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.