Talking with Emerging Adults
"Politics ain't beanbag."
It's an old saying, over a hundred years old actually. When we complain about politics today, it is worth remembering that it never has been a particularly genteel affair. But politics still ain't beanbag. I've always been a political junkie. I used to track election polls like my friends followed box scores, but I don't enjoy following political news anymore. Most of the reporting is too shallow, too nasty, and-often-too inaccurate to be worth the effort. I've tried to watch some of the recent Republican Presidential debates but never lasted more than five minutes before changing the channel.
As a political science professor, I spend a lot of time around young political junkies. Unfortunately, although I love my job, listening to my students discuss politics often is not much better than enduring what passes for debate on FOXNews or MSNBC. Sometimes they talk past each other without listening. Disagreements devolve into insults. The other side is always out to destroy America or take away all of our freedoms or destroy our families or exploit the poor. Recently, one student had trouble making the numbers add up the way he wanted them to for a federal budget balancing exercise that I had assigned. His solution? He posted on our online bulletin board that the exercise was a "waste of time" because it was "totally liberally biased."
Part of what is going on here is that these students are imitating the style of debate they see on the news channels. Part of it is probably bad habits they've picked up in the raucous, unfiltered back and forth of websites like Facebook and Reddit. But something deeper is likely at work here as well, and a recent book might help us understand what that is. In Souls in Transition (Oxford University Press, 2009; winner of the 2011 Lilly Fellows Program Book Award), University of Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith with collaborator Patricia Snell examine: "The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults." Their book, based on years of survey data and hundreds of in-depth interviews with young Americans in their late teens and early twenties, presents revealing and disturbing findings. The period known as emerging adulthood is a time when life changes rapidly and young people struggle to find their place in the world. Complicating this transition, emerging adults today face a world that offers them historically unparalleled freedom, a culture of astonishing diversity, access to an overwhelming amount of information, and a job market that demands absolute flexibility.
In this environment, many emerging adults find it difficult to connect with stable communities, or find reliable sources of structure and authority in their lives. This lack of rootedness in the physical and social worlds effects how they perceive the moral universe. When so little in life seems stable, emerging adults have little to fall back on except their own subjective experiences. Everything is personal, and they believe that whatever you think is right must be right. The authors find that most emerging adults "…are doubtful that an identifiable, objective, shared reality might exist across and around all people that can serve as a reliable reference point for deliberation and argument" (61). They cannot "...believe in-or sometimes even conceive of-a given, objective truth, fact, reality, or nature of the world that is independent of their subjective self-experience and that in relation to which they and others might learn or be persuaded to change" (61). In the interviews, Smith and Snell found that most emerging adults were uninterested or even incapable of discussing or thinking about moral issues. They simply lacked the vocabulary for those conversations and, when you live in a world where "…anything truly objectively shared or common or real seems impossible to access," there is not much motivation to develop one.
If this is the moral universe our students live in, then we shouldn't be surprised by how they talk about politics. Honest, thoughtful discussion is pointless when you don't believe there is any common place to begin the discourse or shared standard with which to evaluate truth claims. In this context, a willingness to compromise can only be an admission of failure. Politics is rendered nothing more than a zero-sum game, a sort of high-stakes power play between diametrically opposed forces with no shared objectives or rules.
This sheds light on what has been going on in the Republican Presidential campaign lately. For me, the strangest thing about an already strange primary season has been how many of the young, politically-engaged Republicans I know support Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich, two candidates who are not political newcomers, not young, and not-I think it safe to say-particularly hip. What they are is uncompromising and strident. They make their cases without worrying about whether they will convince anyone, and they would rather take their party down with them in defeat rather than concede a single jot or tittle. In short, they are the perfect candidates for the groundless moral universe that many emerging adults live in.
That is a bleak picture of the state of our politics and our culture in general. And, if these emerging adults fail to develop a functional moral vocabulary as they move further into adulthood and become leaders in society, things will only get worse. Even so, the study leaves us with a glimmer of hope. We must remember that emerging adults are, after all, still emerging. Their lives, like our culture, are in flux. Smith and Snell see emerging adults as in desperate need of guidance. "Emerging adults," they write, "are determined to be free. But they do not know what is worth doing with their freedom" (294). They note that some are more likely to have strong faith lives than others. Those who connect with stable religious communities and begin to participate in regular and meaningful religious practices are usually those who have had good role models, people who helped them make good choices about the role of religion in their lives. Usually these role models are their parents, but in some cases they were non-parental adults, perhaps members of religious communities who reached out to them with offers of support or help (285).
On the final page, the authors write, "…if anyone in the future is ever to know what is really good, right, and true, the challenges of the crises of knowledge and value that beset American culture today… must be addressed" (299). If our society wants to pass on its moral framework to the next generation, we must recognize the extent to which our young people are disoriented. And if I, as a teacher, want my students to engage in more thoughtful and constructive political discussions, then it is my task to help them see how this is possible. It is not the teacher's proper role to tell his or her students how to live, but teaching does involve a kind of character formation. As Mark Schwehn wrote in Exiles from Eden (1993), "Academies are places of learning. Students and faculty come together, because they seek knowledge and understanding" (33). To come to a place of higher learning is to join a community dedicated to seeking the truth together, and good citizenship within this community requires practicing the virtues that sustain it. Among these virtues are charity, patience, courage, and integrity. Institutions of higher learning must help our young people to develop the charity to recognize what they do share with others, the courage to perceive a reality beyond themselves, and the patience and integrity to learn how to engage in frank but honest conversations. Although in the academy we think of these as intellectual virtues, they also are necessary to the whole of life.
Today's emerging adults are trying to find themselves in the midst of all this change, and tomorrow they will be the ones driving the change. We must help them find ways to live meaningful lives structured by genuine moral commitments, to become engaged members of communities of belief and practice. This is the task that faces parents, pastors, and also educators, the role we must play in sustaining a culture capable of knowing the good, right, and true.