Best Friends: Peer Groups and the Moral Life

Authored by Sr. Eleanor Gibson in Issue #3.4 of The Catechetical Review

When I had an opportunity to return to study in England after many years of active missionary life in East Africa, I took the opportunity to investigate the phenomenon of “school strikes” in Kenya in the hope of understanding what they were saying about moral decision making in adolescents. The school strike is a problem that has bedevilled Kenyan schools for many years, leading even to loss of lives and causing enormous damage to property. Many an education have been compromised by school strikes, which are basically student protests—often violent and destructive—against perceived injustices in the school system.

My own interest was primarily derived from a personal experience of a school strike that had taken place in the girls’ boarding school where I was working. Although no physical harm came to anyone, nor was there any damage to property, relationships between the staff and among the students themselves were strained, because many students were not even involved in the strike. It was difficult to simply return to a “business as usual” approach when there were so many unanswered questions surrounding the underlying reasons for the strike; the trust that had previously characterized our relationships had now been compromised. When asked afterwards—one by one in front of their parents—what grievance had provoked the strike, most of the girls had simply shrugged their shoulders and mumbled the word “influence.” Only some three or four felt they had some genuine reasons for protest but their influence had been strong enough to prevail over the majority.

As I investigated this phenomenon further with the participation of students from a number of other schools, layers of meaning were gradually uncovered. At surface level, a mistrust of authority emerged, expressed as outrage against the neglect and lack of concern for the welfare of the students demonstrated by school administrations in general. This was coupled with a sense of anonymity; one was known only by one’s peers but not by any significant adult within the school context. At a still deeper level, however, there emerged a much more preoccupying issue: a lack of a sense of life’s meaning and purpose that might guide moral decision making.

The most striking conclusion of the research was that, although most of the students were at least nominally Christian and many Catholic, very few of the students were influenced by their Christian faith. Their decisions were effectively pragmatic, a response to circumstances but without any reasoned consideration derived from principle.

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This article is from The Catechetical Review (Online Edition ISSN 2379-6324) and may be copied for catechetical purposes only. It may not be reprinted in another published work without the permission of The Catechetical Review by contacting

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