The Socratic Experience (TSE) is a virtual school, grades 3–12, based on my lifetime of creating innovative schools. Someone recently asked how we support our students in developing meaning and purpose. I quickly realized that a tweet was not adequate to explain how deeply we’ve thought about this in our program design.
A felt sense of purpose in a community with a shared sense of meaning is a prerequisite for mental and emotional well-being for most humans. We evolved in tribal structures within which purpose, community, and meaning were so deeply inherent in our lives that they were as invisible to us as is water to fish. Today, unfortunately, many young people are suffering as fish do out of water — flopping around helplessly without the necessary conditions for a flourishing life. Epidemic levels of anxiety, depression, and suicide, exacerbated by social media but following trends that preceded the rise of social media, are one metric of this suffering.
While medications may be a temporary expedient required to keep these young fish alive as their gills gulp for the water they need, ultimately we need to re-introduce them to the water in which they may swim. We need to provide young people with the experience of swimming in a meaningful world in which they are surrounded by peers and adults who recognize and support their sense of meaning, and who support them in leading a purpose-driven life.
For many people around the world, traditional religious systems long provided this sense of meaning. In the U.S. and many developed nations, a variety of trends has led to an attenuation in the power of traditional religious beliefs. This diagram by Ryan Burge shows how precipitous the decline has become in the most recent generation:
For some adults, this loss of traditional religious belief has led to nihilism (nothing is meaningful), hedonism (pleasure is the only meaning), or emotivism (my emotions are the only meaningful reality). None of these are ultimately adequate grounds for a flourishing life.
Socratic rationality, the endless practice of asking why we hold each of our beliefs, has been both…