Paul L. Caron

Sunday, August 8, 2021

The Power Of Purpose-Driven Law Schools

Wall Street Journal Essay:  The Power of Purpose-Driven Schools, by Mark Oppenheimer (The Christian Century):

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

Purpose 1There 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 Self-Transcendent Purpose for Learning Fosters Academic Self-Regulation, a 2014 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, he and his co-authors [Angela Duckworth (Pennsylvania), Sidney D’Mello (Notre Dame), Marlone Henderson (Texas), David Paunesku (Stanford), Brian Spitzer (NYU), and Gregory Walton (Stanford)] 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. ...

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. ...

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.’”

I had the privilege of spending my first 20+ years as a law professor at a secular public law school (and visitor at three other law schools) before joining the Pepperdine Caruso Law faculty in 2013. I taught wonderful students at all five schools but quickly noticed a difference with students at our faith-based school. We make every prospective student aware of our mission and vision:

Pepperdine is a Christian university committed to the highest standards of academic excellence and Christian values, where students are strengthened for lives of purpose, service, and leadership.

Pepperdine University will be a preeminent, global, Christian university, known for the integration of faith and learning, whose graduates lead purposeful lives as servant-minded leaders throughout the world.

Our vision statement declares what we intend to become. George Pepperdine envisioned an institution that would transform students' lives so that they would, in turn, impact culture. He imagined a vast body of alumni—men and women conscious of their good fortune, recipients of the generous gift of a Christian education—who would feel the moral imperative to serve others sacrificially. Hence, the school's motto: "Freely ye received, freely give" (Matthew 10:8).

This mission and vision drive everything we do and help our students embrace a "self-transcendent purpose" in their legal education. We give students concrete tools to practice their faith while they are here so they leave "Equipped to Lead. Empowered to Serve."

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