Moral Relativism and the Crisis of Contemporary Education: Not Many Years Ago, Schools Inculcated Students with the Necessity of Right and Wrong - Morals. Nowadays, If Morals Are Mentioned at All, They Are Disparaged

Article excerpt

I entered graduate school to study English literature in the late 1980s, eventually receiving a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature, and have been a professional academic ever since. I have reached that point in life where I am sufficiently wizened -- and sufficiently jaded -- to be allowed the luxury of griping about how much tougher it was growing up for my generation. As a life-long teacher, I might also be granted indulgence if I grumble about how little my college students actually know compared to what I learned. And although there is as much justice as exaggeration in these observations, the thing that never ceases to amaze me is how morally stunted and ethically underdeveloped our students are, how utterly unable to make even obvious moral distinctions, and how completely uninterested in differentiating between virtue and vice. The very concepts make them profoundly uneasy: Who says virtue is better than vice? Who am I to judge the rightness or wrongness of what someone else chooses? For these students, "tolerance" -- that catch-all virtue into which all other virtues have been absorbed -- means accepting without question all choices and modes of behavior. They are smart enough to realize that legitimizing the bad choices of others means that they are entitled to the same legitimization for their own bad choices as well, a system of mutually beneficial amorality in which the self-interested embrace of tolerance is enough not only to absolve their own sins, but also to confer upon them a kind of active virtue that grants immunity from the moral and spiritual consequences of their choices.

Both in the classroom and in campus life in general, the consequences of this counterintuitive approach to morality are disconcerting. Beyond the widespread cheating that goes on in class -- not even a question of morality, just one of ingenuity and pragmatics, according to one recent survey of students' attitudes toward plagiarism and cheating -- beyond the "hook-up" culture of easy sex and binge drinking, students no longer even recognize a moral component in the decisions they make, from the mundane to the monumental. Much of my interest in this phenomenon stems from trying to teach them the Bible, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Dostoevsky, and C. S. Lewis, the great theological and literary texts of our Judeo-Christian heritage. A few years back, I mentioned in class the Sermon on the Mount. The blank stares caused me to accuse them of laziness, until it was revealed that not one of those 32 students had any idea what the sermon said or who delivered it. Further questioning revealed that 25 of them had been raised as Christians, and 18 of them still considered themselves such. This is altogether typical of our rising generations of students, and the cultural ignorance gets worse from year to year. Like rudderless boats, these kids arrive on campus and immediately drift along with the currents of our morally relativistic university culture.


Recently, one of my students held the position of resident assistant in his dorm, a post of responsibility that included keeping and dispensing university-provided birth control to students under his supervision, including a year's worth of the "morning after abortion pill," which he had been given at the start of fall term. He related to the class how his entire supply of these emergency pills had been distributed to students in his dorm the very first weekend of classes in September. Concerned about the instances of moral sclerosis so evident in my own students, I volunteered to teach a few classes at a local Catholic school near the town where I live. Figuring it's better to light a candle than curse the darkness, I offered courses on theology -- a class on the Bible and another on Christian writers -- hoping to expose them to traditional moral reasoning before they reach the universities.


It had been 25 years since I had set foot in a Catholic high school, and in many ways the place was unrecognizable. …