For some years now I have had the privilege of teaching and leading 18-20 year old college students who profess to be Christ followers. Many readers of “Mere Comments,” Touchstone, and Salvo share that calling. At IMPACT 360, we have sought to turn our students’ attention to three of the most critical issues of our day as articulated in the Manhattan Declaration. But it hasn’t been enough to just tell them “this is important, because the Bible and the Church say so and I’m telling you it is too.” Although they see the Bible as authoritative, the Church tends to be less so for them than for older generations. At a minimum, this is what I’ve observed in millennials who have grown up in most evangelical Protestant traditions. On these critically important issues, the disconnect, I think, is one of depth perception, so to speak. That is to say, theirs is too often a shallow view of human nature. This claim may strike some of us as all too obvious, but it isn’t at all obvious to most Christian young people and their parents. Although they believe at some level that they are created imago dei, they still tend to view themselves as their peers and the media portray them—as a mere bundle of matter, desires, successes, and failures, headed in a life direction that may or may not have meaning. Over the years, I’ve found that their ability to see themselves and others as inherently valuable increases dramatically when they learn exactly what a human being is from a classical substance dualist perspective. Furthermore, their enthusiasm and clarity about the relevant ethical issues goes way up, because all of a sudden they can comprehend the intrinsic worth and dignity of human persons to a far greater degree. Being as convinced as I am that formal instruction on accidents, essences, and human nature from a substance dualist perspective is a must for all Christ-following undergraduates, I was thrilled to see this article in Salvo by Robin Phillips several issues ago: Apples, Oranges & Gay Marriage–Or the Name Game & Hidden Assumptions. In addition to other readings, we’ll be using this article with our students in an upcoming module on marriage and sexual ethics, and I expect great discussions to come from it.
Over three decades ago, a young, unmarried, and scared woman, pregnant and abortion-determined, walked into her OB-GYN’s office in Atlanta and requested of the doctor that he help her terminate her pregnancy. Being a Christian committed to the sanctity of life, he shared with her why he would not assist her with an abortion; but, instead, offered her the gospel message and made the case for why she should choose life for her child. The young mother-to-be was persuaded, and eventually elected to put the child up for adoption. She wanted her daughter to be adopted into a Christian household, she told the doctor. Eighteen years later, I met the young lady whose life was spared as a result of the Christian OB-GYN taking a risk and sharing Christ’s love and hope with an abortion-determined woman who had none. Five years after that, I married her. Because of a doctor’s courage and God’s hand of providence, I have a family to cherish and protect. They are the joy of my life. Because of a young mother’s willingness to trust the doctor, the adoption agency, and the Christian young couple who adopted this baby girl (and are now my in-laws), I am blessed with a God-fearing wife who is a Proverbs 31 woman. Because this young mother chose life, I have three fantastic kids who are already making a difference for the Kingdom. Because the community of faith valued life over convenience and efficiency, a great woman of faith is alive today who regularly mentors and disciples young college co-eds. For me, the right to life isn’t just a social issue–it’s deeply personal.
Following the presidential election, I am more convicted than ever that we must fight for the rights of the unborn with vigilance. Many pro-lifers have become discouraged and are despairing of our prospects of winning this war. Some doubt that we can really do much to make significant strides forward. But I believe that with prayer, commitment and hard work, it is winnable. There are groups working intentionally to win this war in creative ways, such as the Dallas-based group Online for Life (onlineforlife.org), whose advisory board I was privileged to join recently. Through the latest and best internet technology and sound business principles, this organization finds abortion-determined women and men who are searching for abortion clinics online. They work with local pregnancy resource centers to provide hope where there is none in the same way that the doctor did for a young, lonely, and afraid pregnant woman over thirty years ago. With God’s help, we can win…we will win.
Two evenings ago my wife and I had the privilege of participating in a private dinner at Union University (TN), where I serve as a visiting professor. The main attraction was the guest of honor, former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates. Currently he serves as Chancellor of the second oldest institution of higher education in the country, The College of William and Mary.
