Students today are loath to judge

Published Jul. 15, 1997|Updated Oct. 1, 2005

In 20 years of college teaching, professor Robert Simon has never met a student who denied that the Holocaust happened. What he sees quite often, though, is worse: students who acknowledge the fact of the Holocaust but can't bring themselves to say that killing millions of people is wrong. Simon reports that 10 percent to 20 percent of his students feel this way. Usually they deplore what the Nazis did, but their disapproval is expressed as a matter of taste or personal preference, not moral judgment. "Of course I dislike the Nazis," one student told Simon, "but who is to say they are morally wrong?"

Overdosing on nonjudgmentalism is a growing problem in the schools. Two disturbing articles in the "Chronicle of Higher Education" say that some students are unwilling to oppose large moral horrors, including human sacrifice, ethnic cleansing and slavery, because they think it seems obvious that no one has the right to criticize the moral views of another group or culture.

One of the articles is by Simon, who teaches philosophy at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. The other is by Kay Haugaard, a free-lance writer who teaches creative writing at Pasadena City College in California. Haugaard writes that her current students have a lot of trouble expressing any moral reservations or objections about human sacrifice. The subject came up when she taught her class Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," a short story about small-town American farm families who kill one person each year to make the crops grow. In the tale a woman is ritually stoned to death by her husband, her 12-year-old daughter and her 4-year-old son.

In classes she has taught since l970, Haugaard says that "Jackson's message about blind conformity always spoke to my students' sense of right and wrong." No longer, apparently. A class discussion of human sacrifice yielded no moral comments, even under Haugaard's persistent questioning. One male said the ritual killing "almost seems a need." Asked if she believed in human sacrifice, a woman said, "I really don't know. If it was a religion of long standing." Haugaard writes: "I was stunned. This was the woman who wrote so passionately of saving the whales, of concern for the rain forest, of her rescue and tender care of a stray dog."

Both writers believe multiculturalism has played a role in spreading the vapors of nonjudgmentalism. Haugaard quotes a woman in her class, a "fiftysomething redheaded nurse," who says, "I teach a course for our hospital personnel in multicultural understanding, and if it is part of a person's culture, we are taught not to judge." Simon says we should "welcome diversity rather than fear it," but says his students often think they are so locked into their own group perspectives of ethnicity, race and gender that moral judgment is impossible, even in the face of great evils.

In the new multicultural canon, human sacrifice is hard to condemn, because the Aztecs practiced it. In fact, however, this nonjudgmental stance is not consistently held. Japanese whaling and the genital cutting of girls in Africa are criticized all the time by white multiculturalists. Christina Hoff Sommers, author and professor of philosophy at Clark University in Massachusetts, says that students who can't bring themselves to condemn the Holocaust will often say flatly that treating humans as superior to dogs and rodents is immoral. Moral shrugging may be on the rise, but old-fashioned and rigorous moral criticism is alive and well on certain selected issues _ smoking, environmentalism, women's rights, animal rights.

Sommers points beyond multiculturalism to a general problem of so many students coming to college "dogmatically committed to a moral relativism that offers them no grounds to think" about cheating, stealing and other moral issues. Simon calls this "absolutophobia" _ the unwillingness to say that some behavior is just wrong. Many trends feed the fashionable phobia. Postmodern theory on campus denies the existence of any objective truth: All we can have are clashing perspectives, not true moral knowledge. The pop-therapeutic culture has pushed nonjudgmentalism very hard. Intellectual laziness and the simple fear of unpleasantness are also factors. By saying that one opinion or moral stance is as good as another, we can call attention to our own tolerance, avoid antagonizing others and just get on with our careers.

The "values clarification" programs in the schools surely should come in for some lumps, too. Based on the principle that teachers should not indoctrinate other people's children, they left the creation of values up to each student. Values emerged as personal preferences, as unsuited for criticism or argument as personal decisions on pop music or clothes.

But the wheel is turning now, and "values clarification" is giving way to "character education," and the paralyzing fear of indoctrinating children is gradually fading. The search is on for a teachable consensus rooted in simple decency and respect. As a spur to shaping it, we might discuss a culture so morally confused that students are showing up at colleges reluctant to say anything negative about mass slaughter.

John Leo; distributed by Universal Press Syndicate