Section A3: Young people and their search for meaning
The search for meaning; constructing meaning in a complex and relatively confusing culture; issues for young people in the construction of meaning and purpose in life.

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Ultimate meaning is summed up in a painting by Paul Gauguin entitled D´où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous? 1897 (Where have we come from? What are we? Where are we going?)

Introductory video to this section

1. Introductory video giving an introduction to the content covered in this section. Click here or the icon to view or download the introductory video

Brief overview of content of this section

The 'search' for meaning. An examination of some issues related to a so-called contemporary ‘crisis' of meaning.  The multiplicity of meanings in contemporary culture and the need for critical discernment of which meanings are worthwhile and healthy.

Some of the differences in the way young people search for and construct meaning by comparison with what happen for older generations. The different place and role for religion in young people search for meaning.

Young people's search for personal meaning and the potential role of education in this search.  What does it mean to have a healthy set of personal meanings?


Audio mp3 file lecture of this section
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The written text for this section (Study the text in conjunction with the audio lecture of 56 minutes duration)

The search for meaning
individual and community frames of reference for meaning
Flight from meaning and the avoidance of meaning
Maturity in the development of personal meaning
Maturity of meaning in the light of cultural post-modernity and uncertainty in personal knowledge
Young people's search for meaning
Secularisation and secular meaning / purpose in life
Spiritual experience: a self transcending dimension to young people search for meaning
Generational differences in the search for meaning and purpose
Young people, relativism and the 'supermarket' of contemporary meanings for life
The trauma of living in the 21st century
The do-it-yourself (DIY) meaning generation
Search for meaning as related to seeking community, making choices and having lifestyle options
Meanings and 'instant community' and social media
The pursuit of a healthy personal meaning in life

The search for meaning

Man's search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a ‘secondary rationalisation' of instinctual drives.
Viktor Frankl

The phrase ‘search for meaning' was popularised by Viktor Frankl's book Man's search for meaning (1964). As shown in the previous two sections A1 & A2, searching for meaning has long been a defining characteristic of the human person. But over the last fifty years it has become a more prominent issue for three reasons:

  • first, a decline in the relevance of traditional sources of meaning like religion and family;
  • second, a greater emphasis on individualism where people rely more on their own resources for constructing personal meaning; and third
  • that ‘progress' and ‘development' in Western technological societies have not always equated with increased happiness, and people are puzzled about the causes of personal and social unrest. Hence more time and angst is going into trying to make sense of life, whereas in the past more of the meaning people relied on was taken for granted.

Research and writings about youth have suggested that the search for meaning and identity is a more problematic developmental task for young people than it was formerly. But not enough attention has been given to what this search entails and why it is needed. More needs to be done in clarifying just what is understood by ‘meaning' and how it functions psychologically.

What does it mean to ‘search' for meaning? And why do people need to do this? Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl believed that looking for meaning was a fundamental human drive – essential to what it means to be human, something like a basic human instinct, as expressed in the quotation above. However, while the capacity to make meaning appears to be genetic, meaning itself does not come instinctively; it has to be absorbed and constructed from experience and community resources; and eventually, as one matures, it needs to be consciously chosen and articulated. To adapt St Anselm's words (2.5), one could describe the search for meaning as ‘Life seeking understanding'.

Frankl believed that it was natural for people to articulate their personal meaning in belief statements, whether or not they were religious. Just how much individuals constructed their own personal statements of meaning, or the extent to which they adopted existing formulae from particular communities of meaning, would vary. Frankl proposed a central role for understanding and reason and he cautioned against exaggerated individualism in the search for meaning:

A human being is not one in pursuit of happiness, but rather in search of a reason to become happy.

The meaning of our existence is not invented by ourselves, but rather detected. (Viktor Frankl)

Frankl stressed a genetic ‘will to meaning' and its dimensions of rationality and commitment. This provides a basis for an education in meaning. However, it would be mistake to presume that all young people show an overt need for meaning, or an interest in searching for it. For some adolescents the search for meaning is a central concern; others may not want to give it much thought; while for others, the search for meaning may be a health hazard! For many, the pursuit of immediate happiness and satisfaction is more important than finding meaning. Some young people occupy each of these positions at different periods of their life. Nevertheless, the idea of promoting personal meaning is a good ideal to propose for personal development, and as such it can be a valuable educational goal.

The idea of a search for meaning suggests that:

  • people consciously look for theories that give satisfying insight into life;
  • conscious effort is required for appropriating and developing meaning – it does not come automatically or easily;
  • there may be a felt deficit of meaning that motivates people to look for something more meaningful than currently held theories;
  • usually the individual is the one who ultimately decides for himself/herself what is meaningful;
  • the search may involve a conscious evaluation of available meanings;
  • meaning or a satisfying interpretation may come after the event – it can develop through attempts to understand what has happened.
  • It may be that searching for meaning is a symptom of something more fundamental. When things go wrong, whether this is a traumatic event or a gradual change, current meaning can be called into question. It may no longer provide a satisfactory explanation of life, or adequate motivation. If this is the case, then a better description of what is happening in problems in life that prompt a review of personal meaning.

If there is to be a search for meaning, the impression readily given is that the search is catalysed and driven by some sensed lack of meaning; there is angst about meaning. A dissonance between new experience and older meaning may prompt the individual to try to find a more satisfying explanation of new circumstances. In some cases, individuals may learn to live in a different way and only then detect the new meaning in what they are doing. In other words, it is not just a cognitive task of looking for new meaning and adopting it. It may entail experimenting with different ways of living and then putting the practice into theory.

An interesting empirical question emerging from this discussion is to discover what prompts change in personal meaning.

  What are the sorts of experiences that young people think have changed their meaning? Is it always triggered by difficulty or trauma?
  Or is the change slower?

Do many seek to develop their personal meaning through reflection, study and reading?

For those who are depressed and without hope, the search for meaning may be the last crucial process in the maintenance of mental health. If they have some beliefs they feel are worth living for, this can make a difference. On the other hand, if they do not have any robust inner meaning, this can add to the depression and make the search for meaning a further health hazard; more thinking can be more depressing. In these circumstances, searching for meaning may be better postponed. Being helped to get on with life and involved in activities, putting aside negative thoughts, may be a more useful therapy, with the development of meaning from this experience coming into the picture at a later stage.

Individual and community frames of reference for meaning

Problems arise where people are relatively alone and too dependent on their own psychic resources for the construction of meaning. There is a need for a community frame of reference, and for community support, especially for the early stages of meaning development in children and adolescents.

One of the major cultural problems with individualism is that it may appear to young people to be one of the few things left for them to believe in. American psychologist Martin Seligman considered that

one necessary condition for meaning is the attachment to something larger than the self; and the larger that entity, the more meaning you can derive.

