“Lost in Transition”

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I spent the last few days in Phoenix with the Chief Academic Officers (CAOs) of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) at our annual meeting. There are two elements that I really enjoy about these meetings. First I get to catch up with friends and colleagues from around the country. It is always comforting, in a strange sort of way, that most universities have similar problems and similar opportunities. We struggle with the same things and have some of the same hopes. We share ideas, complain about struggles, and, because it is the CCCU, worship together.

Second for a couple of days we leave administrative tasks behind (though everyone is checking back with their offices, sending emails, making calls, mediating disputes by phone—”leave…behind” I suppose is a relative phrase) and discuss substantive higher education topics such as students and their needs, faculty, scholarship, the mission of Christian Higher Education, and the integration of faith and learning. This year we met jointly with the Chief Student Affairs Officers (as far as I know there is no acronym—CSAO?) to discuss recent research on the character of the current traditional university attending population.

This year’s discussion was the third book by Christian Smith, Professor of Sociology at Notre Dame (and a graduate of a CCCU institution), the principal investigator on the now decade long National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR). And it is an extra, previously unplanned book. Let me explain. This national study follows a cohort of students from their teen age years, through traditional college age, and then through their mid- and late-twenties. The first book was about the teen age years, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (2005);
the second investigation of the study caught back up with these students in the college years and resulted in Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (2009). The research is now being done on the mid- late-twenty years; the data and reports can be found at the website of the NSYR.

Smith and his team of researchers felt that there was more to say about emerging adults (aged 18-29, but not yet “real adults,” meaning without adult responsibilities like homes, children, etc.). The title explains it: Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (2011). The topic is of obvious importance to those of us in universities. We need to know about our students in order to teach well, understand their particular needs, and address issues they face and may not even know how to articulate. And this generation, different from previous ones, is facing a series of trials that we need to understand, address, and help guide them through, if we can and they will let us.

The chapter titles illustrate this “darker side” of the souls in danger of being “lost in transition.” Smith was there with us in Phoenix and walked us through the research in some detail and added good anecdotal illustrations. This cohort of students suffers from being (1) “morality adrift;” they have been taught or absorbed that moral rules, guides or codes are fundamentally “relative”—what’s right for one is not right for another. They are (2) “captive to consumerism;” they expect material comfort and rewards and think that if they are not part of the general desire to acquire the economy will suffer. So why not join in? They seek release and comfort through (3) “intoxication’s ‘Fake Feeling of Happiness;” a fairly high percentage of students drink or take drugs to excess as a way of covering over their anxiety and unease.

This is the second and third generation after the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s. They experience (4) “the shadow side of sexual liberation;” and this experience of casual sexual activity, temporary relationships, and lack of commitment has consequences for them both short and long-term. Finally (5) they suffer “civic and political disengagement;” they do not think that they can have an effect on the culture or governance of our society. This is ominous (I am speaking out of my own discipline now) in a number of ways: it turns them to focus on themselves and their individual temporary desires, assuming they have no responsibility for their communities, and it leaves them subject to demagoguery and ideologues without knowing how to sift through their claims. This chapter, by the way, the result of rigorous research, contradicts some of our previous assumptions that said young adults were highly concerned with justice and social activism. Or perhaps we have a slightly younger cohort of students and attitudes have shifted from one to the next.

Let me offer one result of this discussion. I spoke with Prof. Smith for about 30 minutes following his last session. I asked how he translated his findings into teaching, particularly chapter 1 on “morality adrift,” into the teaching of ethics. In the past we who teach ethics have often started with the sense that our students bring a narrow sense of right and wrong to the discussion. We then try to open them up to how different peoples and groups understand what is good and this sometimes means that we have to show the limitations of what they bring—to relativize their thinking, ask them to consider other notions of what is good or bad, and how to understand them. This seemed, and did, fit the student of past generations and decades. Now the need is the reverse. Now we must help them ask the question about their assumed moral relativism, and whether there might indeed be rights and wrongs that need to be recognized. He noted in his presentation that “cultural relativity” is not the same thing as, nor does it necessarily imply, “moral relativism.” We talked in those short minutes about how to teach this “emerging adult” population.

One of my tests of the depth of an author or scholar is whether they recognize the limits of their conclusions. Smith noted several times that the data did not give us enough information to answer the question posed. And he noted new questions that had arisen. He satisfied my test. I have left a lot out—the sociological background, how churches are affected, how young people struggle in this new world, their hurts and hopes, and on and on. As Smith told us “read the book!”

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  • Julia Reimer

    Thanks for this entry, Steve. I recently did a theater workshop project on decision-making with undergraduates. The research used in preparation talked about young peoples tendency towards “sliding versus deciding.” It was interesting to hear, after the workshop, how our participants appreciated simply being reminded that life’s moments were often ones of choice, that they weren’t simply being carried along in a stream, but that there were choices and decisions along the way.

    To be honest, I remember having to learn some of that myself as a young adult.