A recent Sunday Opinion section of the New York Times posed an intriguing question:  what’s the purpose of school?  Given the pandemic’s disruption of “normal” schooling, and efforts to “de-woke” the curriculum so as not to offend, it’s a highly relevant question with which school leaders are grappling.

The Times opinion writers noted an array of purposes for school, from teaching students to read, to providing the means for upward mobility, to saving our democracy by leveling the playing field of opportunity for all.  All of these are important. But missing from the list is one role for education that I believe is equally essential:  to help young people find a purpose for their lives. A key purpose of school is for students to discover purpose in their existence.

Finding a purpose for one’s life is not the same as following one’s passion, although the two can be deeply intertwined.  Identifying one’s passion is a response to the question, “what do I want to do with my life?” Uncovering one’s purpose is a response to the question, “what does life expect from me?”  This is the core lesson of the seminal book, “Man’s Search for Meaning” wherein the author, Victor Frankl, describes how he was able to survive the unspeakable privations of four Nazi concentration camps during World War II, including Dachau.  Faced with starvation, torture and the constant threat of death, Frankl realized the only way he could survive was to cling to the hope of someday telling the true story of the Nazi atrocities and the courage of those who refused to succumb. What life expected of Frankly was to find purpose in his suffering so that others would never face the same horrors.

No child, or adult, should ever face the horrific circumstances endured by Frankl.  It is the case, though, that the vast majority of youth in the world are born into circumstances where they are not fully free to pursue their passion, rather they are faced with the realities of poverty, discrimination and oppression.  And no child, however privileged, is free from the worsening existential threat posed by climate change.  The truth of our times for young people is that life now and in the future is problematic. The role for schools is not to minimize or deny the issues students face, rather to help them clarify the causes and consequences of the world’s ills, to discern potential solutions, and to realize their responsibility to act. This is the essence of what it means to “investigate the world” and “take action”, two of the four domains of global competence.  Teaching for global competence provides a pathway for students to develop meaning and purpose in life; of realizing and responding to what life expects of them.

I’m of the view that a great deal of the rage so many Americans seem to feel these days stems from a sense that their world has been turned upside down and they see no meaningful place or purpose for themselves in the future.  They never developed the habit of mind through their experiences in school and elsewhere to address new and fundamentally challenging problems with reason, courage, and hope. Instead, they are lost in a sea of denial and doubt. What a difference there would be if teaching for global competence had been the norm in their youth for American education.

Written by: Dr. Anthony Jackson, Vice President for Education and Director of the Center for Global Education at Asia Society (retired) Advisor to Community Catalyst Partners