I have spent much of my professional life in the halls of the academy studying at the knee of scholars who embrace human development theory as if it is our salvation. I, frankly, could bore all of you to tears by talking about this stuff.Wouldn’t it be fun to have breakfast and chat about the sequential nature of Chickering’s seven vectors? Or we could enjoy a cup of coffee as we debate Kohlberg’s three stages of moral development? In the midst of this excitement I am sure you would want to stick around for dinner and ponder Perry’s four schemes of dualism, multiplicity, relativism, and commitment in relativism: phases of life where we all move from a childhood of dualistic absolutes; to an adolescence of multiplicity where we reject the simplistic notions of right or wrong; then on to an early adulthood of relativism where we embrace the pragmatic good of “personal values”; and finally to full maturity where we settle-in and “commit” ourselves to the good of a specific lifestyle – relative though it may be.
Oh, but we shouldn’t stop here. We would need to conclude our conversation with the Holy Grail of human development theory: The Plus-One Concept. This shibboleth tells us that all growth is incremental. Moral development is realized in sequential steps rather than broad leaps. To misdiagnose the “starting point” is to miss the whole point. As educators we must assume that all students are dualistic, black and white thinkers. If we are to honor the “plus-one concept” our goal must be to first assess the present developmental stage of the pupil and then to challenge these students to abandon their childlike affection for absolutes and move up one rung on the developmental ladder and, thus, embrace multiplicity as the next natural phase of life.
If I haven’t lost you already don’t panic. I won’t subject you to this torture any further but for one exception: I would like to point out the bankruptcy and dangerous consequences of these ideas.
Let me tell you a story: a story of a class I taught a few years back and of student named Frankie. Prior to moving to Oklahoma I served as the Dean of Students at a liberal arts college in Michigan. In my role as Dean I also taught a class or two. One of these classes was the standard and obligatory freshman orientation course. Each year, I sought to “orient” my new students to life at a liberal arts institution and to challenge them to wrestle with what it meant to be a disciplined thinker. In this context, I had a traditional assignment. I required my students to watch the movie Schindler’s List and then to write a standard three page paper. My intent was to force the students to think about the “Christian culture” of WWII Germany and then to ask themselves these questions: “Why would any group of people ever succumb to the atrocities of the holocaust? Why did the German culture – the culture out of which the Protestant Reformation came – lose site of the truth to the extent that they could no longer recognize something like genocide and mass murder as being so clearly evil and wrong?”
After watching this movie one of my students turned in a paper that was fairly well written. Frankie had obviously paid attention and was engaged with the film. Her report of the movie was quite thorough but it was the concluding sentence that I will never forget. Incredible as it seems, after watching this heart wrenching movie and summarizing its plot, historical accuracy, and detail, Frankie critiqued the moral decisions surrounding the holocaust by saying: “Who am I to judge the Germans?” She could not bring herself to tell me that the holocaust was wrong!
For years, I, along with most all of my peers in higher education assumed that the human development theory was simply and purely an empirical fact. We believed that students came to college with dualistic and foreclosed minds where everything was black and white, right or wrong. We claimed that these students came to us with authority as the basis of all moral judgment. If the pastor said is was true it was true. If mom said it was right it was right. If dad said is was wrong it was wrong. Accordingly, we in the ivory tower believed it was our obligation to challenge these students to grow beyond the dualism of a Judeo-Christian ethic, take off the blinders, and embrace the multiple and various facets of “truth”. Surely our young people needed to step away from the comforts of home and church and become more nuanced and “mature” in their morality and in their thinking.
I no longer believe this. In his book, Educating Post-Modern America, Generation X Goes to College, Peter Sax contends that one of the basic characteristics of today’s college students (and perhaps culture as a whole) is the pervasive and oxymoronic belief in absolute relativism. Sax argues that opinions are all that matter in the classrooms, boardrooms and bedrooms of contemporary life. It isn’t that everything is black and white, right or wrong, but to the contrary, today nothing is black or white and nothing is right or wrong. Dualism is no longer the starting point. To the contrary, personal opinion rather than objective standards has become the final measure of all truth. The relative value of any action or belief is the only basis for judgment. Like Frankie so poignantly reminds us: one value or another is simply a mater of personal choice and personal preference. It’s all relative – “Who are we to judge the Germans”?
Is my story of Frankie an aberration? Is Peter Sax referring to young people other than those in our schools, our churches, and our neighborhoods? Is this a critique of a culture elsewhere - somebody else’s but not ours? All I know is this: Frankie taught me a lesson. She awakened me to the sobering limitations of prevailing academic fads. Human development theory has its place but it falls far short of providing the “liberal” environment and consequent learning that it claims as its highest good. You see, the word liberal implies liberation. And implicit in the word “liberation” is the presupposition that there are bad things from which we should be liberated. It is not bad because we think so. It is bad simply because it is. The holocaust was evil not just in the minds of those who disagreed with it. It was explicitly and absolutely bad because it violated an immutable and transcendent moral standard. It was, is, and always will be simply wrong to incinerate people in furnaces because you have more political power than they do. But here is the sobering reality – our young people today (and I have had tons of them in under my tutelage) do not have the intellectual training and moral confidence to defend the logic of the previous several sentences.
Ideas matter. Ideas that disparage the time-tested truths of an earlier day while fawning over the newest intellectual fads may lead us down a very dangerous path. Maybe dualism isn’t all that bad after all.
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