David Brooks on Moral Individualism of America’s Youth

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Borrowing from one of Christian Smith’s many recent books, David Brooks reflects on the moral state of today’s young people.

During the summer of 2008, the eminent Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith led a research team that conducted in-depth interviews with 230 young adults from across America. The interviews were part of a larger study that Smith, Kari Christoffersen, Hilary Davidson, Patricia Snell Herzog and others have been conducting on the state of America’s youth. 

Smith and company asked about the young people’s moral lives, and the results are depressing.

It’s not so much that these young Americans are living lives of sin and debauchery, at least no more than you’d expect from 18- to 23-year-olds. What’s disheartening is how bad they are at thinking and talking about moral issues.

The interviewers asked open-ended questions about right and wrong, moral dilemmas and the meaning of life. In the rambling answers, which Smith and company recount in a new book, “Lost in Transition,” you see the young people groping to say anything sensible on these matters. But they just don’t have the categories or vocabulary to do so. 

Read the rest here.

Most students at Messiah College (the college where I teach) have a well-formed moral compass. But this does not mean that the kind of moral relativism that Smith and Brooks describe is not present here.  We would be foolish to suggest that Christian young people have not been shaped in one way or another by the culture that surrounds them.  This, I think, is why the work of Christian colleges are so important.  I hope that we are training young people to cultivate the virtues necessary to counter the moral relativism of our culture and to be ever aware of the common good when pursuing their various vocations and callings.  We are not always successful in fulfilling this mission, but we do make a conscious effort to bring the best of the liberal arts tradition to bear on questions about what it might mean to lead a good and flourishing life.