It is tempting to suggest that this young man is just an idiot. Another ungrateful college student who thinks the rest of us should be paying his way. Unfortunately, he's much more representative of his generation than we would like to think. In a book called "Lost in Transition," by Chris Smith and some of his colleagues at Notre Dame, there are examples of quotations from dozens of young people who sound exactly like this young man. They are taken from hundreds of interviews collected as part of the National Study on Youth and Religion. (My review of the book will be in next month's issue of First Things.)
The subjects of this study are not unintelligent by any typical measure. They do not lean particularly in one political direction or another. If anything, they seem largely indifferent to politics. What they are is morally inarticulate. One young man told his interviewer, “I don’t think anything in life is absolute.” When pressed on the question of whether murder is always wrong, he replied, “I mean, in today’s society, sure, like to murder someone is just ridiculous.” Ridiculous? He went on to add, “I don’t know, in some societies, back in time, maybe it’s a good thing.”
And why was it maybe good for some people to murder other people “back in time”? Well, because, as any emerging adult will tell you, “everybody’s different.” The authors report that “nearly any question asked of them about any norm, experience, rule of thumb, expectation, or belief is very likely to get an answer beginning with the phrase ‘Well, everybody’s different, but for me . . .’”
The individualistic relativism rampant in this generation is not just a result of a concerted effort in public schools to make young people more tolerant and less judgmental, though it is certainly that. It is also their lack of exposure to other institutions that have also served that function historically. Generally kids with strong religious views are the ones who do best on surveys like the NYSR. Even if their religious views seem irrational to some, the church actually forces them to go through a process of reading a text, explaining it, relating it to other passages and explaining why the religious group to which they belong adheres to certain rules as a result. They even have to engage in public speaking often, where their views and the articulation of their views is tested before a crowd.