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Lisa Trei, News Service (650) 725-0224; e-mail:

Center on Adolescence awarded $300,000 grant to study how young people acquire sense of noble purpose in society

William Damon, director of the Center on Adolescence, has been awarded a $300,000 grant by the John Templeton Foundation to study how young people learn to do the "right thing" in today's world.

The four-year grant, which begins this October, will examine the social, cultural and educational conditions that promote a sense of noble purpose in society.

"This is a scientific project -- it is not an intervention study," Damon said. "We want to find out how kids form a sense of purpose -- not how society can give them that."

Key questions that will be investigated include:

  • What noble purposes inspire today's youth?
  • How are young people being introduced to such purposes?
  • What noble purposes may be available but not resonant with youth today?
  • What kinds of noble purposes are educational institutions advancing or neglecting?

Damon, a professor of education who studies intellectual and moral development, said his entire career has led up to the project, which begins with the assumption that a sense of purpose is essential for a constructive and meaningful life.

"I've gotten closer and closer to why someone decides to make a difference" in society," he said. "I've looked at all the factors -- why and when people make that choice. Adolescence is a critical period."

Damon said secondary school and college represent a moratorium from the adult world and its accompanying responsibilities. During puberty, neurological development speeds up -- the period is key in forming a sense of identity. "Intellectual development couldn't happen earlier -- younger kids can't project into the future," he said. "A lot of experiences they had during childhood were things that happened to them. They don't put it all together until adolescence, when they can make choices that are not passive."

People can change later in life, Damon explained, but they are not as flexible as during adolescence, when self-interest and self-identity tend to merge. "[Young people] discover a purpose in life that's larger than themselves," he said. "That purpose can come from many places -- faith, patriotism, family, work. In our society, it often has to do with work."

Although the terrorist attacks last September led to a broad surge of patriotism, no accurate data exist on how teenagers have reacted in the long term, Damon said. And although religion is becoming more popular on university campuses, the subject cannot be discussed in public schools. "We don't know how much [such] traditional sources of purpose are resonant with people today," he said.

According to Damon, educational institutions advance purposes around paid work that fit neatly into corporate business and science models: "Most high schools downplay aesthetic programs -- they promote math but do away with arts programs." On the other hand, Damon noted, volunteer work is broadly supported.

The project at the Center on Adolescence will be divided into three phases. The first will produce an annotated bibliography of prior scholarly work, including a review of its insights and limitations. Researchers will conduct a survey and organize a campus conference in March 2003 to define the theories, questions and a range of scientific methods best suited to exploring the subject. During the second phase, the survey's findings and conclusions from the conference will be turned into a set of recommendations for a new area of scientific study. Finally, the researchers plan to write academic articles as well as a book for the public on youth purpose, Damon said.


By Lisa Trei

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