As the November election draws closer, something that is increasingly obvious with many Christ-following college students is that they’re reluctant to engage in meaningful discourse on issues that matter. Some will chat in cyberspace about the issues, but get them in a room together where they cannot ignore the fact that the person on the other end of their comments is right there in the flesh and that they might just have to work with them later on in the day or week, and they all but shut down in the discussion, if it ever gets started in the first place. Their assumption is that, as Christians, we should not be divided over such matters. But this assumption, I contend, is one of the reasons why Gen Y demonstrates less civic engagement than older generations.
I know this to be true from working with a fair number of college students in a variety of academic settings. As a part of our leadership curriculum, students take an evaluation that measures their preferred conflict style, and the results show that a significant number of them manifest the “avoidance” pattern of conflict. Of course this means that conflict-avoiding Nikki doesn’t want to tell her roommate Sarah that Sarah’s habit of throwing her dirty laundry on Nikki’s clean bed day after day isn’t really working for her. My experience with this kind of avoider is that she is likely to be reluctant to dialogue—in person with others face-to-face, without the safety of a virtual chat room or on Facebook—on issues that make a difference for our society. In failing to speak to the issues when given the opportunity, she fails to contribute to the common good. Of course, whenever I hear that term or use it myself these days, I have to ask “in this increasingly pluralist society, is the common good even detectable anymore? Does it even exist?” I believe the answers are “yes,” and “yes.” But isn’t fruitful dialogue and debate a necessary part of that validation process? And, isn’t it all too easy for conflict avoiders to lapse into apathy regarding the key issues in the upcoming election? Moreover, if Gen Y is too squeamish about healthy conflict, what lasting contributions can we expect them to make with respect to restoring the common good and civility in America? As Os Guinness points out, civility is “not to be confused with niceness and mere etiquette or dismissed as squeamishness about differences,” and that “truth and tough-minded debates about truth are the oxygen of a free society” (Civility, 3; 113).
To be sure, I recognize that there are many Christ-following undergraduates out there who are stepping up to the plate and who are bringing fruitful discourse and winsome thought leadership on the key issues to the university classroom as well as the public square. I converse with them and am thankful for them. But it still seems to me that an increasing number are reluctant to speak up, challenge, and be challenged in their thinking. A solid liberal arts education is supposed to help, and certainly it does, especially in settings where the great books are emphasized and a Socratic method of instruction is used. But what about students who don’t have that kind of environment? What have you noticed, and what have you found effective in addressing this concern?