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Building Values and Purpose

Building Values and Purpose
Andrew Webster


“True happiness…is not attained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.”

--Helen Keller

As students grow as learners and young people in our school, they are faced with the challenge of defining who they are and what they stand for. At the same time, they try to understand the forces afoot in the world they are moving into, and how they can enter that world in ways that reflect their emerging values. In this evolving process, families provide the crucial foundation. For most students, school and peers also play an important role, and increasingly so as students grow into adolescence.

This is nothing new, but I don’t believe it has ever been harder. The constant 24-hour news cycle, amplified through social media, is not conducive to calm consideration of values. Adults have so often failed to provide models of civil discourse. The problems that students observe seem intractable, including school violence, mass shootings, climate disruption, racial and religious intolerance, and the fundamental erosion of honesty and kindness as values. It is not at all surprising that students suffer increasingly from anxiety.

So, what is to be done to help our students find their way and see themselves as efficacious? Parents can and should take the time to talk about issues they see as important and link them overtly with values. If possible, parents should demonstrate how they act on those values. For example, if climate disruption is an issue that troubles you, what do you do about it? Students need to see that they can take action and help shape outcomes, even in small ways. Our service learning programs can also provide an avenue. Upper School students who are concerned about inequality and xenophobia can tutor refugee children in their homes or in the Plainfield schools we have partnered with. Some have traveled to El Paso and Las Cruces to explore border issues at close hand. They have, and will again this year, visit and live in small communities in Peru to learn how local leaders there address issues such as environmental degradation, education, women’s economic empowerment, and preventative health. At school and at home, students need to see that the work they put in will prepare them to add their voices and contribute their abilities in meaningful ways to problems they want to help solve. 

Our emphasis on global engagement is based in the confidence that our students can clearly identify their own values and find productive and creative ways to infuse the world with those values. Clarifying their values and their sense of purpose will allow them to shoulder the burdens and responsibilities they will face without feeling overwhelmed and helpless. In classes and beyond, we want our students to develop a strong confidence in their ability to assess and address challenges using their own inner resources and in collaboration with others. When that confidence is instilled and nurtured at home, at school, and in other organizations our families choose to engage with, our students learn to blaze their own trails with resilience.