We are witness to a period of very rapid social change in this country. As the pace of social change increases, it can only serve to differentiate generations, particularly the generations between the faculty and our students. There are some very serious disconnects shaping up between the social forces that create values and personalities among young people--and the aspirations that we, as liberal arts educators, hold for those people.
Our students come to us no less unformed by their experiences than we came to our professors decades ago. But many of the social forces that currently shape values and personalities are unfortunate, if not sinister, in their consequences for us as teachers in a liberal arts college.
Consider the changes in the economy. Students today face an economy that is creating many jobs on the low end, some jobs in the middle, but not enough jobs at the high end. This instills in students a well grounded anxiety about their own financial security. The desire to create a meaningful philosophy of life, the desire to benefit from a liberal arts education, gets complicated when the most important question for an undergraduate student is "will this get me a job?"
Deep-seated changes in the nature of the American family complicate our jobs as liberal arts educators as well. Most of the members of the faculty came from intact nuclear families. In many communities in the United States today, intact nuclear families are almost extinct. I don't claim that anybody from such a home is at an automatic competitive disadvantage and can't take advantage of a liberal arts education, but sociology is the science of central tendencies, and the central tendencies of people coming from broken homes suggest that it works to the disadvantage of the student's academic achievement.
Young people have no living memory of a time in American history where publicly initiated efforts to solve social problems were vibrant. Young people have only in their history the mean-spirited politics of retrenchment that characterizes the 1980s and 1990s. The political nihilism that we have today is so rampant, it creates an expectation of inevitability that America's social problems will only become worse.
Combine that with rampant relativism, which in its most radical form tells us that there is no such thing as truth, and it becomes easier to understand the confusion that prevails.
Part of the assault on childhood is found in the box that sits in everyone's living room. The danger of the mass media is not mere exposure to violence, but rather an uncritical acceptance of an intellectually degraded environment. What is produced among young people is a psychological modernism that is characterized by blind faith in technology, an inordinate attachment to material objects and conveniences, an uncritical acceptance of the march of scientific progress, and a lifestyle and values that are unduly influenced by advertising.
Americans are 7 percent of the world's population, yet we are subjected to 60 percent of the advertising in the world. How can we naively claim that it is without real consequences in shaping our mentality, our goals and our desires?
Another feature of psychological modernism is the devotion to the mass media with the attendant participation of celebrity culture. We confront in our classroom a generation of people who know or believe they know more about Madonna or Snoop Doggy-Dog than they do about the people who actually inhabit their own world.
What are some of the consequences of mass media on young people today? One is the propensity for incredibly inarticulate speech, speech which uses "like" every third word. This inarticulate mumbo jumbo comes as the result of a cultural shift from the printed word to the spoken word. The generations of Americans who learned speech as a result of reading speak with greater articulation than those who learned by listening to others speak, especially on television.
Another consequence of social change especially pronounced among young people is an uncritical acceptance of commercialism and commercial values. Commercialism constitutes an attack on the psychological well-being. A commercial is designed to make you feel uneasy or awkward about your skin, your feet, the airline that you fly or the car you drive.
Advertising also represents an assault on communal values. We teach our young people to value their worth by counting how many toys they have. Commercialism is a real assault on the value of political discourse. Dialogue is now limited, according to a study done by The New York Times, to 8.8 seconds per sound byte. Neither Bill Clinton nor Bob Dole is able to articulate anything relevant to America's debilitating social problems in 10 seconds, but that's what we're going to be given this fall.
After 17 years in the Emory community, I am convinced that Emory University, and Oxford College in particular, are positioned to recognize these issues and do something about them.
The faculty and other members of the community should acknowledge that our students are not simply younger versions of ourselves. Secondly, let's have the courage to take a fresh look at our curriculum. Speaking well and writing well are two skills that transcend every discipline. We should all be involved in enabling our students to speak and write with greater clarity.
Then, let's consider learning about teaching in a liberal arts education as our project of the next couple of years. Let's get together as faculty members to talk about what we do, what our goals are, what works and what does not work in the classroom. There is an array of rich talent on this faculty.
The Freshman Seminar is an opportunity to learn who our students are and what they bring with them out of their high school experience. It's an opportunity for students to learn about their professors outside the conventional classroom.
I do not think that the task that confronts us is undoable, and deep in my heart I believe in the continuity between the generations. It is a shared faith that gives rise to the hope that sustains us in this most precious world.
Michael McQuaide is a professor of sociology at Oxford College. This article was excerpted from the convocation address he gave there on Aug. 28.