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Lynch School of Education

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eColloquia Newsletter

Reunion report: Adolescent faith and character

By Zak Jason

Jacqueline Lerner

“We continue, as a myth, to promote this idea that adolescents need to be managed,” Professor Jacqueline V. Lerner told a crowd at the Lynch School Reunion kickoff lecture in Higgins Hall May 30. It is time, she said, to reconsider the predominant view of adolescents as “problems,” and consider them “resources to be developed.”

Nearly 50 alumni turned out to hear Lerner, professor of applied developmental and educational psychology, and Joseph M. O’Keefe, S.J., professor of educational leadership, present their research on youth character and faith development.

Lerner pointed out that in her eight-year study of 7,000 youths, the 4-H Study of Positive Youth Development, she and fellow researchers found that positive youth development (PYD) is most often found in children with “the five Cs”: competence, confidence, connection, caring, and character.

PYD youths take risks, she said, but they seem to know their limits. They’re “going to engage in some experimental risk, but it’s usually shorter lived, and it’s safer,” Lerner said.

Lerner said she has begun to identify factors that promote the five Cs, including a sense of hope for the future, school involvement, participation in youth development programs, and engagement in positive and sustained adult relationships. (Mentoring relationships that last less than a year are more hurtful than helpful, Lerner noted.) Early this summer, she will begin work on a three-year study (funded by a $1.9 million John Templeton Foundation grant) of how intentional self-regulation shapes character.

Joseph O'Keefe, S.J.

O’Keefe, who is also director of the Center for Ignatian Spirituality, followed with a look at teenagers’ spiritual development. His recent pilot survey of two Jesuit high schools investigated the prevalence of moralistic therapeutic deism (MTD)—a term coined by sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton to describe a largely unexamined belief system prevalent among American adolescents that holds the central purpose of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.

Jesuit education, the study found, continues to incubate robust religious beliefs in millennials, who tend to doubt God’s existence more than any living generation. (Twelfth graders showed the lowest levels of MTD.) O’Keefe noted, however, that a child’s religious background is much more formative than a school environment.

He plans to further study gender differences and the influences of family and the teachings of Ignatian spirituality in a survey of all 52 Jesuit high schools in the country. The results, O’Keefe hopes, will provide answers on how to better “hand on the faith to the next generation.”

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