David Brooks, an op-ed writer for the New York Times wrote a column yesterday on the moral decay of our 18-23 years as evidence by an in-depth study talking to members of this cohort from across the country. Brooks said:"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 18-23 year olds. What is disheartening is how bad they are at thinking and talking about moral issues.
These young adults were asked about their thoughts on wrong and evil, but it seems that besides rape and murder, these young men and women said " I don't really deal with right and wrong that often." Wow if that's the case they must be living in a different world than me, because it seems to be in my face every day of the week, either in my own life, or the lives of the parents I meet with. Who doesn't deal with daily dilemma's of right and wrong, the should I or shouldn't I's, or the outrage we feel as our politicians, our corporations, the people in the news who commit crimes against people, or take advantage of those easily taken advantage of. We make moral judgements all day long, some we just feel and think about and some we take action on. Last year when I found out a popular restaurant in my area was taking advantage of their largely illegal immigrant workers, who were powerless to fight back, I stopped giving that business my business. Maybe you are a parent who feels your school system is not meeting the needs of its students, and you go to a school committee meeting to voice your opinion, or maybe a news story that day really got you worked up, and a lively dinner table discussion about your moral outrage occurred, or maybe you wondered if you could "lie" to a friend that you were too busy to have lunch, but really you just weren't in the mood to see them. I would guess my blood pressure goes up at least once a day as I am faced with some type of moral moment that either affects me or my community at large.
Children, teens and young adults are not immune to these dilemmas. Gossip, lying, taking something that doesn't belong to you, did I mention lying, making decisions about behaving in ways that defy authority and rules of their families or the greater culture. I could go on for hours... how come these young people couldn't identify any issues when asked. These were not 13 year olds after all. The most disturbing comments of all were these young people's perception about how they make moral decisions: " I would do what I thought made me happy or how I felt. I have no other way of knowing what to do but how I internally feel." And this:" I mean, I guess what makes something right is how I feel about it. But different people feel different ways, so I couldn't speak on behalf of anyone else as to what's right or wrong."
So I guess in twenty years we will be living in anarchy. Brooks says;" In most time and in most places, the group was seen to be the essential moral unit. A shared religion defined rules and practices. Cultures structured people's imaginations and imposed moral disciplines. Morality was once revealed, inherited and shared, but now it's thought of as something that emerges in the privacy of your own heart."
When an 18 year old says "I have no other way of knowing what to do but how I feel", I can only wonder, what about what they learned from your parents, their grandparents, their teachers, their coaches, their friends, any mentor they may have had in their life? Did they miss all those "talks", were they missing in action when they did something wrong, and someone tried to help them understand why it was wrong. Were they too busy, texting and facebooking and hanging out in their rooms with their doors closed off to their families. Did they eat dinner on the fly or in their room while "hanging" with friends on the computer instead of eating together as a family where conversation might be sparked by a news story that merited exploration, or a story where a moral lesson might be discussed. That these young people expressed no connection to a larger world outside themselves is really disturbing and upsetting.
We as a community of adults are missing the boat here. Our young people are not getting the message that they are indeed responsible to themselves, but also and more importantly are responsible to act fairly and with compassion to others as well, even, and this obviously is not getting through to this generation, even if it means selflessly doing something for the greater good. Have we been so overly responsive to our children, that they feel an absence of responsibility to anyone but themselves.
OK, yes I am on a bit of a rant here, but I am saddened by this study and worried for all of us. It is our duty, and our responsibility as adults who have experience and wisdom, to share and teach this to the next generation.
The dinner table is a good place to start. Rather than talking about homework and chores, how about a discussion about some news story that deals with morality, or working through together as a family a moral dilemma someone is faced with. The more isolated we become from each other with all the distractions and devices we are more attended to than the people in our life, the less time we have to teach these moral lessons to our children. Everyone needs to go back to school on this one!