“Can I Teach a Whole Semester on Purpose?”

Reflections on a New Approach to Teaching “Service, Society, and the Sacred”

“Inside of every student – from kindergarten through graduate school – lurks an implicit question, often unformed and unconscious, rarely spoken.  It’s a simple question on the surface, but a question that bubbles with hidden and surprising meanings, always yeasty, unpredictable, potentially volcanic: Who in the world am I?  The student looks inward at the self, and simultaneously faces outward, toward the expanding circles of context.  Who am I, in the world?”

– William Ayers, Teaching the Personal and the Political: Essays on Hope and Justice, p. 117

“No skill set will be useful for a lifetime.  But something else will be.  Graduates should have a sense of purpose, for their own lives and for the society of which they are citizens and for the world as a whole.”

– Harry Lewis, former dean of Harvard university, commenting on Hong Kong’s transition towards general education (South China Morning Post, February 5, 2011, A9).


After reading my student responses on our class blog about their frustrations transitioning from the “emotional highs” of service trips back to school life normalcy, I asked them more about their expectations.  Were they hoping that these trips would somehow swallow up the disjuncture between off-campus service epiphanies and on-campus academic stress?  Were they seeking some kind of self-transcendence?  If so, what in fact did they want to be transformed into?  I imagined they hoped for some kind of maturation in which they would value their studies anew.

In our discussions, it became quite clear that students didn’t want to be “transformed” into anything.  Rather, their responses were grounded and reasonable: they simply wanted to begin to sense that which would sustain their spirits in the years ahead.  They wanted to begin heading in the direction of that which satisfies them. In a word, they wanted to find some sense of purpose.

Damon’s Research on Purpose

This exchange with my students brought to mind observations made by William Damon, Director of Stanford’s Center on Adolescence.  Damon states that purpose, especially from the perspective of adolescents themselves, has not been sufficiently studied.  This needs to change, for finding purpose in adolescence brings far-reaching benefits to society.  In The Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling in Life, Damon elaborates on the value finding purpose has for young people: 

Purpose endows a person with joy in good times and resilience in hard times, and this holds true all throughout life.  Adolescence and emerging adulthood are particularly affected, however, by the presence of purpose, and purposeful youth . . . not only avoid the risks of self-destructive behavior but also show a markedly positive attitude that triggers an eagerness to learn about the world.

Purpose leads to personal satisfaction by bringing people outside themselves and into an engrossing set of activities. People with purpose stop thinking about themselves, becoming fascinated instead by the work or problem at hand.  As they muster their mental and physical capacities to reach a solution, they may discover powers that they never thought they had: untried talents, new skills reservoirs of untapped energy.  They feel a surge of excitement as they move toward their objective.  They lose track of everyday cares and woes, of where they happen to be, of what time it is – in short, of all the mental boundaries usually posed by our physical and material worlds.  In such cases, they experience that sublime state of inspiration that the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has termed “flow“.  The research is clear: while absorption in purposeful tasks may be strenuous, it also bring a deep sense of satisfaction, well-being, and exhilaration (31-32).

Teaching Towards Purpose in “Service, Society, and the Sacred

This discussion with my students re-confirmed for me the importance of teaching towards purpose.  Last semester as I began my senior elective course, “Service, Society, and the Sacred”, I introduced the course by saying that our goal was to gain some perspective on three questions: who am I, why am I here, and what are my next steps?

As I introduced these questions, I self-reflectively asked the class, “Can I teach a whole semester about purpose?” Although I had been moving in this direction for some years, the idea of removing units that I had thought valuable, such as globalization or genocide, still left me feeling uneasy.  However, given the fact that I had a strong class, most of whom I had known from previous courses, I decided to attempt to teach a whole semester course with purpose as the primary goal. This is a summary of the curriculum and the major units:

2010-2011 “Service, Society, and the Sacred” Curriculum

This course seeks to answer three fundamental questions: who am I, why am I here, and what are my next steps? Asking and addressing these questions about purpose and meaning in life is an inherently spiritual exercise; we will use readings, discussions, field trips, and a variety of guest speakers to help students explore and clarify their own values in light of making a difference in the world.     A prominent unit in the course is social entrepreneurship, which are social enterprises that while profitable primarily aim to make a positive impact upon society. Although taking Humanities I in Action is not a prerequisite, students who took that 9th grade class will find this to be a helpful follow-up.

Major Units:

I. Essential Questions

  • Start with three essential questions: who am I, why am I here, what are my next steps?
  • Reading: Excerpt from Martha Beck’s Finding Your Own North Star in which we compare the Essential Self and the Social Self
  • First draft of final paper answering the three questions

II. Self-Understanding

III. Social Entrepreneurship

IV. The Sacred Dimension

A key component in the course was the use of guest speakers.  In a class that met approximately 40 times in the semester, we had 20 guests that spoke to the class.  I invited a range of speakers: an environmental activist, a fair trade entrepreneur, a recent alumni who was bringing solar-powered computers to children in Asia who are off the grid, a freshman at college involved in genocide prevention, two human rights lawyers, and many others. Students heard them tell their own stories and how they came to gain their sense of life direction.

It is important to mention that the above units above were not followed strictly in sequence.  Given the availability of guest speakers as well as student reactions to their presentations, various themes were developed at different times.  While ideally the themes and the guests would be better aligned, student feedback on course evaluations suggests that the advantages of using many guest speakers far outweighed the disadvantages.