To the extent that it is now difficult for young people to take seriously their relationship to God, to care about their relationship to the country, or to be part of a large and abiding family, meaning in life will be very difficult to find. The self, to put it another way, is a very poor site for meaning.

Young people can feel caught in a bind. The culture lauds individualism; the commercial world does everything it can to make individualism a marketable commodity. But excessive individualism can be the cause of a pathological aloneness; it can erode a sense of community, and it can put unnecessary pressure on young people to have to work out meaning and purpose by themselves.

While meaning ultimately needs to be appropriated by the individual, it may be expecting too much of the human condition to have children and adolescents construct meaning entirely by themselves. They need resources in meaning from the community. It is a question of balance.

4.2.2  Flight from meaning and the avoidance of meaning

This section looks at ways in which people avoid searching for meaning ( see also 3.2.2).

Reflection and interpretation are central to meaning. Those who invariably act on their immediate feelings may consciously avoid the reflection and interpretation that might acknowledge the implied meaning in their behaviour because it is questionable. While they may have interaction with others, and while they may nominally espouse causes (such as the environment and animal welfare), their frame of reference for values is self-centred. Everything is measured in terms of its convenience or advantage to individuals, who may devote much of their time to the sort of entertainment that distracts from reflection.

Television, now with extensive programming available through cable and satellite, offers enormous scope for entertainment at home; it provides unlimited opportunities for engaging the viewer's attention and for time-wasting. Television may thus inhibit the sort of reflection that is important for the development of meaning. For some, excessive time spent absorbed in television soap operas, sitcoms, dramas and ‘reality' programs can signal a life without much meaning – also evident in the hours spent flicking a remote control up and down the spectrum of available channels, searching for something that will attract and hold their attention. Such an addiction to television watching can help settle people into life at a superficial level. Much of the programming they watch shows little of the depth and complexity that characterise real life, while the so-called ‘reality' programs pick up on a few issues that are inevitably distorted in the quest for entertainment ratings (15.7.5).

Maturity in the development of personal meaning

What are some of the characteristics that might be expected of people with wise meaning that gives direction, purpose and energy to their living?

In 1980, James Fowler, a developmental psychologist in the United States with a special interest in Christian religious education, published his research in a book titled Stages of faith. It had a significant effect on thinking about spiritual development, and it complemented other theories of personal development that involved structural developmental stages (such as those of Piaget, Kohlberg, Erikson, and Kegan).

One of the focal points of Fowler's theory was evident in the subtitle to his book: The psychology of human development and the quest for meaning. He explored the processes through which meaning was constructed across the life cycle. His developmental stages showed how children were dependent on parental figures for meaning; as they grew older, they were socialised into community meanings. He highlighted the ways in which individuals progressed from authority-dependent meaning to more autonomy. In the later stages of development, they did not need to defend the boundaries of their meaning so strongly, and they could be open to a wider range of new meanings without anxiety or threat to their own identity. They did not need to collapse the polarities and tensions within their meanings.

Fowler's work is a useful resource for appraising maturity in meaning. Any such appraisal inevitably involves value judgments. Also, maturity needs to be assessed in both the content and the process of meaning-making. The extent to which personal meaning flows into action is an additional aspect of maturity; this thinking moves closer to the relationship between meaning and character or virtues.

While the notion of a self-appraisal of meaning can readily be recommended, the extent to which others and community agencies (like schools) might be engaged in the appraisal of personal meaning is difficult to determine, and it involves ethical questions. While in therapy and counselling people give privileged access to their personal meanings, their meaning needs protection in the public domain; here, the evaluation of meaning is more appropriately concerned with a general educational exploration of content and process in meaning-making, leaving individuals free to draw their own personal implications.

4.2.4  Maturity of meaning in the light of postmodern concerns about uncertainty in personal knowledge

2.10.9 drew attention to the questioning and uncertainty that typify culture in Western technological societies. Hence a key task in the contemporary search for meaning is how to negotiate the apparent agnosticism about meaning that goes with cultural postmodernity. Two issues need to be addressed: Can there be trustworthy meaning when there is so much questioning, uncertainty and relativism? What does truth mean in a constantly changing landscape of meanings?

The postmodern uncertainty about meaning is one of the defining characteristics of Western culture at the turn of the millennium. There have always been wars, violence, political unrest and corruption; but now people are told about it on a daily basis – every time they turn on the television, they are confronted with what is happening in the various trouble spots around the globe. In addition, terrorism has become a more prominent threat worldwide, as has the widening gap between the rich and the poor. All of this heightens the uncertainty and anxiety people are feeling. They are puzzled about what is happening in the world; they cannot make sense of it; they are not sure of where things are going. For many, traditional beliefs and values do not provide the security and direction they appeared to give formerly. There is a need to understand how and why culture is moving from a period of apparent security and certainty in meaning towards one where there is more uncertainty and less security.

It is not just that a lot of new uncertainties have been introduced but that the incipient uncertainties that were always there in the past, just beneath the surface, have become more visible. This is disconcerting for a greater number of people. No longer is it a matter of finding meaning within an accepted framework; cultural postmodernity tends to call frameworks into question. Where the questioning of meaning becomes excessive, there is a danger that people will become increasingly self-centred and will channel most of their energies into satisfying present needs in an individualistic way, with disdain for both the support and the responsibilities associated with communities of meaning.

A first step in addressing the crisis of meaning is to acknowledge and articulate the naturally high levels of complexity and uncertainty in life across many domains that have resulted from cultural and technological progress – although the meaning of what constitutes ‘progress' is part of the problem. Hence it may be unrealistic to expect that meanings should be absolutely certain or true, and that they should be totally secure; that is not the nature of human meanings. They always have some measure of inbuilt uncertainty, even though people may have been unwilling ever to acknowledge this; human meaning always involves interpretation, even if an interpretation of reality outside the person. In other words, there may be access to absolute truths outside the individual, but this access will always be partial as far as the individual's knowing and meaning is concerned.

Then there is the question of how one can live constructively, comfortably and securely with partial meanings; and how one can accept a tolerable level of uncertainty that goes naturally with both the personal meaning-making process and a culture that is very critical and questioning. It is not a matter of being unable to know absolute truth, but of acknowledging that one cannot know all of the absolute truth, because it is too large and complex. This is not relativism, classic agnosticism or a pragmatic functionalism. Constructive, functional meaning does not have to be perfect or absolute. Fidelity in commitments can be maintained while admitting natural uncertainties in the personal knowing and meaning-making processes.

