In praise of teenagers

Culture | For all of their problems, some of today's young people give us reason to be optimistic

Issue: "School vouchers debate," May 15, 1999

After class, one of my freshman writing students at Concordia University wanted to talk to me. She felt she owed me an explanation for why her paper was late and why she missed class last week. As it turns out, she is from Littleton, Colo. Her home is just a few blocks from Columbine High School. She knew some of the victims and many of the survivors.

Here in Wisconsin, so far from home, she had been shaken by what had happened and had been on the phone with her parents and friends, unable to concentrate on school work. As we talked, I was struck by her insight and faith. She pointed out that, for once, the media coverage is actually showing Christianity in a good light, but it is missing the true extent of the spiritual revival in Littleton: the conversions, the prayer, the work of Christ in people devastated by suffering. Despite the outbreak of Satan, she said, "God is prevailing."

I too had been shaken by the events at Littleton. But that one of my students-one of the seemingly ordinary teenagers in my classes-had a connection to what I was watching on CNN brought it all home. It had happened to young people just like them. To be sure, the killers came from their ranks; I have seen glimpses of the darkness in the soul of some of my students, of the sort that must have flowered in the Trenchcoat Mafia. But what struck me is that this young woman has the same sort of faith exhibited by so many of the victims and survivors. I would not be at all surprised if she-and many of my other students like her-would confess her faith with a gun pointing at her, and, like Cassie Bernall, die the martyr's death.

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Much is being written about the youth culture-the nihilism of its music, the viciousness of its social scene, the educational and emotional and moral dysfunctions. But these are the doings mainly of adults, the aging baby boomers who continue to vandalize the civilization, refusing to be parents, rejecting moral and intellectual absolutes, manufacturing a decadent popular culture and making lots of money by selling it to children. This has produced lots of casualties among young people. But there are signs that this next generation is engaged in another rebellion-this time a healthy one-against the status quo.

The postmodernist establishment of the adult world celebrates superficiality. Since in this worldview there is no truth, everything is make-believe. This leaves some in the next generation craving authenticity. They want something honest. They want something real.

The Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California-Los Angeles has been surveying the attitudes of college freshmen every year since 1966. This year, they found the lowest support they have ever recorded for casual sex. Only 40 percent of today's college freshmen agree that it is OK for two people who like each other to have sex, even if they have known each other for only a short time. 60 percent disagreed. This is a shift since 1987, when over half, 52 percent, believed in casual sex.

The percentage of 1998 freshmen who are in favor of abortion was the lowest since polling on the subject began. Pro-life and pro-abortion students are now evenly divided; in 1990, 65 percent supported laws in favor of abortion.

Most students are no-nonsense when it comes to crime and punishment. Almost three quarters of those surveyed believe there is too much concern for criminals (up 50 percent since the 1970s). Exactly 75 percent support the death penalty. In 1970, most students (56 percent) wanted to abolish it.

A few weeks before I had my conversation with my student from Littleton, I had a less dramatic epiphany in that same freshman writing class. I was grading their argumentative essays, in which they had to write a persuasive essay taking a stand on some controversial issue. I realized that, for the first time I can remember in my twenty-something years of teaching and giving this assignment, each of the 25 essays was what I considered right on target with the issues.

While rhetorical skill sometimes left much to be desired, there was not a liberal bromide in the whole collection. Students were opposing abortion and euthanasia, skewering the president and questioning his antiseptic war. They were sometimes arguing against their own apparent interests: Teenagers should not have access to alcohol; driver's licenses should be harder to obtain; schools should toughen their standards.


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