I seem to be in an academic-pedagogical vein these days, and while I’ll shift from that tomorrow, let me go at it one more time. . . .Some people have an inexhaustible appetite for the what’s-the-matter-with-these-darn-kids subgenre of the jeremiad; others can’t stand it and find it intrinsically offensive. But whatever side you’re on, and especially if you’re not on either, it would be worth your time to pay attention to Souls in Transition, the recent book by Christian Smith and Patricia Snell about “emergent adults” — basically, people between the ages of 18 and 23. Smith and Snell aren’t hectoring finger-waggers; instead, they’re primarily reporters, and it would be unjust to blame them if much of what they have to report is troubling. It’s not all bad news, by any means, but here are two representative passages from an early chapter in which they summarize their findings:

Voices critical of mass consumerism, materialistic values, or the environmental or social costs of a consumer-driven economy were nearly nonexistent among emerging adults. Once the interviewers realized, after a number of interviews, that they were hardly in danger of leading their respondents into feigned concern about consumerism, the interviewers began to probe more persistently to see if there might not be any hot buttons or particular phrases that could tap into any kind of concern about materialistic consumerism. There were not. Very many of those interviewed simply could not even understand the issue the interviewers were asking them about.

. . .

The majority of those interviewed stated . . . that nobody has any natural or general responsibility or obligation to help other people. . . . Most of those interviewed said that it is nice if people help others, but that nobody has to. Taking care of other people in need is an individual’s choice. If you want to do it, good. If not, that’s up to you. . . . Even when pressed — What about victims of natural disaster or political oppression? What about helpless people who are not responsible for their poverty or disabilities? What about famines and floods and tsunamis? — No, they replied. If someone wants to help, then good for that person. But nobody has to.

If nothing else, all this is a salutary reminder to me of how different my Christian students are from the American norm. Not that they’re untouched by the movements Smith and Snell describe, by any means; but by and large their characters have been formed by quite different forces. Which raises the question, not just for Christian teachers but for all teachers: what are the best ways to educate people for meaningful participation in a society which is coming more and more to look like the world of these “emergent adults”?


  1. What a terrifying find, though it goes hand in hand with that recent study (or something–I can't quite remember, since I didn't save the link, but since I believe you posted it, you know what I'm talking about) that showed that empathy was lacking among college students.

    If these really are the attitudes of my generation, then I'm quite privileged to have been raised and educated in an environment where these attitudes were not prevalent. I worry for the future.

  2. This nested quote is what struck me: many of those interviewed simply could not even understand the issue the interviewers were asking them about. Although I usually dislike the formulation "you just don't get it" as it closes discussion and adopts a paternalistic attitude, the quote is essentially an academic restatement of the idea. The "it" the interview subjects don't get is the interconnectedness and mutual reliance that underlies social relationships. That creates obligations that apparently don't even register on them. Much as one might like to condemn those who just don't get it, I observe that it's revealing of a failure to teach and instill a moral center in young people, which is the responsibility of parents, teachers, and political leaders. Of course, those authority figures increasingly don't get it, either.

  3. Christian Smith, in addition to doing great research like this, is one of the best, most clear academic writers I've ever heard.

    His introductory chapter to American Evangelicalism, for instance, does a fantastic job of laying out and explaining the historical differences that make Fundamentalists and Evangelicals distinct groups in America.

    He also coined the phrase "moralistic, therapeutic deism" to describe what he documents in his research as the dominant religious belief system of youth in America. Very few people in the social sciences can summarize their research so clearly, memorably, and precisely.

  4. But to answer your question, according to Smith's research, parents are overwhelmingly the greatest influence on their children's religious beliefs, even as they continue into young adulthood. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is what kids learn from their parents. His belief is that churches need to focus more on the spiritual formation of adults.

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