In case you thought you misread the title of this post, let me pose the question again. Have we Americans become too tolerant, open-minded and creative?
For the handful of you who are still reading this post, I know too well the pitfalls for a conservative in today’s world who dares to ask a question like this. He or she is immediately labeled as bigoted, narrow-minded, and mean-spirited, and cast out of polite society. But, for the record, I am not raising this issue to advocate for a return to an era of intolerance, and to a time when creative thinking was not promoted. Instead, I am asking this question because of what we seem to have lost in society over the last few decades as we have made great advances in tolerance and creativity.
To describe what we have lost, I am going to use two more apparently provocative words in today’s lexicon: “judgment” and “discrimination.” I still remember a time when being capable of making judgments was a sign of maturity, and when being called “a discriminating person” was a compliment. But now we confuse “judgment” with “condemnation,” and we have narrowed the concept of “discrimination” to cover only bad choices in which we prohibit or limit people’s activities based on their skin color, their gender, or other attributes. By changing the meaning of the words, we have not-so-subtly inhibited people from making any distinctions or choices between what is right or wrong, or even to acknowledge there is such a thing as “right” or “wrong,” by creating an atmosphere of social hostility toward being perceived as “judgmental” or “discriminating.”
If you don’t believe me, or have not been exposed to young adults who have grown-up having been indoctrinated with these viewpoints, you need to read a new book entitled Lost in Transition. This work chronicles research done over a decade with young people as they grew through their teenage years into their early ‘20s. By creating a hostile environment for “judgment” and “discrimination,” we didn’t expose our children’s generation to concepts that would allow them to even comprehend ideas like “right,” “wrong,” “morality,” or “judgment.” The researchers found a resulting lack of comprehension of these concepts among these “emerging adults.” This lack of comprehension, combined with the complete inability to discuss these concepts, startled the researchers—and startled this reader.
The consequences we already are seeing should be a wake-up call. Remember the young people who enveloped Obama during the campaign of 2008? Now look at the faces, and listen to the statements of the recent protesters in the streets of Cairo, Athens, London, and New York and you see and hear the incoherent voices of this emerging generation. They call for freedom, but don’t want democracy; they call for autonomy, but want government to provide for their needs. They want to destroy elite institutions and somehow think that networking through Facebook will replace these institutions. You are as likely to hear some of this nonsense at a Ron Paul rally as you are at a Moveon.org conference.
Frankly, reading this study, especially in light of studies like those outlined in Robert Putnam’s landmark work, Bowling Alone, leaves me somewhat bewildered. I don’t know what message can be communicated to these “emerging adults” that will bridge their lack of comprehension, but I think it is fair to be concerned about whether our society’s future hangs in the balance. If they are so tolerant, open-minded and creative that they see even the most fundamental of societal principles and ideas as relative; that they apologize for others’ lying, cheating and stealing as a choice that is neither right, nor wrong; that they see any attempt to discern right from wrong, or to make a judgment, as being itself wrong (or even the source of evil in society); or that they see the best way to treat their neighbor is to leave him alone—how do you even begin to talk with them in a way that they will understand our conservative message that is based as much on duties as on freedoms?
For now, I believe that we conservatives still have the numbers among us in older generations, and among those of the younger generation who have not been as infected with this nonsense, to win the next election. But what then? We must figure out where we went wrong with this generation of “emerging adults” without erasing the good we have done, and then engage them with our ideas in order to give them the tools they will need to continue our society. If we don’t do this, we may doom the future generations they produce to decline or worse. I don’t think we can ignore this phenomenon based on the hope that they will mature beyond this phase of life. It appears that we failed these young people in an unimaginable way, and we must fix it.
