Finding Purpose: Free Speech and the Pursuit of Excellence

A response to Petrilli’s “First, Know Thyself. Then, Pick A Career Path”


Michael Petrilli’s “First, Know Thyself. Then, Pick a Career Path” offers wise advice that parents and reformers would do well to heed. In this brief response, I make connections from his essay to two issues that I take to be centrally important when thinking about how to put young people on the path of living lives of purpose.

First, thinking purpose offers another angle of vision to view controversies around free speech. Though justifications of free speech are often understandably and correctly tied to the pursuit of truth, I see free speech as important because it also helps individuals know their own minds and discover what they believe.

Many students self-censor because they don’t want to offend or because they fear being canceled. This can be extremely detrimental, because one of the main ways we learn what we believe is by talking through our beliefs with people who share these beliefs and with people who don’t. When we needlessly self-censor, we cut ourselves off from a main source of self-knowledge.

To be clear, just because free speech allows you to say something doesn’t mean you should. And some forms of self-censorship are simply good manners; few of us would want to live in a society where everyone immediately blurted out every thought that came to their mind. But I am concerned that we are raising a generation of students who are afraid to speak unless they are convinced that everyone around them will already agree with what they say.

Socrates didn’t come to self-knowledge in solitude or by staying quiet. Quite the opposite. His example teaches that self-knowledge is directly tied to the quality of conversations—and disagreements—people have. Schools will never help students discover their purpose if the schools encourage excessive self-censorship.

Second, helping students find purpose is connected to the quality of work that teachers assign. Though self-censorship can be a problem in schools, it is more likely that students don’t develop purpose (or self-knowledge) because they aren’t asked to do meaningful work in school, and they aren’t challenged to produce work that meets standards of excellence.

Despite struggles a student may have had in the past, a good teacher can always hold open a vision of excellence and create assignments that allow a student to strive toward that excellence.

The trick here is threefold. First, we need to believe that every child deserves to do demanding work. Second, we can’t fool ourselves or attempt to gaslight students by calling mediocre work excellent. Third, we need teachers who feel called to teach because they are in touch with the excellence made available by their fields and want to invite their students to experience this excellence.

In our current highly polarized landscape, excellence often drops out of the picture. Diversity isn’t an end in itself. Rather, we need diversity because, without it, we cut ourselves off from the varieties of excellence available in our world. We can say the same about school choice. Simply giving people choices can become mere consumerism. The point should be excellence, not mere choice.

To close, if we hope to create schools where students learn purpose, then we need to appreciate the damages of self-censorship and the importance of promoting excellence. Schools where students go through the motions—saying the “correct” things though they may not believe or understand what they are saying; achieving high grades for the least effort—make it far more likely that students will sleepwalk through life and never find a purpose greater than conformity to whatever thought bubble they find themselves in.

We can do much better, and it starts with teachers who challenge students to say what they mean about topics that reasonable people disagree about and spend their entire lives committed to getting right. If school reform efforts have stalled in these highly partisan times, I see this as one way to jump start our thinking and to find some common ground.

Jeff Frank is associate professor and chair of the education department at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York.

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