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The Campus: Center of Stress

By Editorial Staff
Published April 3, 2008

By David L. McKenna

College campuses are microcosms of our culture. At first thought, we might breath a sigh of relief because American colleges and universities seem quite compared to the 1960s; students are going about the serious business of getting an education. What appears on the surface, however, may not be as innocent as it seems, and what is rumbling just beneath the surface may be the prelude to eruption. In the 1990s our campuses will reveal a culture in conflict.

If there is a prevailing moral consensus on the college campus today, it appears to be a commitment to self-interest. Students alone are not to be blamed. They are the heirs of a “Me generation” that began almost two decades ago. After the turbulent years of campus violence had exhausted themselves in the mid-1970s, college students turned inwardly toward one of two responses. They either became part of the born-again movement, which offered a spiritual solution for their disillusionment, or they retreated into a protective shell of radical self-interest. Christopher Lasch, an intellectual historian, perceived the latter trend in 1978 when he wrote The Culture of Narcissism. Lasch accurately portrayed radical self-interest as a person’s preoccupation with the “Radical Now” in time, the “Radical Self” in motivation and “Radical Happiness” in achievement.

While a limited number of people read Lasch’s more scholarly analysis of the trend, Robert Ringer’s popular Looking Out for Number One set a record for longevity on the New York Times best-seller index. Ringer did not disguise his credo for self-interest: Negotiate all relationships on a scale that tips to your own self-interest. Psychologists dignified the blatant self-interest of Ringer by developing equity theory, which also assumes that all human transactions are negotiated on the balance of self-interest. Pressed to its logical conclusion, equity theory leaves no room for genuine altruism. In every case there is a trade-off of values so that even a martyr will not die unless some equitable self-interest is served.

Such radical self-interest proved to be a short, dead-end street. By the 1980s the end was in view. Daniel Yankelovich, in his book New Rules: Living in a World Turned Upside Down, interpreted the results of his research survey to mean a shift toward an “ethic of commitment” by the members of the Me generation. According to Yankelovich, as the Me generation aged into their thirties, they wanted to retain their self-interest and gain the values of wamd human relationships.

With just a slight shift toward an interest in others, human transactions in marriage or career took on the character of a “giving/getting contract.” Whether a prenuptial agreement, an employment contract or a community commitment, all relationships were negotiated on adversarial and legalistic terms to assure that neither party gives more than one gets. In the early 1980s Yankelovich saw revisions being made in the giving/getting contract as people also tried to incorporate their yearnings for human commitment into their experiment in self-fulfillment. In other words, the Me generation wanted to be the We generation without giving up too much self-interest.

Robert Bellah does not buy into the alleged transition from the “Me” to the “We” generation. Habits of the Heart, written in 1985, may well be the most significant book of the decade. Based on interviews of young adults across the nation, Bellah concludes that our American character is being shaped by radical individualism at the expense of the “moral community” or the “common good.” Two kinds of self-interest are identified: utilitarian individualism and expressive individualism. In essence, utilitarian individualism means doing what we want to do for our own profit, and expressive individualism means being what we want to be fore our own pleasure.

Bellah sees these forces personified in three professional roles that we now extol as models for our culture and especially our students: the entrepreneur, who exploits resources in ventures of self-interest; the manager, who manipulates resources to serve the system at the expense of people; and the therapist, who makes us feel good about doing what we want to do for our own profit and being what we want to be for our own pleasure.

These models are not limited to secular leaders. Not long ago I received a brochure for recruiting a new president for a prominent Christian organization. Under the qualifications for the position, priority was given to a person who could inspire others with a creative vision; make tough decisions on programs and people to reduce a deficit; and raise morale with warm, participatory leadership. As I read the brochure I exclaimed: “There it is! Even in a Christian organization we want an entrepreneur, a manager and a therapist all rolled into one.”

If religious prophets had said what Robert Bellah has written, they would have been ignored or crucified. Bellah’s credibility as a leading scholar puts the ring of authority in his book, especially among professors and students on the college campus. The question is whether anyone has heeded his prophetic warning.

By the time we entered the 1990s, every major institution reeled under the impact of self-interest. In the home, the traditional nuclear family of two parents and children represented only 11 percent of the households in the nation. In business, the greed of junk bonds, program trading, unfriendly take-overs and the savings and loan fiasco became a national disgrace. In government, ethics committees worked long and hard on multiple cases without either bark or bite; and in the church, a succession of infightings and sex scandals shook public confidence.

Radical self-interest also contaminated the college campuses, but in a less dramatic fashion. Perhaps the most alarming signal came from the American Council of Education (ACE) surveys of the college aspirations of incoming freshmen. In 1968, when the ACE surveys began, 70 percent of the entering freshmen aspired to the goal of developing a philosophy of life as the outcome of their college career. Less than 40 percent envisioned college as an opportunity to become well-off financially. Twenty-two years later the statistics were reversed for the entering class of 1990. Seventy percent aspired to become well-off financially, and less than 40 percent were primarily interested in developing a philosophy of life.