As we have been called to do whenever our society faces a difficult issue, I believe the “fix” starts with our generation’s “recurrence to first principles.” We need to remember that our civilization was formed around a unique challenge: to accept the gift of liberty, and to balance that gift with the admonition to love our neighbors. The 2000-year history of Western Civilization since Calvary can be interpreted through our struggle to meet that challenge. The core of our collective soul that gave us the strength to meet that challenge was our understanding that "no man is an island," so that as we fought for and exercised liberty, we built a society upon relationships in which we practiced justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, virtue, forbearance, love and charity. The idea of America was that we could build these relationships privately and locally, and that government would be limited to the responsibility to protect the society we had created. These are the “first principles” of American Exceptionalism.
Our educational system once understood its mission was to educate future American citizens who understood these first principles. Although other societies formed along tribal histories and geography had developed their own ideas and creeds (some of which mirrored our own), it was believed that future citizens needed to learn and value the principles of our exceptional society in order for it to last. As the President of Harvard University, James B. Conant, noted in 1945:
A supreme need of American education is for a unifying purpose and idea. As recently as a century ago, no doubt existed about such a purpose: it was to train the Christian citizen. Nor was there doubt how this training was to be accomplished. The student’s logical powers were to be formed by mathematics, his taste by Greek and Latin classics, his speech by rhetoric, and his ideals by Christian ethics…there are truths which none can be free to ignore, if one is to have that wisdom through which life can become useful. These are the truths concerning the structure of the good life and concerning the factual conditions by which it may be achieved, truths comprising the goals of the free society.
Later, in his landmark critique of the modern university, entitled The Closing of the American Mind, Professor Alan Bloom observed:
Every educational system has a moral goal that it tries to attain and that informs its curriculum. It wants to produce a certain kind of human being…. Democratic education, whether it admits it or not, wants and needs to produce men and women who have the tastes, knowledge, and character supportive of a democratic regime…. We began with the model of the rational and industrious man, who was honest, respected the laws, and was dedicated to family…. Above all he was to know the rights doctrine; the Constitution, which embodied it; and American history, which presented and celebrated the founding of a nation ‘conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.’ A powerful attachment to the letter and the spirit of the Declaration of Independence gently conveyed, appealing to each man’s reason, was the goal of the education of the democratic man…. This was an entirely new experiment in politics, and with it came a new education….
The United States is one of the highest and most extreme achievements of the rational quest for the good life according to nature. What makes its political structure possible is the use of the rational principles of natural right to found a people,….[o]r, to put it otherwise, the regime established here promised untrammeled freedom to reason—not to everything indiscriminately, but to reason, the essential freedom that justifies the other freedoms, and on the basis of which, and for the sake of which, much deviance is also tolerated. An openness that denies the special claim of reason bursts the mainspring keeping the mechanism of this regime in motion….
As evidenced by what the researchers have reported in Lost in Transition, we may “have burst the mainspring keeping the mechanism of this regime in motion.” I don’t think our society can long survive the type of “openness” that recognizes no core beliefs or values as being fundamental for the continuation of our unique society. Many decades ago, C.S. Lewis noted why such openness was corrosive to society in The Abolition of Man:
… An open mind, in questions that are not ultimate, is useful. But an open mind about the ultimate foundations either of Theoretical or Practical Reason is idiocy. If a man’s mind is open on these things, let his mouth be shut. He can say nothing to the purpose. …
… But you cannot go on `explaining away' for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on `seeing through things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to `see through' first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To `see through' all things is the same as not to see.
Lewis concluded that such an approach to education created citizens who were intellectually and morally incapable of meeting life’s challenges:
And all the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more 'drive', or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or 'creativity'. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.
At some point soon, we need to engage these young men and women in a meaningful dialogue about why our society is exceptional; what its “first principles” are; why those principles not only have value, but have a greater value than other principles of other societies and civilizations; and that determining “right” and “wrong,” and making judgments and choices, based on such principles is a good thing for them and their future families and communities. Ultimately, we need to teach them that America is worth preserving for their posterity.
If the findings from researchers who have produced Lost in Transition are correct, we have no time to waste—we need to start this dialogue now.