Let’s not blame the teenagers

Yesterday, a colleague in the religion department sent along a link for David Brooks’ most recent New York Times column, “If It Feels Right…”  In it, Brooks discusses the results of a sociological study done of American teenagers and moral decision making.  Brooks is pretty pessimistic about the future of American teenagers and their capacity to make moral decisions; he bluntly calls the study’s findings “depressing.”  But as someone who talks to teenagers everyday about morality, I am more optimistic.  Frankly, I find the study a little unfair and an indictment of American adults, not teens.

It must be noted first that while I am surrounded by teenagers (a fact that I am reminded of daily as I hear Justin Bieber belted out in the hallways), I teach a small subset of that population: I teach at a private, college prep high school of students who have had years of religion classes.  These facts alone will distinguish my students from the average American teen.  But from what I see and hear from my students when they aren’t being careful to impress their religion teacher, their opinions and decisions are not all that atypical.  They still are teenagers, and are not exempt from the pressures of their age or culture, despite their educational background.

To begin, Brooks and the sociologists he cites are correct in the first assessment: students find it difficult to identify a moral issue.  I completely agree.  I assigned a morality research paper at the end of last year (after 8 months of morality class) that asked students simply to ask a moral question and answer it.  I can’t tell you how many papers I got back that questioned the legality of gay marriage, abortion, or the death penalty.  My students, even with all their privileges, could not write a moral question that did not primarily ask about law (but they could identify which were the hot moral issues debated in the public sphere and formulated vague questions about them).  However, this skill can be taught–it is what we practiced in my morality class this week.  Parsing out the abstract legal, scientific, medical, religious, or personal issues present in a moral question is difficult, and I am not surprised that most of American teens can’t do it–most American teens are not enrolled in a class that asks them to practice this skill.  Is it really fair to judge students as morally illiterate if we don’t teach them what morality is?

The second thing to say is: yes, the siren song of relativism is particularly compelling to youths subject to peer pressure.  It’s hard to be morally stringent in an age group/maturity level that so values social standing.  And I suspect it will only become more compelling to them as they advance to higher education and learn about cultural differences that form the cornerstone of what relativism values.  But again, this issue is one that can be taught.  My class is covering relativism today and tomorrow.  (Sidenote: we teach this lesson through the lens of female genital mutilation.  It’s a bit sensationalistic to go to one of the MOST EXTREME moral quandaries, but it’s also really interesting to gauge their reactions to it.)  And for the most part, students can see the intellectual inconsistencies with relativism.  They struggle with it, but they can see why relativism is impractical or unrealistic.

What I find over and over again is that students *know* what is moral.  They can give me the “religion teacher” answer they think I want to hear.  They are smart enough to know what is expected of them, or at least, how to please an authority figure.  What is less clear or compelling to them is *why* they should do the moral thing.  They haven’t been given a compelling enough reason not to always act out of (usually short term) self interest.  The problem isn’t moral illiteracy, it’s moral laziness.  But this is because moral courage is harder to inculcate.  In this regard, they are not all that different from most adults I know.  And that is what I see as the particular challenge–not to show them what’s moral, necessarily, but to demonstrate what benefit there is in being moral in an attempt to draw out that courage.  Some of the hardest questions I have received in the classroom have been to ask me why I personally subscribe to a particular belief where the benefit is not as obvious to a teenager (example: how to explain my commitment to fair trade coffee).

My point is: let’s not blame the teenagers.  Let’s not get all depressed about the moral state of American youths before we really consider what we can do to teach moral decision making.  Brooks is right when he says that this study says “more about adult America than teen America.”–if the teens are morally illiterate or lazy, it’s because we haven’t taught them any other way to be.  I’d say this study is a clear indication that a class on ethics is not beyond the jurisdiction of a public school education.  Of course, it can’t espouse a particular belief set, but understanding different approaches to ethics and exactly what goes into a decision is a skill that does not need a prescribed belief set.  My students love morality class if only for the opportunity to give their own opinions about “what would you do?” scenarios and argue with their classmates.  We should give all teenagers that opportunity to examine their own decisions and learn about ways others do the same.  Before we go lamenting the future of America, we should give teenagers the chance to develop their own moral sensibilities and understand why moral courage is a positive virtue to attain.

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16 thoughts on “Let’s not blame the teenagers

  1. I really, really like this, Carmen. And I’d be interested to know whether other people who work with teens on a daily basis have found the same things to be true.

    “Is it really fair to judge students as morally illiterate if we don’t teach them what morality is?”
    So is what you’re getting at that students are aware of and struggle with moral decisions, they just haven’t been taught the vocabulary with which to formulate and communicate these struggles? Or that they haven’t yet run into anything that tells them that these struggles are important?

    Also, on a more optimistic note: we’re really not very old–I don’t know about you, but I still have a very clear memory of my teenage life. And as I see on Facebook every day, many of the girls I saw as morally apathetic at sixteen are passionate about moral issues today.

    • Exactly. Wittgenstein said theology is a grammar–it’s a way of talking about what people already experience or know. (Ex: everyone experiences God in some way; theology is the vocabulary to name and understand those experiences). Once you explain what moral issues are, students recognize their importance in their lives. They know that drinking, drugs, sex, friendships, college–all the stuff they’re dealing with today–are moral issues; what is less clear is how they ought to deal with them versus how they *want* to deal with them. But again, I’m dealing with a population which has had at least two years of religious education. In at least minor ways, that influences their ideas about what is important and what is wrong/right.