From this point of view, growth towards maturity in meaning involves replacing false certainties with true uncertainties. It means learning how to cope with a natural level of complexity and live with the valuable partial meanings that individuals can construct in connection with community life; and it includes valuing traditional meanings even if they are reinterpreted anew from generation to generation. This approach to meaning-making applies to those who are religious believers as well as to those who are not. Admittedly, it is the sort of maturity that might be expected of adults. Also, it can be more suited to some personalities than others; some find it difficult to live with too many ‘loose ends', especially as regards their ultimate meanings. Inevitably, some will reject this view as relativism of a sort because it admits to a level of uncertainty in personal knowledge that they are not prepared to accept.

This interpretation has implications for religious people: for example, acknowledging a degree of uncertainty in the physical or historical details related to their religious beliefs and accepting this as a normal part of faith, as well as accepting that religious doctrine is socially constructed and has usually evolved over time. Some, however, would want a stronger place for historicity and unchanging doctrine.

The differences in epistemology implied in the above discussion need to be acknowledged; this is significant in the public debate about what might be entailed in an education in meaning. We think there will never be full community consensus about the issues. But it is still possible to work at clarifying what can be attempted in an education in meaning.

A capacity to live with some degree of uncertainty in the meaning system has probably always been a part of the makeup of mature people. It is just that in contemporary Westernised societies there is a greater need for such a capacity just for psychic survival and mental health. Those who favour a more absolute and certain meaning system will be in for a harder time, even if they are supported and reassured by a strong group of the like-minded.

It is too much to expect that this sort of adult maturity in meaning can be realistically achieved by children and adolescents. Nevertheless, if it is an appropriate ideal, it should have implications for school education.

4.3  Young people's search for meaning

We have already noted that searching for meaning, and trying to make sense of life, is an important developmental task for young people. Many of the meaning-related issues considered in the last three chapters are pertinent to youth, even though the implications will depend on their age and maturity.

More will be said later about the dynamics of young people's search for meaning, especially in the Section on youth identity

The distinctions made between the spiritual and the religious are important for young people's search for meaning. The extent to which young people's search for meaning draws on traditional and organised religion varies considerably. For many, whether or not they attend church, synagogue, mosque or temple, there is usually at least some religious dimension to their personal meaning, be this strong or marginal. It commonly involves belief in God and some religious thinking and practice. For some, their religious faith is central to their meaning in life; while for others, they retain belief in God but do not draw much on the theology and spiritual practices of their religious tradition.

Young people's meaning in life also includes response to the natural environment and beautiful things, as well as personal concerns like fulfilment, happiness and community; if not a part of youth spirituality, these can at least be regarded as natural precursors or pathways to spirituality – avenues to the spiritual to which young people are attuned, or areas to which the word spirituality can be applied. This is evident in abiding dispositions towards life and patterns of behaviour that are influenced by values. Increasingly, film and television are becoming their most prominent spiritual and moral reference points (see Chapter 15).

A transcendent dimension to young people's personal meaning, as well as relating to belief in God and a hoped for afterlife, can also be understood as experience that raises the consciousness beyond the everyday to the ‘bigger picture' and ‘larger meaning' of life that transcend the individual.

The ‘beneath the surface', ‘the interior' or the ‘more than you see' dimension to life is another way of describing their 'meaning and purpose in life'; it is the meaning and value that lie beneath externals and perceptions. This sense of personal meaning is intimately linked with the emotional and the aesthetic, as well as with life goals and commitments. A significant overlap with personal identity is acknowledged.

9.1.5  Secularisation and secular meaning / purpose in life

Within most religious groups in industrialised countries, there is growing concern about an erosion of religious spirituality and identity in youth (also applicable to adults). Similarly, there is concern about the erosion of ethnicity, with its distinctive customs and traditions. But there remain strong expressions of nationalism and local ethnic tribalism, evident in sporting identification and other social groupings. As far as a decline in recognisable religious spirituality is concerned, it is related to the increasingly pervasive secular fashion in which many young people (as well as adults) form their meaning in life in contact with an influential media-promoted popular culture.

While young people share the same source culture as adults, they have experienced a secularised, individualistic lifestyle since they first learned to speak. They interpret the same culture with different meanings and this leads to different assumptions about life, different priorities, attitudes and lifestyles. They are conditioned by both culture and school education to question, critically assess and evaluate information. They are at a high-water mark of secularisation and they have been affected by a global village mentality that colours their view of religion itself and offers many alternative sources of meaning and values that can be used for developing spirituality and identity.

Even where young people live in religious households and local communities that try to shield them from a secular environment, they will still be conscious that there are others in the wider society who are not so shielded, and who think about life and form values more from their own initiative, with less dependence on traditional religious guidance for meaning in life. For many youth, the Church no longer speaks with a voice they wish to hear, or a voice that is believable.

As noted in a recent Catholic book on youth spirituality: ‘An important part of youth's dissatisfaction with the Church stems from the absence of a spiritually challenging and world-shaping vision that meets their hunger for the chance to participate in a worthy venture.' However, while this may be true in some instances, it is not universal. Even if the Church were to create such challenging adventures, young people would not flock back to church on Sundays. Just how many young people have a ‘real hunger for spirituality' needs more investigation. Some may be spiritual but not religious; some may be neither spiritual nor religious.

Many youth sense that, unlike the older generations, they have a ‘real option' to be or not to be part of organised religion. It is not likely that they will drift into, and remain with regular religious practice through cultural inertia. A lot of older people were never really free to make that choice; their participation in organised Christianity was more culturally determined for a long time (even if that is now no longer the case). But young people know they can ‘get by' spiritually without organised religion. They do not see any problem in having only tenuous connections with their religious tradition. If they are to be religious, it will be by intention rather than by convention. They know they have a choice as to what elements of religion they will believe and include in their meaning for life – and consequently in their sense of identity. They know they are more selective than were previous generations that tended to accept the traditional religious identity in packaged form with little personal modification.

It is also significant that they can choose to keep away from religious practice (even where this is contrary to parental wishes) and can do this without feeling guilty or uncomfortable (older people who have given up religious practice can have lingering guilt feelings). This is more than reacting against a religious upbringing; they are choosing to seek out a spirituality more independent of their traditional religion. It does not necessarily mean giving up identification with their religion; it is just that they see no need for much formal religious practice. It is consistent with their inclination not to see religion, including their own particular tradition, as likely to have a prominent place in the way they work out their meaning, values and purpose in life.

Many young people can comfortably dissociate their search for meaning and spirituality from their religion. Also, they do not see ‘real' religion (that is, a personalised belief system) as separate from life; any secular/religious dichotomy tends to have little meaning for them. They react against a division that in their view ‘straitjackets religion into an exclusively Sunday morning affair', ‘stifles the spiritual dimension of ordinary life' and ‘allows people to take refuge from God in their local church'.

