This is the last installment in the “What Are Students Thinking?” series. In this post, I will articulate one other observation about student thinking, and I will conclude with a few other thoughts.
To put it bluntly, students are simply confused. I don’t mean that they hole wrong or harmful beliefs--there’s plenty of that. It’s that it’s all a jumbled mess up there, a web of beliefs, values, and instincts that don’t cohere at all and make for very odd bedfellows. I call this the “worldview junk drawer.” You know the metaphor--everyone has that one drawer in their house where they put random stuff, and there is little to no organization or rhyme/reason to what goes in there. When it comes to thinking, there is lots of that-- talking out of both sides of their mouths...a relativist one minute, a staunch moral objectivist the next. Examples of this have been scattered throughout this series. Think back to the student who, in her “build a town” presentation, confidently valued self expression and “the freedom to be who you are” and bonding together/sacrificing for the common good at the same time. Those two don’t mix. Or, think of the many students who clung to relativism in class discussions when they were defending intellectual turf, but the next moment used words like “unfair” or “unjust” in their comments, as if those were real things and not just personal preferences. Or, think back to the preferred pronoun discussion. One student rails against gender stereotypes as restrictive and oppressive--heads solemnly nod in agreement. Two minutes later, students use the very same gender stereotypes to talk about what it means to “feel like a woman inside.” And again, heads not in agreement.
Other examples from class are legion. Quite often, they will take something that confronts or contradicts their own worldview, and because they don’t think on these topics that often, because of how they’ve been formed by culture, they will re-interpret it as something that actually confirms their worldview. They don’t do this purposefully...they just have a jumbled mess of beliefs in their head, so making sense of contrary evidence/arguments creates a lot of cognitive dissonance. They’ve done this to Greg Koukl’s arguments against relativism. They watch his debate on objective moral truths and come out thinking he’s a relativist!! Sometimes its quite hard to understand what, exactly, they are saying...like I said, very mixed up. Just the other day, I had my philosophy class read Justin McBrayer’s essay in the New York Times from a few years ago “Why Our Children Don’t Think There are Moral Facts.” McBrayer’s whole point is that there are moral facts; there is objective morality. He lays it on pretty thick and its hard to miss. But students, more often than I like to admit, actually hear his argument and think he is arguing that morals are relative. One student spoke up after the reading and said “man I really like that article. He’s right, it’s all just opinion. How do you know that your beliefs are right! You don’t. So I agree with him.” When I pointed out that McBrayer was arguing the precise opposite, he got so surprised and said “aw no man! I don’t believe that. Morality is just an opinion.” That happens somewhat frequently. Christian students too!
So this is why you have situations like a student in my class, who is a go-getter leader in youth group at church and in multiple Christian clubs on campus, who wrote me a letter first day of class saying “I absolutely love Jesus with all my heart and want to make him known” (note: I have all students write me a paragraph on the first day of class where they get to tell me anything about themselves that they want me to know.) say during a discussion on abortion “I’m pro life and all, but I would never tell a woman what to do with her body.” This is why you have kids who passionately raise their hands and praise Jesus to the hilt during praise and worship at church, who do say *some* right things and have *some* instincts in the right direction, but then when they are at school they’ll say all the same shibboleths that everyone else is saying.
Why? Why is it one big worldview salad up there? Why the jumbled mess? It’s not surprising when you think about it. For one, when it comes to relativism, no one is a consistent moral relativist. We live in God’s world, which is a morally ordered world, and so attempts to deny it will only get so far. The moral sight pops up in unguarded moments, no matter how much they insist morals are relative when they are defending their intellectual turf and autonomy. Second, the culture at large is very confused. We really can’t fault these students for being this way. Western secular culture is pervasive, and is itself a mass of contradiction, so it’s no surprise that they would internalize a lot of the same. Third--and this, I think, is something we as Christians really need to wrestle with--is because they don’t have much opportunity to think about and talk about fundamental questions in any sort of rigorous and thorough way. My philosophy class is the first time many of them have heard of moral realism or substance dualism, or any substantive arguments against abortion or evidences for God’s existence (note: on these and other questions, they get both sides of the issue and must grapple with the arguments pro and con). This goes for Christian families too, not just non-Christian ones. Developing a rigorous life of the mind that prioritizes thinking through tough and basic questions is just not a priority for most families, most schools, and therefore most kids. Most of their time and attention is devoted to soccer practice, college applications, acing the SAT, making the grade in AP classes, earning a paycheck, boyfriends and girlfriends, social media, and climbing the success ladder in society. The focus is on building a comfortable life of success and social reputation/good graces. They fill their days thinking through planning for college and career, but not developing a well thought out and evidenced life of wisdom. Yeah, some might go to church, but like I said earlier, that’s a few hours a week at best, and is sequestered from the rest of life, put into the “faith” (read: “blind faith”) box--a perhaps emotional back pocket solution when needed, but not something that intersects with and describes reality in any deep way. For many, when church conflicts with jr’s soccer game, or when there’s going to be that important AP test on Monday, church takes a back seat to the game and to studying for the test.
Kids just don’t think hard and cohesively very much about this stuff, because that is how they’ve been raised. They simply conform to their environment. We really can’t blame them. I mean, c'mon: I was the same way when I was their age.
In conclusion, let me end on a positive note. Many readers might criticize me for being overly pessimistic and hard on students in this series: most of what I’ve had to say is on the negative side. Well, yes, but I don’t think such pessimism is uncalled for. Developing a workable solution won’t happen without a good hard look at reality. We must square with the situation on the ground as it is, not as we wish it to be. Yes I could be wrong on my observations, but I do not think I am or that I’m overstating things. Really, though, to borrow Rod Dreher’s phrase, I am not optimistic, but I am hopeful. Optimism is a happy-clappy, slogan-driven glibness in the face of challenge. Hope recognizes the dire situation, but also points out that not all is lost, because God is sovereign. A good read through Lord of the Rings will give you a vivid picture of what this tension looks like--Mordor was a monstrous threat, but press on they did, and they prevailed against all odds in the end. The Holy Spirit is real and is active, so while the odds are overwhelming, it’s not like the Church has never been in dire straits before. Many times through her history she has faced the threat of Mordor, and has come through. I see no reason to think such isn’t the case now. I don’t hold out much hope for a drastic change in the world and culture at large. We are stuck with a culture steeped in Expressive Individualism and Secularism for the near and distant future. Those two counter-religions aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. But I do hold out hope for the Church and Christian families. If we display courage by letting go of our idols of respectability and the applause of men and faithfully work to build communal institutions that can withstand the storm, we will endure. To endure, we must be prepared to sacrifice. In future posts I will spell out what this might look like at least on a familial and individual church level. But for now, Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option is a good place to start when it comes to thinking through how to respond to our cultural moment. In a word, we must evangelize the Evangelicals--turn our eyes to better discipling and formation in our midst.