Tuesday, November 18, 2014

What's Your Mission?

     I conduct a series of seminars for St. John's parents called Inside the Head's Head, during which we focus on a variety of educational topics and how they apply to St. John's. Last year, for instance, we talked about education being responsive to changes in the world. This year we're pondering notions of success. This morning was our first session, and it was a very spirited and encouraging discussion. In response to one of the prompts I provided, the topic of money came up. Someone offered that while we all want to make a certain degree of money, and that varies from person to person, he believes it's most important to follow one's passion. I've been thinking about that very notion when it comes to students entering college. That's quite natural since I have a senior daughter.
     You know the question that people inevitably ask high school seniors: What do you plan to major in? While my daughter, Kate, has some possibilities in mind, she simply doesn't know for sure. I believe that is normal and probably healthy. I went to college with vague plans of entering the radio business, probably fueled by too many hours listening to Scott Muni on WNEW-FM while growing up. Anyway, more on that later in the post. For a seventeen-year-old, that's akin to asking what they want to be after college, as they often see the two in lockstep. She doesn't have any clear idea about that either. But she does know what she is interested in and passionate about and draws meaning from. So both of us have become rather intrigued with ideas being voiced by the new president of Goucher College, Jose Antonio Bowen. He has received quite a bit of press for introducing the concept of the video application. But I'm more interested in another one of his thoughts--having a student declare not a major, but a mission; or a major shaped by a personal mission (See paragraph 7 in this piece. Also read this New York Times article for other thoughts.) I love how this captures a sense of meaning and purpose that should fuel one's education.
     Of course, many think that's a "big ask" of a young college student. To some extent I agree. But I'm not sure it's any bigger than asking for declaration of a major. Actually, it should provide even better direction because it prompts much more reflection and perhaps less of a major-by-default process. I think about the incredible insights and then pointed guidance a young, impressionable college student could receive. Interestingly, yesterday I had the chance to visit with a former student-athlete of mine and I bounced this idea off him. He responded, "I wish someone had sat down with me at the start and asked me what I really cared about. I might have had more direction." I think back to the insight a career counselor showed during my senior year. The radio dream popped after I spent a couple days at that station and some realities. So I needed a new plan and went to the career services office. After looking at my paperwork and talking with me, she told me I should think about working in an independent school. I had no idea what that meant, but it's proven wonderfully rewarding for over thirty years. I just wish I'd been asked sooner. Until that session towards the end, I'd been left to figure it out on my own.
     Here's where much of the encouraging part of the sessions comes in. As we talked about success, the parents and I kept returning to ideals that fit this notion. Knowing oneself, values, perseverance, growth, mistakes, soft skills and qualities--the things that enable one to strive towards fulfilling a mission. It's why I believe the best schools are not just idea factories. While that suggests an innovative streak, it's too purely academic. The truly excellent schools, from elementary through college, are ideals factories. They are places where young people receive affirmation of themselves and their views and their aims. In other words, they become people with and on a mission.