As a consequence, social action and involvements that formerly were associated with religion, and that were religiously motivated, now flow into secular commitments. If they have concerns about the environment, human rights, personal relationships and sexuality, there are organisations in society, unaffiliated with religion, that seem to be more attractive; perhaps this is part of the general drift from religion; perhaps these groups are perceived to have a more relevant and legitimate voice than religious organisations. Young people have nominated associations like Amnesty International and Greenpeace as action groups for which they have more affinity than church groups. The relatively more democratic style of membership in these organisations is also significant. Even when they recognise the contribution of church-related organisations to social causes, their perception is that these groups are not typical. The movement away from organised religion often seems to have more to do with their experience of the Church than with a disinclination to believe in God.

Given these trends, it is foreseeable that many young people will continue to develop meaning and spirituality that are more individualistic, eclectic and personal than communal and formally religious in its expression. This does not mean that they no longer need any link with their religion or other spiritual reference group. But it suggests that in our type of society, most of the youth who seek religious affiliation will look for a community that supports spirituality that is personal and eclectic, and that focuses on both local and world issues (depending on age and level of social awareness) and makes room for their freedom and individuality.

9.1.2  Spiritual experience: A self-transcending dimension to young people's search for personal meaning

Many people feel they are close to a God, Creative Spirit or Life Force who knows and cares for them as individuals, and that they can talk to God in their thoughts. This is for them an abiding experience of the spiritual and transcendent. In addition, there are other spiritual experiences that are felt to be transcendent, but they are located primarily in human experience; sometimes this sort of experience points people towards the divine, sometimes it does not; but what it does give is a ‘tangible sense' of the spiritual dimension to life.

In conversations about the spiritual, young people can identify moments when their attention was engaged by experiencing something that is beautiful in itself. It might be a scenic vista, or something entrancing like a flower, or being near a wild animal, or an artistic work or piece of music. They were caught up in admiring something for its own sake –it had no instrumental or monetary value. They forgot themselves and their own concerns while contemplating beauty; in this sense it was a self-transcending experience, one that was very personal.

It is not inappropriate to label these incidents as direct experiences of the spiritual. This is not all of spirituality, but it can be an important experiential starting point for young people in feeling connected with the physical world and non-human life, as well as with the human community and the divine; for them it is a compelling ‘experience' of the spiritual. It may include aspects usually described as natural beauty, artistic, poetic and mythic – even mystical.

This very personal dimension is not as well represented in our analysis as other aspects of spirituality, partly because of its natural resistance to deconstruction and partly because it sounds vague when described. At times, religious people are dismissive of this sort of experience because they think young people are using it as a substitute for religious spirituality – for example, contemplating sunrise from your surfboard can be proposed as more spiritual than attending church.

The ability to commune with nature and beauty is as much a genetic capacity of the human person as is the construction of meaning and purpose in life. But the question arises,can this capacity be nurtured and enhanced – and is there a potential role for education here? This capacity in young people can be enhanced through the caring professions, particularly by helping them develop some understanding of such experience. If they can put words to the experience and see how it involves a form of self-transcendence, this can help them understand how ‘feeling' the beauty of the other – be this nature or people – is an affirmation of their basic spiritual connection with the world. This is the ‘connectedness' dimension that figures prominently in writings about spirituality.

This being said, it seems important to acknowledge that a more mystical or artistic spirituality, strongly based on the sort of experience described above, is an adult spirituality. This does not mean that it is absent in children and adolescents, but that it has very concrete and sometimes mundane starting points for them; it can develop into a more mystical synthesis as they become adults with an enhanced capacity for mytho-poetic expression. While it is not unknown for young people to excel in mathematics and music at an early age, we rarely see evidence of great creative writing or poetry in children (while not disparaging their excellent efforts); their capacity for verbal and symbolic expression takes longer to mature. Efforts seeking to provide self-transcending spiritual experiences for children and adolescents therefore need to be wisely selected and planned; the purpose is to help them attend to the ‘signals of transcendence' that are natural for the young at that age, while not expecting them to respond as adults would, and while not expecting them to feel fully comfortable with experiences that are more adult-oriented.

9.1.4  Generational differences in the search for meaning and purpose

Today's young people tend to acquire and form their meaning in life in ways that are different from those of previous generations (at least different enough to have important implications for education and care of youth). The focus of their spirituality is not the same, and they do not relate to traditions and traditional religion as did older generations. They have a different approach to understanding and forming identity, and religious identity in particular. They have grown up in a time of rapid social change, with television prominent in their lives since infancy.

It is not that a new human species has emerged which forms meaning in a fundamentally different way from adults. But the emphases in the ways young people look at tradition, the world and their own experience when forging their meaning, spirituality and identity may be so different from what older people think is appropriate for them that there is a breakdown in communication.   (See 6.3.8) 

Most older people were brought up under a different cultural regime and they have managed to adapt (or cope) with rapid social change. However, for the younger generations that have never experienced anything different from rapid change, there is a natural taken-for-grantedness about change and styles of living that are experienced differently by older people. This results in different perceptions, understandings and values; these in turn influence the way young people respond to the efforts of adults to hand on historical traditions – be they family, community, ethnic group or religion.

The very idea of ‘handing on' a spiritual tradition and identity has now become problematic. For example, in response to adult concerns to foster a religious identity through religious practice and education, young people may not so much question the appropriateness of the experiences, methods and content as wonder why there is any need to be concerned about religious identity at all.

The last thirty years seem to have been a critical period for this change. In the 1960s and 1970s, questions about religion and traditions often provoked argumentative responses from young people; now such questions are hardly provocative. The response, or rather lack of response, gives an impression of apathy and lack of interest. But this is too simple an interpretation; it fails to acknowledge the complexity. Many young people are not apathetic about the spiritual, nor are they uninterested. But they can show a detached, almost clinical anthropological interest in organised religion and structured traditions. They find it interesting that people can believe in particular doctrines and are committed to expansive belief systems while they feel they can get by without such formal religious connections. They may be more interested in spiritual ideas and practices that have some immediate felt relevance or serve some pragmatic function. They seem more concerned about coping with, and succeeding in, their own existential life-world; the idea of a coherent and systematic meaning system (or religious worldview) is not something they see a great need for. They may perceive aspects of their own religion as outmoded elements in the belief structure of an older generation – quaint and antiquarian, with little relevance for them or for today's society. They may see what the Church offers as just one of a number of spiritual contributions available to them from different religious and non-religious sources.

The characteristics of cultural postmodernity noted in the previous section are prominent in young people's personal meaning and spirituality, even though many young people may not have heard those words used as descriptors of their spiritual orientation.

