the credit?”

William Damon:

One compelling approach would be to find some successful almuni of the school to come back and tell their own stories. Every school that I have ever heard about, even in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods, have some kids who have done well based on what they have learned in school. Thse kids can set inspiring examples for current students.

Question from Julie Brown, Director of Academic and Outreach Programs, Institute for Advanced Learning and Research:

How do we help our youth develop an intrinsic desire to seek education? Material rewards may spark an interest in school and education, but do not provide a sense of hope and accomplishment that comes from a true desire to be educated.

William Damon:

That’s right - we need to show them that the skills that schools are offering can help them achieve their own purposes. So the first step is to help them discover their interests and long-term goals, in the ways that I describe in my book.

Question from Karen Collman, Director of Guidance, Bradford, VT:

What steps towards policy change can this study lead to? How can we take this information towards concrete actions that can change this dismal outlook?

William Damon:

The main change is freeing up more space and time in school for students to discover their true interests. This means more resources devoted to extracurricular activities, more time for the teacher to develop individual knowledge of each student, more resources for vocational guidance, and topics such as purpose and meaning of school subjects brought more to the center of classroom discussions.

Question from Pamela Cloud teacher Thomas County Middle:

Did you find any discreptancies between children from rural areas versus children from metropolitan areas? If so, what were the differences?

William Damon:

No, we found no such differences in our initial data set. We will be looking again at this in our further analyses, but so far we haven’t found differences.

Debra Viadero (Moderator):

Our hour has long been up. Thank you for your many thoughtful questions. And thanks to Mr. Damon for joining us. You’ll be able to read a full transcript of this chat soon on

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