Damon holds that now and in the past almost all parents and teachers believed that there were certain personal virtues that it was necessary for all students to acquire, including "respect, honesty, diligence, kindness, fair-mindedness, [and] temperance."
But in the 1980s, Damon says, he was troubled about moral relativism that was influencing American intellectuals and that was "beginning to trickle down to schools, the media, and other places that shape the values of our children."
By the end of the 1980s, Damon says:
Self-esteem had become the holy grail of child rearing, and parents were advised to avoid "traumatizing" their (supposedly) fragile children by asserting authority and urging children to strive for excellence, take on challenges, and control their behavior according to ethical strictures.
Lately, Damon notes criticism has come from a different direction. He points out that certain critics of "values clarification" and other character education programs have argued that they can be so weak that they are actually subversive of acquiring the virtues.
In fact, the most searing criticism these days has come from [those who have] the concern that character educators fail to promote moral standards strongly enough. One critic [sociologist James Davison Hunter] has complained that the programs do not deal sufficiently with matters of good and evil and thus are actually leading to "the death of character"!
Damon's current aim is "to make a case for the importance of purpose in youth development":
Students learn bits of knowledge that they may see little use for; and from time to time someone at a school assembly urges them to go and do great things in the world. When it comes to drawing connections between the two — that is, showing students how a math formula or a history lesson could be important for some purpose that a student may wish to pursue — schools too often leave their students flat....
The message of my work is that schools need to give students a better understanding of why they are in school in the first place — that is, how the skills students are learning can help them accomplish their life goals. That is the only way to really motivate students in a lasting way....
Damon says he has found that "men and women who have done exceptionally good work in their careers" could readily answer "questions about what they were trying to accomplish and why....[T]here was an elevated purpose, always on their minds, that drove their daily efforts."