In the Q & A session that followed dinner, Secretary Gates answered questions about everything from Chinese vs United States GDP to Afghanistan to the differences between the eight presidents he has served. In all of his responses there was a consistent theme: the importance of character in leadership. The best question, in my estimation as an educator, was “who were the most important influences in your life?” He named a number of them, but the one that stood out was “the tough teachers who actually expected a lot of me as a student.”
Now, how many of those really hard teachers that pushed him to his potential saw into his future and thought “huh, this guy could really become something someday?” My guess is probably at least one. That was a good check for me—how much do I really expect of my students, and even my own kids, on a consistent basis? How much do we as a culture actually expect of our high school and college students? Do our actions and the responsibilities we place on them demonstrate that we really believe in them, and that we really think they can carry the cultural freight for the next 30 years and seek to restore a meaningful sense of the common good?
Here’s Naomi Schaefer Riley’s commentary on the recent headlines about the current state of academic integrity at Harvard, where as many as 125 students are under investigation for cheating in a course entitled “Introduction to Congress.” In addition to what Riley points out, at work here is probably a conception of truth which, in the late neopragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty’s view is nothing more than “what our peers will let us get away with saying.” Many students think there just are no real consequences, partly because their parents didn’t give them real responsibility at home and didn’t allow them to fail. As a result, they learned growing up that they could get away with almost anything. What will Harvard let them get away with?
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?
This morning I was called to prayer when I read the latest e-bulletin from Cherie Harder, president of The Trinity Forum (ttf.org). Writing candidly yet graciously as parishioner of The Falls Church (VA), she summarizes the outcome of the legal battle that has been raging for the last several years between the church and its Diocese:
This Sunday is the last that I and thousands of other parishioners will worship at the Sanctuary of The Falls Church in Virginia. Earlier this year, a judge ruled that despite the fact that The Falls Church is older than the Episcopal diocese, and that over 90 percent of the church parishioners voted to leave the Episcopal diocese, the Falls Church—and six other Anglican churches—would be required to turn over its buildings, facilities, and financial assets to the Episcopal Church.
While the court ruling still seems unreal, the language is stark and its execution imminent. In short order, the deed to the sanctuary will be signed over to the Episcopal diocese, and the church property and most of the financial assets—from computers to communion silver, and including tithes given by parishioners earmarked for non-diocese ministries—will be transferred to their ownership. After this Sunday, the congregation will meet in various school gymnasiums—a few weeks at a middle school, followed by a month at a high school – as the schools are able to accommodate, and until a more permanent home can be found.
Not ending on a pessimistic note, she points to the redemptive elements occasioned by this excruciatingly painful process and loss of the physical property:
The next three to four weeks will see hundreds of thousands of freshly minted university graduates launch from the haven of their academic institutions into the world to make a positive difference. As they await the conferral of their degrees, they will be told to remember the lessons learned on the journey, and to go and change the world. We use this forum, among other things, as a way to discuss how the world needs to be changed and how we will accomplish it. But how ready is this millennial generation to begin changing the world, really?
I’ve been working in higher education for 15 years. Others who blog here (and many others who attend this online forum) have much more experience than that. What’s different about students today, and should we have cause for concern? Here are just a few of my observations:
After having read the Atlanta paper's recent story on what's about to happen here in Georgia public high schools, I couldn't stop thinking about it. The trending isn't at all encouraging in that a number of states have already adopted the legislation. State legislatures that adopt this way of executing public high school education will inevitably encourage students (even more so that what is currently the case) to instrumentalize their education, because the list of high school "majors" from which students much choose tilt heavily in the direction of vocational skills training. Of course, the vision being cast here is jobs, jobs, jobs. I'm all for job creation, but a solid high school education needs to be so much more than that. It needs to begin to cultivate the mind of the student so that he or she can unfold further as a productive, virtuous citizen that contributes to the common good. It is an understatement to say that the state, such as it is, just isn't competent to grasp the rich, ancient concept of paideia–or common learning–whose purpose is to liberate the human spirit in the educational process. This law only confirms that claim. Furthermore, if laws on the books mandate this new angle for public higher education, what is to follow for accredited private K-12 education and home-schooling?
