Why do I so frequently write about conversations I get into in the classroom? In my humble, yet always correct opinion, they are interesting in and of themselves, but aside from that, it is because they give parents and church leaders an inside look into what’s going on with the student generation.
It’s not that parents and church youth leaders don’t interact with and therefore don’t “get” kids--parents intimately know their own kids, and it’s a youth pastor’s whole job to work with kids. Given my vantage point as a public school teacher who teaches a philosophy class, though, I’d like to think I have a valuable take and can add to the conversation. I try to put a face on the trends most of us sense, making it concretely embodied in real life conversations in a public school classroom. I manage to get into it with students almost every week, so there are lots of stories to tell.
Here’s the latest:
There is a frustrating habit/pattern I’ve noticed with students: almost anytime we are talking about a fundamental life vision question--like “what is the best life?”--they almost immediately assume the question has no answer. It’s not that they try to think, get frustrated, and then end up throwing up their hands in exasperation--they start with skepticism. It is immediate. The tell is that within the first few seconds of the conversation, the first thing out of their mouths is the whole “well it all depends on who you are. Different people have different answers. (shrug).” Almost like an automatic reaction. I call this the “skeptic’s shrug.” It is frustrating because where do you go from there? That’s a conversation stopper….I’m trying to get them to lead the examined life, and that is pert’neer impossible if their first move is the skeptic’s shrug. Recognize there are different kinds of shrugs. There are shrugs that admit a lack and shrugs that make a definitive statement. This one is the latter. This isn't an admission of ignorance. This isn't an "I don't know" shrug. That would be perfectly fine. It would be refreshingly honest if they were to say "you know, I've never really thought of that. I don't know." But the skeptic's shrug is not a humble admission that they lack knowledge or haven't thought of it. It is the exact opposite--a supremely confident assertion that there is no knowledge to be found. They (think they) know.
If you respond by saying “well yea, but which different answer is correct?” they either look at you like you just farted in church or they repeat their previous words verbatim like you didn’t hear it. It happened recently during a discussion on gender. After they read a transcript of a TED Talk given by Cheryl Sandberg--a sort of ode to “career feminism” that puts career establishment and advancement before almost anything else--and a piece by Rachel Bock titled “Why I Left Feminism” where she critiques the career feminism attitude (NB, I try as often as I can to make the content in the philosophy a class point-counterpoint back and forth on the fundamental questions of life and on current controversial issues. One reading makes a case on an issue, and the next reading lays out a counter argument. There are many reasons why this class content format is important.), I said “both of these pieces give fundamentally different answers to the question ‘what is the best life?’ Sandberg gives career advancement center stage. Bock, though she was taught that attitude by her parents, school, and culture, argues that attitude did not serve her well. Who do you think has the better perspective?” The first girl to answer simply said what I noted above is the pattern: “it just depends on what you want and what your heart desires. The one is good for some but others choose differently. Whatever works for you, you know?” Heads nodded in agreement. Almost everyone agreed. This took about 15 seconds. Conversation over. Ack. This is the pattern, and it happens within the first 30 seconds of almost any discussion on purpose, morality, meaning, etc. I can set my watch to it. They simply assume without a second thought that weighty questions like that, the ultimate questions, are no different than choosing an ice cream flavor, life enhancement, or clothing.
They actually probably put more thought into what ice cream flavor they prefer for dessert than they do their answers to fundamental questions.
When it comes to the question “what is the best ice cream flavor?” I choose chocolate and my wife chooses vanilla (true story!). Which is better? Neither, because it is a personal preference thing. We think that way because we know the question has no answer.
In like manner, if students (or adults for that matter--lets not pretend the younguns made this all up. Most often they think this way because their parents and their culture have taught them so, and their parents think this way because their parents and their culture taught them so. This ain’t new.) subjectivize answers to fundamental questions, that’s because they think it has no answer and is of no real significance.
I responded that, well, it’d be one thing if they had deeply pondered the question for 50 years, scoured the earth trying to gain wisdom from the best in the world and still found no answer. Throwing up their hands after an exhaustive a search would make a bit more sense, though if they are making a genuine search I find it hard to believe they wouldn’t at least have *some* things figured out.
But they are 16, 17, 18 year old suburban kids, steeped in Tiktok, youth culture, SAT prep, and college applications. They haven’t done hardly any thinking about the question, and what they think is thinking is anything but: just basically collectively patting each other on the back for their tolerant, modern, enlightened feelings.
I continued the conversation by pointing out that they are fish swimming in a very, very small ideological puddle of water known as "21st century American culture"--they are adopting the skeptical shrug not because it’s rational, but because they’ve known nothing else, and it’s far from obvious that their attitude is correct. They are giving up without a fight. Throwing in the towel in regards to the examined life before the round 1 bell even rings.
Maybe the question does have an answer. Maybe the truth is out there, and it’s not just ice cream scoops all the way down. Why not try to find it for a change, rather than giving up so quickly with a shrug to subjectivism?
Sometimes I despair that these conversations make any sort of dent, but I will report that in the next conversation a few days later, they hung in there a little more and didn’t so quickly go for the subjectivism. So there’s that. Little victories.
What works for you? How can we get them to take these questions seriously, and get to work on finding a cogent answer?