9.1.7  Young people, relativism and the 'supermarket' of contemporary meanings for life

Young people are potentially more prone to the perils of the 'meaning supermarket' than are adults. There is a great variety of spiritual / meaning offerings available and there is a prevailing sense of relativism that any way is as good as another – ‘it's a matter of personal taste'. The relativism flows from the extraordinary capacity people now have to make multiple comparisons both locally and globally.

Young people do not always have much sense of historical or theological coherence to their personal meaning system; ‘system' may well not be a good word for describing their relatively eclectic beliefs that are often existentially and pragmatically oriented. They may see little problem in trying out different churches and religions to see what they are like and if they meet felt needs. As sociologist Gregory Baum described it, young people today are conscious that their 'society includes a type of meaning-spiritual-religious supermarket'. They may be interested in buying, but they are discriminating; they feel that the product needs to be relevant and give them some sense of purpose and direction, or at least give them some sense of immediate wellbeing.

The relativism that dominates our culture is drawn from the market economy. There are no abiding values. People choose their values as they do their goods at the supermarket. Some people like this, others like that. It is all a matter of taste. There are no abiding standards beyond personal predilection, and hence there are no norms in terms of which we can judge society as a whole. Relativism of this kind is ultimately cynical. The final position is, ‘anything goes'.

Since we live in a market society, we are profoundly influenced by this sort of relativism. Political scientists speak of the ‘commodification of values'. Everything becomes a commodity; everything has a price, including human relations and happiness. If we find it on the shelf and have the money, we can purchase it. In our culture, we have witnessed the commodification of sexuality. Sex has become merchandised. Sex in advertising enhances sales, and sex in the entertainment industry increases profits.

We are also witnessing the commodification of religion [and spirituality]. We turn to the spectrum of sects, cults and esoteric practices; choose our own religious style; pay for it with our own money; follow it as long as we like; and then move into another involvement. This market relativism is an ideology built into our mainstream culture. In my opinion, it is hostile to the great religious traditions. (Gregory Baum)

Some young people (as do some parents) show evidence of this eclectic and consumerist approach to spirituality. Many are not much interested in any formal religion or in informal spirituality. Others come from homes that try to shield them from what parents (and some educators) believe to be confusing comparisons and relativism, by opposing the study of other traditions at school (such as other Christian denominations and world religions). However, such shielding at school is not likely to be effective if students still have access to their regular sources of information – television, radio, social media, the Internet, newspapers and magazines – and to their own friends. The classroom should be one place where it might be expected that students could look at different traditions respectfully to become better informed. In practice, this broader focus seems to be in tune with the pluralism that young people take for granted as valuable in their society; such an approach may well stimulate more interest in their own tradition.

For some young people, their attitude to religion, and perhaps also to the spiritual, is more than relativism, and could better be described as a form of ‘indifferentism'. Webster's Dictionary defined indifferentism as ‘A state of indifference; a want of interest or earnestness, especially a systematic apathy regarding what is true or false in religion and philosophy'. Interestingly, two centuries back, indifferentism was condemned as heresy by some Christian church leaders; it was held that ‘Indifferentism equalises all religions and gives equal rights to truth and error'.

Some young people, perhaps many in particular communities, show apathy towards what religions may say on contemporary spiritual and moral issues; they are not interested in what anyone has to say about such issues, as long as it does not interfere with their lifestyle. Nevertheless, these same young people may feel that religion is important because it gives solace and meaning in relation to ultimate questions like death and the afterlife; but they feel little need to have recourse to religion to solve the ordinary traumas that occur in their daily lives. So they tend to see religion as important but peripheral in the sense that it does not have much to do with their day-to-day living.

9.2.3  The trauma of living in the 21st century

It is pertinent here to note the assertions of surveys that report on the state of mind of youth as ‘alienated, cynical, experimental and savvy'.

This orientation has a lot to do with learning how to survive in the cultural situation of Westernised countries in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Any change usually brings about some degree of trauma related to adaptation, making judgments and adjustments in orientation and behaviour. But these times are characterised by continual change, subjecting people to constant low to medium levels of trauma. There is a constant wear and tear on the individual's psyche that is just a part of survival in a rapidly changing culture characterised by ever increasing use of technology, globalisation in commerce, and threats of terrorism, racial tension and job insecurity. This makes the life prospects of young people more uncertain and it makes them feel they are living in harrowing times. This does not discount the traumas and difficulties faced by past generations, but it points towards a different cultural environment that envelops people today.

With the mass media saturation of images and information, most people, including the more vulnerable, impressionable young, are confronted, on a daily basis, by the darker side of humanity. No natural or human disaster or act of savagery is left undiscovered and unexplored – it is always newsworthy. Most people would like to believe in a world where goodness and right prevail. But the images that are pressed upon us are almost universally of the petty, nefarious side of people. The cumulative effect is to foster in many a sense of futility before insurmountable forces.

There is no easy answer to assuage the fears of young people as they encounter these ingrained, structural problems in society. The problems are unlikely to be ever solved. But education and the care of youth can at least be of some help – suggesting that they develop a reflective, realistic but hopeful orientation to life. This means acknowledging the proverb: ‘The problems are not out there for us to solve. But they are there to solve us.' Efforts to inform young people and help them develop their own critical interpretation of cultural problems can be their first step in learning how to negotiate life's difficulties as constructively as possible.

This is not proposing the illusion that young people will change the world. They will not. But they may develop a healthy orientation to life that includes the belief that they can make small differences, within limits, to their own social environment. This is where young people's ideals and dreams are to be nurtured. Their dreams should not be dismissed as nothing more than the unrealistic ‘dreams' all people have of a better world. Educators and those who work in the service of youth can reinforce the belief that young people themselves should strive to be enablers of change. Not all will be responsive to this challenge; perhaps many will be apathetic. But that is not the point; adults need to ensure that this belief is tangibly evident in the culture of schools and other youth agencies.

Eckersley considered that:

We ignore [the] dreams [of youth] at our peril; young people's vision of a better, more equitable society puts less emphasis on individual competition, material wealth and enjoying ‘the good life' and more on community, family cooperation and the environment. This is a vision young people might be prepared to sign on for and work toward.

9.2.4  The Do-it-yourself (DIY) meaning generation

A survey conducted some years back called this generation of young people the ‘DIY generation' - meaning that they adopt a do-it-yourself approach to life (see also section 8.5.9).They pick and choose their lifestyle, personal meaning, code of ethics and baseline of morality from a variety of sources. This reflects other findings showing that youth do not necessarily subscribe to a coherent meaning system or set of values; rather they can pick up values that are implied in lifestyle choices according to need. If they do reflect on choice of beliefs to live by, they seem to like shopping around for a custom-made set that they feel may more closely fit their needs and interests.

