An Inheritance More Precious than Gold

By Dave Andrusko

Editor’s note. With school starting up this week and next, it made sense to me to reprint this post. I hope you agree.

Personally, while I can pretty much take New York Times columnist David Brooks or leave him, it is also true that occasionally he thoughtful ponders academic studies that are “must reads.” That’s why I have already ordered, “Lost in Transition.”

I’m basing what follows on Brooks’ column which is a lengthy (and gloomy) assessment of the book’s portrait of young people’s moral lives. You will quickly recognize how it applies to what we are about.

First, a little background. Christian Smith, Kari Christoffersen, Hilary Davidson, Patricia Snell Herzog and others have been conducted a study “on the state of America’s youth,” Brooks writes. The core of Brooks’ column is a reflection on in-depth interviews with 230 young adults in 2008 that are part of that larger study.

In a word, the young people were “groping to say anything sensible” on “open-ended questions about right and wrong, moral dilemmas and the meaning of life.” [Spoiler Alert: perhaps it’s because ”they just don’t have the categories or vocabulary to do so.”]

I’m not as surprised as either Brooks or the book’s authors are that “Not many of them have previously given much or any thought to many of the kinds of questions about morality that we asked.” These are young people we are talking about and in our culture it is practically a breach of etiquette to EVER suggest there is a “right” answer.

So, not surprisingly, in almost all cases, these young people say that “moral choices are just a matter of individual taste. ‘It’s personal,’ the respondents typically said. ‘It’s up to the individual. Who am I to say?’”

Smith and company found an “atmosphere of extreme moral individualism,” Brooks writes, “of relativism and nonjudgmentalism.” Moral responses are “feelings,” and your “feeling” about anything is no better or worse than mine.

But why? Are today’s young people uniquely tone-deaf, morally?

No, the answer is found two sentences later. Smith and company “emphasize, they have not been given the resources — by schools, institutions and families — to cultivate their moral intuitions, to think more broadly about moral obligations, to check behaviors that may be degrading.” Then the hammer drops. ”In this way, the study says more about adult America than youthful America.”

After a few pithy paragraphs in which he summarizes how “writers from different perspectives have been warning about the erosion of shared moral frameworks and the rise of an easygoing moral individualism,” Brooks ends with this: “Morality was once revealed, inherited and shared, but now it’s thought of as something that emerges in the privacy of your own heart.”

There are a ton of reasons why our opponents not only hammer us bitterly but do so in ways that are not even within hailing distance of the truth. But near the top—maybe at the top—is that we say flatly, and without equivocation, that taking the life of unborn children, babies born with disabilities, or the medically frail elderly is wrong.

Go to one of the pro-life camps that National Right to Life affiliates put on; or listen to interns or Academy students at NRLC; or just observe your own kids talking about abortion. They are able to make judgments without being judgmental. The former keeps the conversation going with those who disagree, while the latter brings it to an abrupt end.

Like your kids, my kids have helped friends through crisis pregnancies, worked with children with major physical and intellectual disabilities, and are beginning to see that the same moral values that ground these behaviors apply equally well to the frail nursing home patient.

But why? What explains their capacity for empathy? Frankly because you’ve modeled those attitudes and behaviors. Like you, I have tried to teach my children that there are many, many people who depend utterly on the kindness of strangers.

But, like you, I have also striven to instill an equally powerful truth: you get back far more than you give.

I am not idealizing either us as parents or our children. But what I am saying is that because of what you are doing, you are providing them the resources “to cultivate their moral intuitions.”

And in so doing you have bequeathed them an inheritance more precious that gold.

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