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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Sin, Pollution, and Samaritans

So here’s something that blew my little Sunday-school-trained mind* as an undergrad. Take the Good Samaritan story, Luke 10:25-37. The priest and the Levite see the man dying in a ditch and pass by on the other side; the Samaritan takes care of him. Who is the neighbor? The one who takes care of him. Great.

Fact number one: I didn’t know who the Samaritans were until I was 14 or 15.

Fact number two: I didn’t know who the Levites were until I was in college.

It’s not as though there was no explanation at all. I had some vague idea that the Samaritans were usually crooks and scoundrels. I’m pretty sure I thought that, since the priests were obviously the people in charge of the temple/religion, the Levites must be the people in charge of the government. (I mean, it makes sense, right?) At some point along the line I learned that the Samaritans were a competing religious group descended from the people who were left behind in Israel during the Babylonian Exile, whose center of worship was not Jerusalem but Mount Gerizim to the north, and that the Levites were (by this time) temple officiants and assistants to the priests. So that was some progress.

Then I hit the lecture on ritual purity and the difference between pollution and sin in my undergraduate Israelite Religion course. And, as I said, my mind was blown

There are lots of ways to become impure in ancient Israel. Some of them you can avoid; some of them you can’t. You can probably, for example, avoid picking up a dead lizard. If you’re lucky, you’ll avoid having mold grow in patches on the walls of your house—but that’s not really under your control. If you’re a woman, you can’t avoid menstruating. If you’re married, you can’t really avoid having sex. Some things you’re required to do: bury your parents, for example. Any of these things will make you unclean. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re sinful or wicked, or that it’s a bad thing to be a woman or to have just had sex or just moved that cow that died in your backyard—they just put you in a position where it’s dangerous to approach God, and so you have to perform the appropriate rituals before you can come to the temple. The priests and the Levites, who are closer to the divine presence in the temple and mediate between God and the people, must live up to accordingly more stringent standards while they’re doing their jobs. Some aspects of the sacrificial system have to do with ethical considerations, but some don’t, and it isn’t always clear on which is which. (It doesn’t help that prophets use the language of impurity as a metaphor to talk about the moral defilement of Israel.)

So, tearing ourselves with reluctance away from Leviticus and getting back to the New Testament: The point isn’t that the priest and the Levite were terrible, cold-hearted people who saw a dying man and said, “So long, sucker.” The man was on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, no? Meaning—as I understand it—that they were probably on their way back to Jerusalem and back to service in the temple, and here’s this dead or dying guy on the road. If they help him, they’ll become impure—and then they’ll have to wait, and sacrifice, and so forth, and they decide that their role in the Temple is more important than their duty toward their fellows. The story’s still about helping people who need it, but it’s really a much more subtle thing. In prizing care for those in trouble over adherence to ritual norms, Luke’s Jesus is putting himself in the role of an Israelite prophet, and situating himself within a dialogue on the role of ritual and sacrifice in Israel’s relationship with God that goes back to some of the earliest Biblical texts.

*I’m not denigrating Sunday school as such. Much.