At the heart of this need to ‘do it yourself' is the importance young people place on being individuals. There is no quarrel with that as a laudable concept, but there are problems if the search for individuality is satisfied by something that is not authentic. In resisting particular conformities to authority or customs, some may merely substitute a new and not all that subtle form of conformism – for example, they can be influenced by group pressure or by media-orchestrated images of what it means to be an individual (see chapter 7). The impact of social media is crucial here. Many young people have a new low level anxiety -- how well they are projecting themselves on social media and whether this is affirmed or ignored.

Student-centred learning in education is highly desirable; so too are the increasing social responsibilities given to youth, and getting them to become more actively aware of contemporary social and moral issues. All of this is good and can contribute to personal development. But there is some danger in the down side where so many aspects of modern life play up individuality and the DIY expectation for young people. This emphasis increases the pressure on young people to have to bear alone the responsibility for constructing a complete meaning and value system (see section 4.2.1). They can at times feel alone and overwhelmed by trying to make sense of life all by themselves. Perhaps a more realistically human situation would be not to expect children to have so much to do themselves in constructing their own meaning; rather, they should feel encouraged to accept and use the meanings, beliefs and values of their immediate family (perhaps with community and religious support); then as they grow towards adulthood, with increasing responsibility for their own spirituality and identity, they can affirm or modify the belief structure they inherited.

Hence, caution and wisdom are needed in interpreting the extent to which children and adolescents should be encouraged and challenged to ‘negotiate' or ‘construct' their own meanings, beliefs, values and identity (cf. section 8.4.7). The key question is to balance concerns for their developing maturity and autonomy, and their vulnerability and immaturity, as well as for the integrity of the traditions that the community wishes to communicate to the next generation.

There is no question about the importance of affirming the values of individuality and personal autonomy. But it is just as important to understand the potential divisiveness and alienation that can flow from an excessive individualism not tempered by community, responsibility and a sense of the transcendent.

9.2.5  Search for meaning as related to seeking community, making choices, and having lifestyle options

If being ‘individual' is central to the outlook of the young, there is equally a yearning for community and a sense of belonging.

In pre-1960s society, smaller, less fragmented, more structured communities, which had family and church as a common backdrop, fulfilled many of the needs for community and belonging. Since then there have been ever increasing economic and other pressures that erode family and community relationships. As personal contact with parents and extended families decreases, family and community bonds weaken. This can contribute to young people's feeling disconnected and alone. If in addition (for various reasons) they have difficulty in finding and staying in friendship groups both at and outside school, they can feel an isolation that is pathological.

The other complicating factor here is that many young people feel a need for different ways of connecting with community groups by comparison with those that were taken for granted by earlier generations. If youth needs for community meanings are different from the traditional, then different styles of community may be required if they are to be expected to participate. This may have a lot to do with the way that people today, both adults and youth, appear to find a sense of connectedness through txting groups, Facebook and other social media.

A feeling of belonging and being part of a community comes with sharing the values, likes and dislikes of a certain group. A defining feature of most  groups or associations which offer community to the young is the democratic and easy way in which they operate. Despite what may appear as a manipulated uniformity that some groups require of members, it is most often a democratic and egalitarian spirit that is evident. One survey interpreted this as young people floating ‘from tribe to tribe'. Being in different groups is an experiment in personality development – trying the fit of individual to group identity. However self-evident the need for group endorsement of identity, young people may well resent being categorised. The survey went on to note: ‘Don't dare call them generation X and don't even think about categorising them in a “tribe” such as doofs, goths or crusties. Today's young - those aged 18 to 30 –are universal in their rejection of what they see to be extreme, oversimplified pigeonholes.'

The fundamental human need to experience belonging to some groups is something that most of us experience, not just youth. Group belonging gives young people reference points for exploring their place in life and helps them develop and sustain a sense of meaning and purpose. What they want are hospitable reference groups that are not manipulative.

Autonomy and individuality are all about freedom to make choices. Again, there is no problem in affirming the desirability of such a principle for promoting personal and spiritual development. But children and young people (as well as adults) are under a lot of cultural pressure from advertising in Western societies to interpret personal freedom as consumer choice (See sections B5-6). Some common phrases are like media mantras: ‘You choose', ‘Unlimited choice', ‘Yours – on demand', ‘Your call', ‘For every mood', ‘Entertainment at any time', ‘You're in control', ‘Just hit the remote – the symbol of freedom', ‘Megamart – megachoice', ‘All that you want to be'.

Reportedly, some shoppers suffer from what has been called ‘retail choice overload' as they have to decide what to buy while trawling the supermarket aisles – ninety types of cereal, thirty types of yoghurt and so on. For young people, a similar problem seems to apply across their life-world. They have to engage in constant decision-making about consumer choices in clothing, food and entertainment, as well as with regard to the many school, university or TAFE courses and career options they might follow up, what health and medical treatment options to keep up with – let alone choosing which of the myriad cosmetics might improve a young woman's chances of being more attractive. They feel that if only they were able to be ‘better' they would make the right choices and therefore be happier. This inevitably makes them vulnerable to a retail identity (See Area B). In an environment of hyper-consumerism, some young people feel a little overwhelmed and this can lead to inertia or a vague feeling of psychological discomfort they cannot understand or articulate.

As well as promoting a basically problematic, and eventually dissatisfying, notion of freedom, this situation can affect young people negatively in other ways. The social reality about what life should be like is seductively promoted in the imagery of media advertising. What is proposed is very attractive, but the gap between the ideal image and reality can be depressing.

What is also of concern is that the driving force behind this situation is commercial; it fuels a never-ending cycle of consumerism. For example, while there are hundreds of brands of cosmetics, these are manufactured and marketed by just a small group of cosmetic conglomerates who believe that considerable apparent product diversity caters to individual, distinctive needs – they want women to be able to identify ‘my brand of cosmetics!' Young people are aware of this consumer/commercial dimension to some extent and of its potential for manipulation, but there is little they seem to be able to do to escape it or come to terms with it in a way that makes them feel wholesome. Lifestyle has great prominence in their priorities, making it a favourite and profitable target for marketers – as the mobile phone advertisement said, ‘Get a phone that is in tune with your lifestyle.'

In addition, the advertising bombardment can subtly promote dispositions of disposability and competitiveness. These can become woven into young people's meaning for life in a relatively unconscious way, having negative consequences for personal relationships, work, individual's finances and other aspects of lifestyle.

Understanding youth spirituality requires holding a number of tendencies in tension. Young people's feelings range across all of the following, sometimes in apparently haphazard and contradictory ways. And the intensity of the feelings also varies over time and according to the situation.

  • confidence – anxiety
  • coping with chaos – despair over meaning
  • individualism – need for group membership
  • self-centredness – altruism and a sensitivity to justice issues
  • not ready for commitment – a need for committed role models
  • radically different from parents – similar values to parents
  • apparently carefree lifestyle – insecurity about life
  • materialistic lifestyle – maintaining a sense of the transcendent.