This unconventional curriculum meant that I also needed to dispense with traditional forms of assessment.  The main form of assignments was entries on our class blog.  Students would regularly comment on a discussion, a guest speaker, an experience, or a reading.  The high level of discussion on the blog freed class time to become more event or activity-based.

Students had three major assignments.  First, students had a mid-semester essay in which they investigated a course theme that they found personally relevant.  Second, students researched and gave a presentation on some form of social enterprise.  Third, as a final assignment students had to write a summative paper answering the three central questions of the course.  In our final class meeting students handed in their final papers and shared their personal journeys through a ritual based on Joseph Campbell’s “Heroic Journey” framework.

Student Feedback

The response from students was overwhelmingly positive.  Students frequently expressed enthusiasm for the course, whether the form of input was the blog, comments in class, or written feedback. Here are a few student comments:

I enjoyed the guest speakers a lot!  It was very spontaneous and I thought it kept my excitement up.  I learned so much from the speakers because I feel like I could relate to them.

Service, Society, and the Sacred served as a conduit that led me to an understanding of who I truly am and who I might become.  Who I am is an innovator, someone who makes a change with his or her field of work . . . .  Through Service, Society, and the Sacred, I am able to reflect on my past, allowing me to envision my future.

Though I was troubled [initially] in Service, Society, and the Sacred, I found hope in the end.  Looking back, every speaker’s experience, though frightening and confusing at first, brings a message of hope: everyone can live according to his/her essential selves.

Thanks for teaching SSS – it’s a class I looked forward to every day.  Definitely my favorite course.

The reason I believe that the class was successful was that it met a genuine need among students. They are academically strong, and many are involved in many extracurricular activities. What they desire is not more content or even more high-powered experiences, but a community of like-minded students who are trying to gain some coherence about their future life direction.  Open dialogue about this most important of life questions with a teacher that knows them and with guests speakers who have seen a bit further down the road of life helps students discover clues about their essential selves.


Overall, I have gained several new insights into my work as a social conscience educator.  First, the central life task of high school seniors is to gain some sense of life purpose as they head off to university.  Second, it is quite possible to teach a semester course addressing this central adolescent task.  Exploring purpose, I have found, is best facilitated by a non-traditional curriculum that includes a holistic and flexible array of activities and approaches.  Accordingly, forms of assessment needed to be re-considered. Third, what is most important should be put in the curriculum.  As the pace of modern life continues to accelerate, students will forever have more to learn.  At the same time, the stress on students grows.  For the good of our students, we cannot surrender to the temptation of always doing more, hoping that self-reflection will come in their homes, churches, or on their social networking sites.  No, we need to find a place in the curriculum for in-depth exploration of purpose. This past semester’s study in “Service, Society, and the Sacred” has affirmed that this indeed can be accomplished.

Additional Reading:

  1. How To Find Your Purpose” by Jeremy Adam Smith, January 10, 2018.

SSS last class photo close-up


About martinschmidtinasia

I have served as a humanities teacher at Hong Kong International School since 1990, teaching history, English, and religion courses. Since the mid-1990's I have also come to assume responsibility for many of the school's service learning initiatives. My position also included human care ministry with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Hong Kong, southern China, and others parts of Asia from 1999-2014. Bringing my affluent students into contact with people served by the LCMS in Asia has proved to be beneficial to students and our community partners alike. Through these experience I have become committed to social conscience education, which gives students the opportunity to find their place in society in the context of challenging global realities.
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5 Responses to “Can I Teach a Whole Semester on Purpose?”

  1. Mike Kersten says:

    Did you have any sophomores in your class or was it primarily seniors? Was there a difference between the way the seniors and juniors will able to engage in the course themes? What else can you say about the prerequisites of a course like this succeeding in terms of school culture and previous exposure to experiences that engender social conscience?

    • In the first semester class, I had 18 seniors and 2 juniors. Both juniors were were unusually strong students and quite mature. No, I don’t think there was any difference between how these juniors engaged the material and the seniors, although in general seniors’ relatively imminent departure to university as well as the process of doing college aps. makes them very open to the three key questions of the class. As far as prerequisites, in year’s past I had noticed a big divide between those who had studied Humanities I in Action and those who hadn’t. Many of the Humanities I in Action students had had an awakening in grade 9 and now were looking how to narrow their interest towards ‘making a difference’ in the world. However, this semester most of the students didn’t take Humanities I in Action and in general they are very mature and are able to pick up with the course themes from day one. Certainly the service culture of the school had a significant influence on some of them, even though they didn’t have the 9th grade course. Conversely, having had Humanities I in Action doesn’t guarantee that the awakening that frequently happens in grade 9 has provided a platform for future growth. So, at this point the most promising prerequisites of the course seem to be Humanities I in Action or a maturity in search of a meaningful life. However, as I learn more about what questions and materials are most relevant to seniors, perhaps prerequisite experiences will become a less important factor for success in the course.

  2. This is a wonderful course description! The readings and guest speakers, not to mention the invitation of the sacred into education sound fascinating. I’m a strong believer that students transform when ritual and sacred elements are worked into curriculum. Finding programs that allow instructors to do this are sometimes difficult to find in the U.S. Midwest where I am. I’m very interested in your work and appreciate your detailed blog posts!

  3. Pingback: The Yin-Yang Symbol as Curricular Model: A Transformative Approach to Christian Education in Asia | Social Conscience Education

  4. Pingback: Use of Wilber’s AQAL in “Service, Society, and the Sacred” | Social Conscience Education

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