Over coffee with one of my community members today, an otherwise wide-ranging discussion settled on one topic in particular: what appears to be the crisis of meaning present in the lives of so many of our students. This, to be sure, is nothing new: every age must confront the big questions anew and the process of working out who one is and what life means is seldom easy or without pain.
If you have been following my reflections on what I have dubbed the "Control-F Generation," it may be the case that today's crisis of meaning is more acute than in other eras. Burgeoning technology and rapid advancement in making information accessible is overwhelming; so often, it seems, one needs to have have the answer to today's question yesterday! With so many answers available on the Web, it is wholly disconcerting to have to hold one's questions. If an answer is not readily found for a question, perhaps it is not worth seeking at all.
Just this week, our students have been registering for next year's courses. I will be offering at least two sections of my philosophy course (we're going to use a great text entitled The Sheed and Ward Anthology of Catholic Philosophy) in order to provide the students with a sense of the intellectual heritage the Catholic Church holds as its patrimony. On Thursday, a group of students had gathered in my office and were telling me that 135 (of 170-ish) students had registered to take the course. In large part, I suspect, they want to take the course not for the content but because they want to hear what outlandish things I will undoubtedly say on a daily basis. Nevertheless, I'm flattered to be teaching a popular course.
One student, however, told me that he would not be taking the course because, "it has nothing to do with what I am going to do with my life." Why should he study or reflect upon some big questions when he can take a course that will, somehow, be more useful to him in the future? Why take a course whose content cannot be readily situated into one's life-plan? Why try to wrestle with slippery issues? Why do anything that isn't certain to secure you a job?
I mention this because I think part of the issue facing so many young people today is that they are only as good as what they know, or have done, or have earned. Their sense of meaning, or worth, or value, is mediated to them externally: if you don't have all A's, you're not a good student....if you don't make Varsity, you're terrible...if you don't _______________....the list is endless. So many of my own students question their own value, their own worthiness, that it frightens me.
My observation is that we have a generation of students who is entirely dependent on external mediation of worth. It is as though the mantra or motto has become, "I am what I have earned." Self-confidence is derived from what someone has earned, or won, rather than who someone is...because one is only the sum of encomiums. When something goes awry and a student falters or fails, his or her entire self of self is threatened: if I try, and lose, who am I any longer?
One of the consequences the "Control-F Generation" faces, those students accustomed to being able to find answers to questions with simple keystrokes, is that they are becoming less able to discern meaning in their lives. So concerned are they about the surface content and simple answers that they are increasingly failing to comprehend; students play at the surface level of meaning-as-answers rather than risking immersion into the depths of meaning-as-ongoing-process.
In other words, I think a lot of this generation's education is cosmetic, a superficial veneer, and a crack in the foundation is experienced as a defect in the self. There is a profound fear of exploring the depth of the human experience, one which leaves many of my own students world-weary and (to me) rather uninteresting.
Now, don't get me wrong: I'm not down on these students. I feel like a missionary when I walk into the classroom, brining the students a sense that there is more to life than simple answers. I delight in muddying the waters of their world, forcing them to think and to offer arguments (rather than empty platitudes). If I can turn a kid's world upside down, I count that as a successful class! By providing a safe and secure environment, I work to penetrate beneath the superficial levels they (and we) are so comfortable with and escort them into the deep so that they may try to swim in new currents of thought.