Careerism, another indicator of the aspiration to become well-off financially, leads students in their choices of fields of study in the 1990s. Ever since the mid-1970s, students have traded majors in liberal arts for professional degrees in fields such as business, computer science and communications. The trend still holds in the 1990s, although there is some evidence of a small renaissance in some fields of liberal arts. By and large, students still opt for “cash cows” in their college careers.

Of course, the trend away from the liberal arts and toward professional studies is not new. More disturbing is the underlying attitude of students. Frank Newman conducted the study “Higher Education and American Resurgence for the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching” in 1985. His findings indicated both our colleges and our culture. In his summary Newman noted that students were:

How does Newman account for his findings? He states: “By every measure that we have been able to find, today’s graduates are less interested in and less prepared to exercise their civic responsibilities.”

Not just world affairs, but community affairs suffered from self-interest. Newman found that students were no more ready to assume leadership in the local community than they were on the world scene.

The most scathing indictment of the intellectual, cultural and moral climate of the campus, however, came from the philosopher Alan Bloom in his widely read volume The Closing of the American Mind. Although he is an agnostic Jew and avowed humanist, Bloom identifies the problem on campus as the loss of absolute truth as the ground for intellectual inquiry, moral integrity and cultural vitality. His opening sentence reveals the rationale for his book: “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of; almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.

Once it is accepted that truth is relative, Bloom says, anything goes on the campus. Quite in contrast with the fear that their minds will be closed to truth, he characterizes the contemporary college student as a person who is “open to indifference” – accepting anything and indifferent to everything. In the absence of absolute truth, he argues, there are no standards for scholarly pursuit, cultural excellence, community values or personal integrity. Regrettably, Bloom’s diagnosis is better than his prescription. Finding truth in the absolutes of Platonic idealism, he calls for a renaissance of community on campus in pursuit of those ideals.

College campuses are also the moral testing grounds for the larger culture. While frequently accused of being morally lax, the college campus actually reflects, often in advance, the changing morals of the society. At the opening of the 1990s, for example, colleges were debating condom dispensers, drug testing and date rape. At the same time students reversed earlier trends toward free sex, pot parties and alcohol bashes. Moral trends on campus are always unpredictable. The moral temperature of the campus climate cannot be easily forecasted. A recent resurgence of racism is another example. Except for the suspicion that racial prejudice continues as an undertow in the larger culture, we would not expect it to break out first on the campus. Despite its unpredictable nature, we cannot call the college campus of the 1990s the “bottom of a bird cage” or a “moral pigsty.” More appropriately, the college campus in the 1990s is a simmering stew of self-interest.

Evangelical Christian students are not exempt from the subtle influence of self-interest. James Davison Hunter, in his book Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation, reports on the attitudes and values of students on Christian college and seminary campuses. The results may be gratifying or disturbing, depending on your priorities. Evangelical Christian students, for example, are distinctly different from their counterparts in public universities in matters of morals, such as premarital sex, homosexuality and cheating on income taxes, but merge with the general population of students in work values and goals of self-realization. Similar shifts in attitudes toward family, politics and world affairs lead Hunter to conclude:

“The caricature of evangelicalism as the last bastion of the traditional values of discipline and hard work for their own sake, self-sacrifice and moral asceticism, are largely inaccurate. Far from being untouched by the cultural trends of the post-World War II decades, the coming generation of evangelicals, in their own distinct ways have come to participate in them.”

Past and present generations of evangelical Christians show another contrast. In matters of theology – such as biblical inerrancy, creationism and the particularity of salvation only in Jesus Christ – evangelical students are definitely more liberal than their parents and grandparents.

Although the value of Hunter’s specific findings may be disputed by the questions he asked, his perception of the coming generation of evangelical Christians is well-taken. Likening the young evangelical of today to Christian in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Hunter foresees this picture of the future:

“Though still headed toward the Celestial city, he (or she) is now traveling with less conviction, less confidence about his path, and is perhaps more vulnerable to the worldly attractions encountered by Bunyan’s pilgrim.”

If so, evangelical Christian students on college campuses join the culture in need of a Great Awakening. Hunter’s call for a “new paradigm” for evangelical Christianity echoes the need for prophetic voices in the 1990s as the next phase of a Great Awakening. As a microcosm of a culture in which radical self-interest is shaping our character, hollowing our institutions, desacralizing our morals and twisting our values, only a Great Awakening can reverse the trends. It began on the campus in the 1790s and 1890s. Can it begin there again?

C. Robert Pace, professor of higher education at UCLA, believes it can. At the conclusion of his book Education and Evangelism, written for the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education, this social psychologist writes:

“Together with some awakening of spirit, and with a respect for experience and meaning that comes from both heaven and earth, our society may ensure the diversity of its education, the plurality of its culture and the Christian part of its heritage”.

A secular prophet has spoken. If he foresees our hope in “some awakening of spirit … that comes from both heaven and earth,” why can’t we?

Reprinted with permission from the author: The Coming Great Awakening, InterVarsity Press.


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