9.2.6  Meanings and 'instant community' in social media

The need for relationships and community was evident in the traditional long phone conversations between teenagers. Now the phenomenon of your own mobile phone and SMS texting allows for the sharing of thoughts and ideas at any time with someone else, even during classes, and from one end of a dining table to the other. It feels like having constant companionship and immediate intimacy – the reassurance of friends and connectedness with them are only a few clicks away. In one instance, a young person received communion at mass, returned to her seat and then checked her SMS messages before continuing in prayer. Some of the young carry around their expensive mobile phones around like a baby, giving them constant attention.

A number of young people retain their own personal website or the engage in blogging, often with a diary of reflections on their ongoing experience. It is another way of affirming who they feel they are; it is an opportunity for affirmation by others who share similar experience, likes and dislikes and it gives a ‘virtual' yet tangible sense of community.

Use of the Internet for chat and emails has been dwarfed through communication via the Social Media. Here there is the possibility of continuously publishing an account of your day to day life; you are not just 'blogging' but in a sense writing your own 'Scriptures' about your life. In addition, there are relatively unlimited opportunities to keep up with the projections of the lives of others from friends to media stars, sports stars and celebrities.

For individuals not wanted in friendship groups, their lack of participation in the SMS inner circle can be a sharp reminder of their lowly social status. These same communication technologies have been used for bullying and manipulation. It will be interesting to see how far down into childhood the SMS texting and social media activity reaches; and also to see how long it endures in young people's habits as they grow older.

Girls appear to be more frequent SMS users, in tune with their desire to spend a lot of time talking about relationships with intense interest – recalling and constantly analysing the dynamics of their social relationships. Their world seems to be interpreted through the prism of their powerful friendship groups, so to be on the negative end of friendship group pressure can be very upsetting. Boys do not engage in the analysis of their social interactions to the same extent; their relationships appear generally more ‘action'-oriented. Their behaviour appears to be more affected by ego vulnerability, status and their notion of masculinity.

Just how internet and social media have a shaping influence on young people's meaning and purpose in life has become a very significant issue for individuals, families and for education.

In the extremes, there is growing evidence that excessive preoccupation with the use of the Internet can have harmful mental and physical health problems for young people. In Korea, a number of young people have health problems resulting from addiction to computer games and spending very long periods of time uninterrupted in gaming. In Japan, there are now therapy groups for those who suffer from what is called Hikikomori. The word means "the abnormal avoidance of social contact, typically by adolescent males." This is where young people tend to spend most of their lives locked away in a bedroom completely addicted to being absorbed in the Internet. Relationships with family and friends deteriorate significantly. (See the pdf of the article reporting tghe problem of Hikikomori in Japan.

And also see the brief video summary -- click here. Just how much time the average teenagers spend on Facebook and other social media may be affecting both the extent and that the quality of their face to face relationships.

4.4 The pursuit of a 'Healthy' personal meaning in life

Planning an education in meaning (See Section 7 later in the unit) requires that a value position be taken with regard to the nature of meaning and its place in human development. At a basic level this means articulating a view of the human person on which education should be based. It also implies taking a value position with respect to the role of culture in informing personal meaning. How the community might foster the development of young people's meaning presumes an account of what constitutes healthy meaning. What follows is a preliminary list that needs to be refined, extended and contextualised by the communities variously responsible for school education.


What may be very useful here would be for you to quickly note what you think might be a set of qualities that go to make up a 'healthy' meaning -- in the light of your thinking about meaning across the last three sections. Then you could compare your list with the following proposals. Or you could see what you would confirm in the following and what you might want to add to the list.

Defining healthy meaning in a generic way is not about judging individuals' personal meaning; neither will it propose outcomes that can readily be achieved and measured; but it will propose meaning-related hopes for personal development that can inform education. It may also inform the work of other professionals engaged variously in the care of youth.

4.4.1  Preliminary list of the characteristics of a healthy personal meaning (this includes aspects of both content and the meaning-making process)

Personal meaning

  • a sense of satisfying purpose and goals in life;
  • a readiness to consider questions about an ultimate meaning to life – including the transcendent, death and the existence of God; this may include a specifically religious interpretation;
  • an adequate range of meanings covering different areas of personal and social life that does not revolve exclusively around individual needs and interests;
  • a view that healthy, satisfying personal relationships are a key to happiness and wellbeing;
  • an understanding of the human value of work and leisure.

Resources for meaning and interaction with cultural meanings

  • access to the basic shared understandings of one's family and primary community of meaning; this may include the beliefs of the religious group to which the child's parents or guardians belong (whether or not they are practising members);
  • knowledge and understanding of a range of cultural meanings; this should include knowledge of the beliefs of various religious groups in the community (usually the most common ones) as well as of non-religious worldviews and political meanings, and a tolerance of religious and ethnic diversity within the limits set by the law of the land;
  • while acknowledging and assimilating community meanings, development of a capacity to be more autonomous in one's own personal meaning, at the same time not neglecting the need for interdependence with the community.
  • Normally, trust in authorities and commitment to institutions can be healthy parts of personal and social life. But this does not mean an ultimate surrendering of personal judgment and informed choices.

Personal and social responsibility

  • as meaning is appropriated and personalised, taking personal responsibility for its maintenance and further development;
  • awareness of the individual's own rights and freedoms, complemented by a sense of responsibility;
  • acknowledgment of others, and respect for their rights and freedoms, within the limits of tolerance set by the law of the land;
  • constructive values and ethics that inform action;
  • a commitment to the common good and a sense of justice;
  • some understanding of the interconnectedness of humankind with the natural world, and a sense of environmental stewardship.

Identification and evaluation of meaning

  • some understanding of the ways in which people construct meaning;
  • the capacity to keep personal meaning open to revision and development;
  • skills in the evaluation of cultural meanings according to a set of values, and in relation to a view of what constitutes a healthy meaning, which will help with the appraisal of different cultural options and lifestyles;
  • recognition that people carry different views of what constitutes truth;
  • a conviction that one can develop a satisfying meaning to life despite the cultural problems that affect the personal search for meaning.
  • This preliminary listing is an example of the task that communities need to undertake when exploring their role in communicating meanings to the next generation and in fostering the development of young people's personal meaning.

10.2  Education in meaning

An education in meaning has implications for both content and process as summarised below.

Understanding the nature and psychological functions of meaning

This involves young people's exploration of the meaning-making process as a distinctively human characteristic. It includes the various ways in which meaning functions in the human person. Also pertinent is an investigation of what might constitute ‘healthy meaning', and of the possible psychological effects of ‘deficient meaning'. It is presumed that healthy meaning needs to have a broad scope, with reference not only to the individual but to the community and the environment; it should not revolve exclusively around the needs and interests of the individual. In addition, the study of meaning should address relationships between personal and cultural meanings, and the particular problems that can arise from too great a responsibility falling on the individual (at too early an age) for the construction and maintenance of personal meaning.

