The Language of Morality


(system) #1

A few years ago David Brooks visited Princeton University in an attempt to understand my generation's meritocratic elite. What he found were trained workaholics, their 18-hours-a-day schedules packed with classes, work, extracurriculars, and sports. These students he dubbed Organizational Kids. They were smart, friendly, tolerant, and driven. Yet, whenever he tried to speak to them about anything other than their careerism, about ideas of good and evil, sacrifice and sin, the students were lost. As he recounts:

"In talking to Princeton students about character, I noticed two things. First, they're a little nervous about the subject. When I asked if Princeton builds character, they would inevitably mention the honor code against cheating, or policies to reduce drinking. When I asked about moral questions, they would often flee such talk and start discussing legislative questions. [...] When it comes to character and virtue, these young people have been left on their own. Today's go-getter parents and today's educational institutions work frantically to cultivate neural synapses, to foster good study skills, to promote musical talents. We fly our children around the world so that they can experience different cultures. We spend huge amounts of money on safety equipment and sports coaching. We sermonize about the evils of drunk driving. We expend enormous energy guiding and regulating their lives. But when it comes to character and virtue, the most mysterious area of all, suddenly the laissez-faire ethic rules: You're on your own, Jack and Jill; go figure out what is true and just for yourselves."

Apparently, in the sanitized world of secular academia, religion and its uncomfortable ideas of a fallen world, sacrifice, and virtue have been replaced with vague ideas of playing by the rules. These students, Brooks observes, have been raised in unprecedented peace and prosperity. They have had nothing to rebel against and so are happy to simply conform themselves to the modern world. They believe the world is fundamentally just because their upbringing gives no evidence otherwise. My generation's elite is certainly not unaware the injustices in the world. On the contrary, they're very engaged. But they interpret the problems of the world as largely structural, to be fixed by better policy and education, not, as some religions would posit, created by the deeper dilemma of human nature. Most elite graduates can't speak eloquently about virtue and vice because they were never taught to. The problems they're trained to fix–technical, business, law, medical–are external. And so they approach injustice, and thus morality, the same way they would a problem set in Calculus.

On the contrary, in the Adventist sub-culture, one can not help but be saturated by the vocabulary of morality. This creates a significant difference between thoughtful Christian students and other students in my generation: believers, in general, speak more eloquently about virtue and morality. Having been exposed to the biblical narratives, we've dealt with the tragic and the mystical, with inconsistency and moral obligation. We also have had the added advantage that we actually believe this stuff. These ideas are not just mental exercises from which we can walk away at the end class. These questions and their answers have far-reaching consequences in our lives and our most personal understanding of ourselves. This dynamic is quickly observed, for example, in any good PUC Honors class. When a group of students who have spent their lives fervently believing in the literal nature of the Bible are exposed to the very real possibility that this is not true, the reaction is not simply intellectual, it is physical and emotional. Students lose sleep over this sort of thing.

For anyone who believes a biblically inspired interpretation of reality is closer to the truth than a secular one, the advantage of growing up Christian is obvious. But that upbringing does not translate into moral literacy unless it is honed through education. As Adventist colleges in North America face a growing identity crisis, an emphasis on moral literacy is one advantage a secular school cannot replicate.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/289