Having read Jim Kushiner's post from two days ago, I couldn't help but get a little more mileage out of his title. Actually, a more accurate title for this one would be "who understands what it means to be human," period. If you saw the cover story of this past February's Time magazine entitled "2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal" you know what I'm talking about. The issue at its core–the mind/body problem–isn't a new one. What is new is the exponential rate at which technology will bring (supposedly) superintelligent immortal cyborgs into existence.
To quote a portion of the article: "We will successfully reverse-engineer the human brain by the mid-2020s. By the end of that decade, computers will be capable of human-level intelligence….In , given the vast increases in computing power and the vast reductions in the cost of same, the quantity of artificial intelligence created will be about a billion times the sum of all the human intelligence that exists today."
Having just launched our spring academic modules on ethics, culture, and society, I’m reminded of how college students are typically more interested in social entrepreneurship than older generations. Although encouraging on several levels, every year I find myself patting them on the back for their desire to pair their innovative sensibilities with their hearts for service while I simultaneously defend the free market. Why? First, because 18-20 year olds grew up in the post-Enron, post real-estate bust market. Add to that the fact that a few wildly popular books written in the last few years by influential evangelicals make the case for believers to abandon the American dream so that they can be set free to live out their faith with authenticity and enthusiasm. These books, targeted at college students and twenty-somethings, may provide a needed challenge to believers who are overly enamored of creature comforts, but they don’t do a great job of distinguishing capitalism as an economic system from the moral agents—and sometime corrupt ones—that operate inside of that system. The unsurprising result of these recent and publicly observable business failures combined with the sentiments represented in these books result in an attitude among millennials that says “down with capitalism.” Every time I hear that claim or anything akin to it, one of the first things I do is refer the student to The Acton Institute website.
I’ve engaged millennials’ concerns over free markets the past few years, and I think their fundamental worries actually have little to do with wealth itself. Instead, university students in the post-Enron age hear capitalist vernacular as a sort of impoverished discourse about individual rights. In her book Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse, Professor Mary Ann Glendon argues “Our stark, simple rights dialect puts a damper on the processes of public justification, communication, and deliberation upon which the continuing vitality of a democratic regime depends. It contributes to the erosion of the habits, practices, and attitudes of respect for others that are the ultimate and surest guarantors of human rights. It impedes creative long-range thinking about our most pressing social problems. Our rights-laden public discourse easily accommodates the economic, the immediate, and the personal dimensions of a problem, while it regularly neglects the moral, the long-term, and the social implications.”
To be sure, current statistics in the Chronicle of Higher Education and other sources show that a high percentage of college students place a significant value on using their education to achieve a high standard of living. But many more than in the past want to know that their lives have counted for a cause bigger than themselves, and one that takes into account the moral and social implications of our ongoing dialogue. I know next-generation leaders out there who understand the inextricable connection between free markets and social entrepreneurship. I realize that none of what I’ve said here gets at the deeper biblical underpinnings of free markets as the most likely economic environment to encourage human beings as bearers of the imago dei to implement the creation mandate (Gen 1:28) through culture-making business ventures.
In closing, I was recently encouraged by a colleague from a sister institution who said this:
I think many of the students…want to get rid of every possession and go do something “radical.” And my only concern is…that something radical doesn’t always mean abandoning the capitalist world we live in. Some of the most influential (for the gospel, I mean) people I know are sharing Christ with the arts world – with filmmakers and artists and musicians, and there a need to earn a voice among whichever audience God leads you toward…which requires an understanding of their context, knowledge of the field, and at least in this case, enough money to be among them.