Knowledge of traditional cultural meanings about human nature and purpose

Young people need to know about the role of traditional agencies like family, religions and community groups in the communication of meaning. This includes knowledge and understanding of their own religion, world religions and non-religious worldviews (whether or not they are affiliated with religion), as well as of issues like secularisation. There is also psychology, which can help people make sense of their lives. Consideration of how beliefs help give purpose and value to life provides an opportunity for young people to reflect on their own personal search for meaning in a puzzling world.

The study of religions and worldviews needs to avoid being caught up in descriptive details; it should include a strong issue-oriented component; attention should be given to ‘psychological' and ‘social' functions of systems of beliefs, while showing sufficient respect for the traditions in their own right to avoid treating them in a purely instrumental way.

The study of traditional meaning systems needs to be complemented by an investigation of the meaning-making significance of the media, especially film and television.

Some understanding of the contemporary crisis in meaning, especially for youth

Young people's school education should provide them with an opportunity to consider what has been described as a contemporary crisis in meaning, with particular reference to its impact on adolescents. It should include an exploration of what is involved in the ‘search' for meaning, and consideration of the problems youth may have with deficiency of meaning and unhealthy meaning. It should also try to put cultural postmodernity into some perspective.

Evaluation of the many personal meanings available in society
The multiplicity of cultural meanings – all looking for adherents – creates its own problem for the individual's search for meaning. How to judge the appropriateness of meaning and what criteria might be used therefore become important in education. An evaluative approach can help young people become more aware of cultural meanings, and of behavioural consequences. For example, conflicting meanings from different groups can be a root cause of prejudice and racism; frameworks of meaning can be sources of liberation or of domination; and the dissemination of meanings can insinuate the causes of particular economic and political interests.

Learning how meanings are assigned and how they may need to be ‘uncovered' is a part of becoming wise. What youth need is not so much new meaning but the capacity to evaluate it carefully, and this skill can become a part of their lifelong learning. It can not only help them in any dialogue with traditional religious meanings, but also with seeing where they stand with respect to various ideologies, political views and ‘messages' coming from different quarters, especially the commercial and entertainment worlds.


3 Critical evaluative activity

From their earliest years at school, children can gradually understand that an evaluative approach in their learning is much more than being critical – in the sense of just complaining or criticising. The word ‘critical' when applied to evaluative learning means that the learner is trying to get beneath the surface layers of what is being studied to its meanings and values. It involves appraising arguments and seeking evidence to back them up or call them into question; it leads to tentative value judgments; it considers implications for self and others.

In industrialised countries, most of the support networks for meaning and identity that functioned for earlier generations no longer have the same plausibility and force. While many people still identify themselves as religious, beliefs about life's meaning drawn

from religions do not seem to have the same cogency they apparently had in the past. But there is no shortage of available meanings. In an environment awash with ways to make meaning and to find the ‘true self', there is an urgent need for young people to learn how to evaluate critically what is being offered. Education has an important role here in helping youth in their search for meaning and identity.

There is a common tendency to think about culture as something static – it has a sort of taken-for-grantedness about it. An evaluative approach to the study of cultural meanings begins by questioning this assumption, showing that culture is a human construction and that it can be analysed and evaluated in terms of authentic service to communities and individuals. Social problems can be brought out into the open and debated, not left hidden within the culture as if ‘this is the way things are, and must always be'.

An evaluative dimension is essential for any personal development education. The young need to become more aware of the shaping influence of culture on people's spiritual and moral development so that they can be more discerning of the factors that affect their own thinking and behaviour.

The extensive range of issues in meaning, identity and spirituality covered in this part of the book can be overwhelming for educators if they read too much in one sitting, or wonder about how they might deal with so much content in class. They might be intimidated by the thought of themselves trying to become a classroom ‘Dr Phil' (Dr Phil McGraw conducts a popular television counselling program), forever dispensing packages of wisdom to a youthful audience that is not interested or responsive. This image misinterprets the educational role of the teacher and it overestimates both the time and scope that might be available for addressing the issues. The agenda in the previous sections is principally for the education and personal development of educators. It can contribute to the background knowledge and wisdom they bring to their educational dealings with young people – but they do not have to tell all they know!

Nevertheless, there is a side to the Dr Phil analogy that is pertinent here, and it has to do with pedagogy. The style of Socratic questioning employed by Dr Phil McGraw in his counselling program has useful pedagogical implications for personal development education. This is not to say that therapy or counselling should be a principal paradigm for classroom teaching, but it does suggest that judicious questions asked by teachers about the meaning of what is being studied can help young people learn how to think critically. Such Socratic questioning probes for meaning but does not pry into pupils' privacy. Much of the personal learning in the classroom is unnoticed; it takes place within the safety of private reflection.

4 Young people's responsibility for personal change

School education can inform, challenge and favourably dispose young people towards personal change, but it cannot impose or require it. For personal change to be authentic, it must be freely chosen. How much of their study of meaning, identity and spirituality will actually be used by young people to change personally will vary considerably from individual to individual. Any personal change is usually going to be remote from the classroom; it will be determined by the young people themselves, in the light of many non-school influences on their growth as persons. Hence the school has scope to educate young people in meaning, identity and spirituality. But this intention needs to be realistic: such an education does not automatically change them spiritually and morally. This natural limitation to the educational process needs to be acknowledged. There is the legitimate hope that education will enhance their personal development, but this hope is different in kind from the sorts of outcomes that are commonly proposed for schooling.

Personal development education engages pupils in much the same sort of inquiring activity as goes on in other learning areas, but the subject matter is more directly related to their own spiritual and moral development. While personal relevance is intended, it cannot be engineered.

An informative, evaluative study explores social and personal issues, helping young people make links between the study and their own personal life. School education can help them learn more wisely from their own personal experience. But it is a mistake to presume that students need to share at a personal level when discussing issues in the classroom, or that they need to draw personal implications then and there as part of a lesson. It they feel free enough to want to share personal views, then their contributions should be respected and valued. But to expect such personal contributions on cue is to put unethical psychological pressure on them.

The power of reason to change people for the better should not be overestimated. While education can enhance young people's meanings, it should not be expected to perform behavioural miracles. So the popular notion of ‘transformative education', which is intended to change students personally, needs to be used with caution.

Additional resource and reference
click here to download the follow-up resource text: The 'Search' for Meaning, chapter 4 from the book Reasons for Living: Education and young people's search for meaning, identity and spirituality.

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