Per Christian Smith’s video comments (posted on the St. Joseph of Arimathea Facebook Page or available from the St. George’s Institute/C3 Conference video page, it’s not appropriate to chastise young adults for lacking the vocabulary to tackle important moral issues. They lack the vocabulary because the culture they live in has lost it, i.e. they’ve never heard anyone have a well grounded conversation on such difficult issues. Instead, they’ve been awash in (poorly constructed) polemic and, more often than not, opinion and anecdote masquerading as reason and fact.
And quite honestly, Americans of all ages are bad at talking about all serious issues. Just look at our political debates, look at the lack of competence on display in presidential debates and I challenge you not to throw your hands up in disgust.
But, rather than simply throwing our hands up, I think we are challenged to do better and to engage in the yeoman’s work of providing a common language which will provide for the exchange and nurture of ideas as a common currency provides for the exchange of goods and services. The first step in providing such a conceptual framework is simply to start having thoughtful conversations in small groups: among families and faith communities and in classrooms (where the boot of fearfulness and bureaucracy doesn’t quash it before it can get going).
It’s not so much that these young Americans are living lives of sin and debauchery, at least no more than you’d expect from 18- to 23-year-olds. What’s disheartening is how bad they are at thinking and talking about moral issues.
The interviewers asked open-ended questions about right and wrong, moral dilemmas and the meaning of life. In the rambling answers, which Smith and company recount in a new book, “Lost in Transition,” you see the young people groping to say anything sensible on these matters. But they just don’t have the categories or vocabulary to do so.
When asked to describe a moral dilemma they had faced, two-thirds of the young people either couldn’t answer the question or described problems that are not moral at all, like whether they could afford to rent a certain apartment or whether they had enough quarters to feed the meter at a parking spot.