The Power of Purpose

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WSJ – July 31, 2021

The Power of Purpose-Driven Schools

To engage young people, education needs to be about religious or social values that transcend preparing for a job.

By Mark Oppenheimer | 1180 words

My 8-year-old daughter is happy most everywhere—she is one of the merriest people I know—and she was always happy to walk, or skip, two minutes down the block every morning to our excellent neighborhood public school in New Haven, Conn. So when we learned it would not open for in-person learning last fall, it was a difficult decision to move her. But she is exceedingly social, and we wanted her to be with people, in person. Her elder sister was at the local Jewish school, three miles up the road, and we liked it, so we made the switch.

And something extraordinary happened: Our 8-year-old liked this new school even more. She loved it, and can’t wait to go back when the new school year starts in a few weeks. My wife and I realized that her passion had nothing to do with teaching quality or school budget; her public school has some of the best teachers I know, and the per-pupil expenditure is about the same in both schools.

What she loves about her Jewish school, it seems, is its sense of mission. She loves the Hebrew language instruction, the regular prayers, the Torah reading. She is connecting with all her subjects better, in part because they have an explicit point—to become a “responsible, caring citizen” and a “committed, knowledgeable Jew,” to quote the school’s mission statement.

Of course, all good schools have an implicit sense of mission, often something along the lines of making good citizens. But that is a very diffuse goal, one not easily comprehended by an 8-year-old (or a nearly-47-year-old, like me). It was pairing “citizenship” with the goal of helping students mature as Jews—becoming stewards of a millennia-old tradition—that makes her new school so vital.

There is a growing body of scholarly literature that demonstrates the power of linking schooling to what the University of Texas psychologist David S. Yaeger calls “self-transcendent purpose.” In “Boring but Important,” a 2014 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, he and his co-authors reported that their studies of over 2,000 adolescents and young adults showed that giving students a “prosocial, self-transcendent purpose” led to achievement gains in science and math, and helped them “sustain self-regulation over the course of an increasingly boring task.”

In other words, even when a student is not naturally drawn to a task—learning grammar, say, or trigonometry—she may perform better when she believes that being good at the task will help her make a difference in the world down the road. However, self-interested goals, such as “the desire to have an interesting or enjoyable career,” did not produce these learning effects. The mission had to transcend self-interest.

In another study involving 1,364 college-bound seniors from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, those who had self-transcendent reasons for wanting to go to college, like “I want to gain skills that I can use in a job to help others,” showed more grit in the face of boring tasks—they would keep at math problems rather than watch a viral video—and also found schoolwork more meaningful. Unsurprisingly, they were later more likely to stay in college. Again, this effect held for those with self-transcendent goals, not for those with self-centered goals: “I want an education to help others,” not “I want an education to get a good-paying job.”

To be clear, what Dr. Yaeger and his colleagues concluded was that finding higher purpose helps one endure the work, not love it. In this regard, they built on older studies, going back to the 1950s and 1960s, that showed that people with low-status, unpleasant jobs, like trash collectors and hospital orderlies, performed better when they felt they were doing good for society.

But when it comes to my children’s school performance, or my own work life, effectiveness isn’t all I aspire to. I want passion—something teenagers come by naturally. “Puberty is the body’s way of saying you want to matter,” Dr. Yaeger told me. “And yet we structure the workforce and education to say, ‘You don’t matter until you are 28,” around the end of graduate school. “There is a mismatch between teenagers’ desire to do something bigger and society’s expectations of them.”

It’s not only religious schools that offer this sense of purpose. For example, public schools that adopt the Facing History and Ourselves curricula are explicitly committing to fighting hatred and bigotry, working with case studies about the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, “race in U.S. history” and the violence against Indigenous Canadians. Natalie Semmel, who enters Yale this fall, graduated from New Haven Academy, in New Haven, Conn., which uses Facing History and Ourselves. She said the school succeeded in connecting her learning to changes she wanted to make.

“The school puts so much emphasis on both humanities and social justice, and you are kind of expected to be very interested in those things,” Ms. Semmel said. At school, she did “really intense work in literature” and for her required internship after her junior year, she worked in the office of her congresswoman, Rosa DeLauro, which connected to her interests in history and politics. “I was really able to thrive knowing that’s where our values as a school were.”

New Haven Academy has a liberal bent, but a self-transcendent purpose can have other politics, or none at all. Ron Berger works at EL Education, a Massachusetts consultancy that incorporates Dr. Yaeger’s research in advising teachers. He worked with a public school in Dubuque, Iowa, where students were assigned to interview World War II veterans, who are dying off.

The project was presented as an urgent mission. “It was like, ‘We have to honor them while they are around,’” Mr. Berger said. “If you are in high school today, you don’t know what World War II was. If you had to study World War II for a test, and you are not a top student who’s already motivated, there is no chance you will study. Like, who cares? But if you are going to interview someone who was in it, you better learn your history, because you want to understand what they are saying.”

Every student will find self-transcendent purpose differently. For some, the project of public schooling, with its democratic ethos of the common good, will be inspiration enough to slog through calculus. Other students will find purpose in combating an external evil. “The easiest thing in the world is to ask a teenager why the world is unfair,” Dr. Yaeger said. “So why aren’t we tapping into that latent righteous indignation and using it as fuel for learning? The purpose treatment starts with listening to what is wrong with the world, and saying, ‘You can help fix it if you have a stronger brain.’”

For other students, the self-transcendent service will be something more metaphysical. “Jewish schools resonate with this idea of service and doing good and character mattering,” said Mr. Berger, whose book “An Ethic of Excellence” has been used by Jewish day schools. The religious nature of the school, he said, “puts kids on a mission: ‘I am getting smart for a reason.’”

Mr. Oppenheimer is the author of the forthcoming book “Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood,” which will be published by Alfred A. Knopf in October.■

The Wall Street Journal

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