But he says that “middle-level institutions,” such as schools and colleges, can do a much better job of promoting moral thinking and responsible, healthy, and respectful lifestyles among their students. Those of us who work on college campuses might wish he had said a bit more about what colleges could do. Although Catholic University of America announced last year that it is, for reasons of moral prudence, returning to single-sex dorms, most colleges are headed in the opposite direction—adopting a policy of “gender-neutral” dorm room assignment whereby members of the opposite sex can room together. Co-ed dorms were already bad enough—representing, as the novelist Tom Wolfe observed, the cultural insanity of putting males and females in 24-hour proximity at a time when the hormones are at full flood.
Those of us active in the growing national and international character education movement should find Smith’s book an encouragement to craft the kind of deep character education, as Kevin Ryan calls for in MercatorNet (October 14), that not only trains virtuous habits but also develops less individualistic moral reasoning and a nobler vision of life purpose.
Smith also challenges our political system to find ways to make politics more civil, more functional, more manifestly in service of the common good.
But most of all, Lost in Transition challenges all of us to take responsibility for doing everything we can at “the micro-level of social life.” Families, he says, can be much more intentional about their values, commitments, and lifestyles. For starters, they can spend less time watching TV and more time eating together, talking with each other, and volunteering in their communities.
Smith might have added—and this will strike many readers as a serious omission—that, as a society, we can do much more to help hold marriages and families together. We now have a mountain of evidence, marshaled by scholars such as Judith Wallerstein, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, and David Blankenhorn and increasingly acknowledged across the ideological spectrum, that documents the psychic maiming of large numbers of children and adults by divorce. Many of the young adult problems Smith describes are, to no small extent, traceable to broken and often fatherless families.
One thing I found missing from Smith’s prescriptions: what young people might do themselves.
While recognizing that culture shapes character, it would be a mistake to slip into the sort of sociological determinism that casts young adults simply as victims of failed social institutions and macrosocial forces beyond their control. Even in a rotten moral culture, as Smith would be the first to agree, a great many young people can think clearly, choose not to get drunk or stoned, live a chaste life style, volunteer in their communities, and aspire to make a positive difference in the world.
We want to send the message that all young people can make such choices. All can choose to be the chief architects of their character. We do well to remind them of what Anne Frank said: “Parents can put their children on the right path, but the final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.”
More recently, only three years after Christian Smith’s team concluded their interviews in 2008, the world witnessed the “Arab spring” and “Occupy” movements, both led and supported in no small measure by young adults Whatever our politics, we can recognize in these social movements the capacity of idealistic youth—perhaps far from a majority of their age-mates but a potent force nonetheless—to challenge all of us to confront the injustices that continue to plague humankind, and to recommit to bringing greater freedom, respect for human dignity, and social and economic justice to all corners of the globe.
Those are the same goals that Pope Benedict and other moral and spiritual leaders have repeatedly set before us. The young people involved in the recent calls to conscience are, I think, an example of the “broader horizon” that Smith says was largely missing in the young adults he studied in 2008.