  2. Carmen, thanks for a wonderful post.

    It would be interesting to read a report on when and how the decline in moral education at home occurred. I think there is no question that it is largely gone–but why and how?

    I was especially interested in your experience that the students, when asked to pose and answer a moral question, generally posed and answered a legal question. This lack of understanding about the difference between legality and morality is pervasive–in Illinois, all public employees are required to undergo “Ethics Training” annually. The online course spends zero time attempting to explain or justify an ethical framework within which employees should act; rather, it spends the entire time detailing the laws relating to gifts and whistle-blowing, calling actions which are legal ethical and actions which are illegal, unethical. While certainly the employees (and politicians) of the state of Illinois needs legal education, this training is not true moral education.

    I think you are right that high schools should teach an ethics class. Certainly we know that many students do not receive moral education at home, and I think students with moral courage–or at least education–are better for themselves and better for society (this is an empirical question, ultimately, but I don’t have any data).

    Do you find that the students have a hard time discussing ethics using logical argumentation (as opposed to rhetoric)? Certainly on the political and media stages they see no good model for this.

  3. Your first question is interesting–I think the writers Brooks quotes towards the end are all getting at the encroaching individualism America suffers from, so I think once group membership became less important in American identity, the morals those groups espoused stopped being taught. Maybe? A theory, anyway.

    The law question is really really interesting, because, I don’t want to say that the law bears no moral vision or is completely secular (I took a whole seminar in grad school on that idea, the law has a moral vision whether we think it does or not), but it is hard to explain to my students precisely what the relationship between law and morality is. I think part of the problem is that they know the big issues (abortion, death penalty, gay marriage) as legal issues but what the law gets at is the moral issue. And most of them understand the legality of it in a very relativistic way (as long as it doesn’t bother anyone else, you should be able to do it), so it complicates the morality that I am trying to teach.

  4. The more I think about it, the more outraged I get that public school education does not include an ethics class. Perhaps some do, and I am relying on a poor vision of public high school curricula, but it seems so obviously important for teenagers to grapple with. Even if it’s just a two week crash course unit, or something they talk about for one quarter in a civics class, the idea of responsible decision making is something the state has an investment in teaching its citizens, even if it shouldn’t teach it from a particular belief set.

    I do find its hard to teach morality sometimes when the students don’t have any knowledge of logic (to be fair, I have never taken a formal class in it). Rhetoric does abound in my classroom, but my constant question to them is “but what does that MEAN?” which either makes them roll their eyes or actually try to understand the political rhetoric they just repeated as a moral argument. Maybe, combining the two, a class on logic and ethics for a semester long high school class?

    • I love that idea. I think the lack of such a class in the current system is part of what makes our political conversations so vitriolic.

    • ACTUALLY, yesterday evening I read about a couple of schools who are trying to focus on character training in their schools. Not ethics, precisely, though–more on training the kinds of character traits that help students face setbacks successfully. But there’s some overlap, obviously; and simply the fact that some schools (although they are a private school and a charter school, and thus have more flexibility) are taking seriously the idea that their job is to train responsible citizens as well as people who can parse a sentence and solve an algebraic equation, is really encouraging. (Wow, that sentence kind of got away from me there.) http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/18/magazine/what-if-the-secret-to-success-is-failure.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2

        • Ditto! I love reading about innovative educators. I started thinking yesterday about ways we congratulate students for being moral (rather than just punish them for being immoral/wrong) and I couldn’t come up with anything good. I like what these educators are doing.

  5. Carmen, I love the basic premise of your post. We live in a culture where our politicians routinely lie, our corporations cheat as part of business-as-usual, and the very meaning of American individualism is that we have the right to steal from the rest of the world — and we blame our kids for fuzzing up moral thinking?! So, bravo to you for doing whatever you can to equip your students intellectually. Continuing to ask them to clarify their thoughts is a brilliant move. You might want to warn the adults around them to fasten their seat belts, though, because the better you succeed, the rougher the ride is going to be for us grownups. I think a lot of parents hope that moral/ethical training will produce more docile kids. Um…. not if it works….

  6. Thanks Elisabeth! I agree–docile isnt what I’m striving for, but people certainly think its a good solution to the problem. But there is nothing harder than simply trying to convince a teenager to do what you want them to do, just because you say so!

  7. Exactly, Carmen! Kids won’t do what you say — but they will learn from what they see you do. If parents/teachers/adults operate in a morally relativistic and fuzzy universe, then kids will adopt that approach. Equipping them with analytic/critical thinking skills is indispensable, but it’s not the whole story, either. Even here, kids will follow the example rather than the logical conclusions of an argument. If kids see their parents/teachers/adults they admire using their moral reasoning skills to, say, justify discriminating against people based on demographic categories, then we have just handed them another weapon, not increased their moral capacity.

  8. I recall the movie, “Stand and Deliver,” where the main character, a teacher named Jaime Escalante faces the daunting task of teaching calculus to inner-city Mexican-American youth. He states in the movie, “children will rise to the level of your expectations.” This comment/quote has always stuck with me and I think of it often. While he was referring to math instruction and instruction, in general, I really believe it also applies to the raising of children regarding morality and ethics. If parents behave ethically and morally and they set similar expectations for their children, the children will gladly follow that pattern. Thanks.

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