Report From The Field--The Elephant In The Coalmine
"I haven't even finished the first paragraph, and I'm already offended!" she triumphantly stated. She had walked into my philosophy class two minutes earlier and had started reading the day's material soon after. The day’s assignment was the following: read a few papers on abortion--2 pro choice, 1 pro-life--and then write a short response to the reading.
The student in question opened up the pro-life reading on her computer first, and within 30 seconds was complaining about it.
Here is the line that offended her: "People can take opposite positions on abortion even when they think rationally, honestly, and with good will. The continuing controversy over abortion shows that it is a truly controversial issue. It is not simple and clear cut, but complex. Just as the choices for action are often difficult for a woman contemplating abortion, the choices for thought are often difficult for open-minded philosophers."
Granted, the author was being facetious, here, but the student hadn’t yet gotten to the part where he revealed that facetiousness.
When she got to the “open minded philosophers” part, she added "in other words, men."
The author nowhere even remotely suggests that he was referring to "men." That would be the student’s assumption, putting words in the author’s mouth, projecting. Ironically it's a rather sexist projection to boot, identifying "open-minded philosophers" with "men." Plenty of open minded philosophers are women. It is also quite uncharitable to suggest Peter Kreeft, the author, doesn't know that.
This demonstrates yet another pattern I’ve noticed in conversation: taking offense from jump street. It often doesn’t take much. While no one has used their feelings to try to get someone cancelled in my class, to shut down discussion, or otherwise punish a student (thank goodness), plenty get up in arms and don’t have any hesitancy confidently declaring it.
It is hard for them to look past their immediate offense to understand what the author is saying. In this case, the author was being facetious, for the next line reads "everything I have written is a lie." But the student didn't even get that far before she started loudly declaring that she was offended. She didn’t even give herself the time to aim at something that would be a (little) more understandable target of offense. She didn’t say “I’m offended that he is trying to simplify an incredibly complex topic and a decision that is hard for women to make.” (While the topic is complex emotionally, it is not really all that complex logically and morally, but many people try to make it complex, so I could at least understand it a little more if she thought that way) Her offense was altogether something different.
Adults demonstrate all these patterns I point to in my class. We can be just as bad, so my intent isn’t to scapegoat, wag my finger, and bark “kids these days!” Second caveat: you can also say that some of what I point to are simply part and parcel of being a teenager. It goes along with the age, and teens at almost any point in history--at least the last 50 years or so--have been like this...for example, a little hot headed. Well ok, sure, but certain societal factors and elements of the current environment have really cranked all this up to an unhealthy degree. There's nothing new under the sun, but that doesn't mean there aren't any elements of our current moment that we need to face more squarely. There's being undaunted, and then there's sweeping problems under the rug and refusing to take them seriously. I think we tend to sway towards the latter error, rather than the former strength.
And yes, I tend to emphasize the negative in the stories I write about on this blog, when overall, I really enjoy working with and talking with students. It’s really fun, meaningful, and anything but boring. I’m immensely grateful I get to talk with students so often about things that matter. That is a privilege that many don’t get, but I do, and that is incredibly exhilarating. I enjoy what I do, and we enjoy what we do in class together. Otherwise I probably would be doing something else.
So why do I write stories like this, focusing on critique?
Here’s why: I write in the hopes that Christian parents and church leaders read these stories, gain some perspective about what the situation “on the ground” looks like, and are motivated to action.
You don’t have to think very hard to extrapolate out and see how attitudes like the one displayed by the student above--jumping to offense when someone fails to properly utter the progressive shibboleths of the day--can be barriers to seeing truth in life. Just hearing that attitude expressed can become a barrier--it can be intimidating. The urge to go along to get along is a very, very strong influence on most of us, especially our kids. Social pressure is something they feel deeply, because they are teens, and because social media--which the typical teen marinates in every day--cranks that up to an 11. If enough of their peers take offense at the slightest provocation, it could form an echo chamber that could put a lot of pressure on the unprepared to turn away from truth, especially when combined with all the other elements of the echo chamber. And honestly, how many of our kids are really prepared like they need to be?
Plenty of Christian parents and church leaders are fully aware of how the culture--including what goes on inside school walls, the school is not neutral!--is shaping and discipling our kids, and are doing their best to meet the moment with faithfulness. Plenty are not, however. Those in the second group are perhaps content--or mildly ok with--the status quo middle class suburban life, soccer games, and the success model of education (the point of which is to get good grades, go to a good college, get a degree that will lead to a well-paying job, obtain that well paying job, be happy, and generally be a “good” person). Outsource education to the experts and discipleship to the youth pastor. Some that say otherwise with their words live that way, declaring it in action through their day to day lives. It’s very easy for any of us to fall into life habits like that. Lastly, even if they are not content with the status quo, they might not know quite what to do about it.
Failure to reckon with what’s really going on is one of the plethora of reasons why 60-80% of youth in the church walk away from the faith soon after leaving home. I want parents and church leaders to see that the drain starts way before arriving on college campus, and to take appropriate steps to stem the tide. God must move and He is in control, but that doesn’t absolve us of action. His means of grace are through us.
The aim of my classroom stories is to encourage the first group to keep on keepin’ on, and to encourage those in the second group to get on board. Our kids in Christian homes and in the church are subject to the same exact forces that all the other students are subject to. They are not immune just because they come from Christian homes and their families attend Bible-believing churches. Going to a Christian school doesn’t keep them from any of this either.
While I do have hope, I cannot be sanguine or glib.
Developing and implementing an effective plan of action requires knowing the signs of the times. What that plan looks like, exactly, is a long conversation. But the motivation to take such planning seriously, and the intention to stick to it, must be there from the get go.
The things I see in my classroom are signs of the times. E
lephants in the coalmine.