- Friday, December 29, 2023

Before moving to Oklahoma, I served as the dean of students at a liberal arts college in Michigan. In that role, I also taught a few classes. One of them was the obligatory new student orientation course, where each year, I sought to orient my small group of freshmen to collegiate life and challenge them to wrestle with what it meant to be a disciplined thinker.

One assignment I routinely included in my syllabus was to watch the 1993 movie “Schindler’s List” and then write a three-page paper.

My goal was to get my students, who were just three months out of high school, to think about the culture of World War II Germany and ask themselves a few basic 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 sight of basic morality to the extent that it could no longer recognize something like genocide and mass murder as being so clearly evil and wrong?

After watching this movie, a student (I’ll call her Cynthia) turned in a fairly well-written paper. Cynthia had obviously paid attention and engaged with the film. Her overview of the story and its characters was thorough and accurate.

But it was the final sentence that I will never forget. Incredible as it seems, after watching this heart-wrenching movie and summarizing its plot and historical accuracy, Cynthia concluded: “But, who am I to judge the Germans?”

For most of my career, I assumed that the moral development models popularized in the 1990s were essentially beyond dispute. I studied the theories of Arthur Chickering, Lawrence Kohlberg, William Perry and Carol Gilligan in great detail and wrote about them extensively in my graduate and doctoral programs.

I and virtually every other burgeoning expert in education accepted the claims that young people come to college with foreclosed minds, thinking everything is black and white, right or wrong, because of what various authorities in their lives have told them. If the pastor said it is true, it’s true. If Mom said it’s right, it’s right. If Dad said it is wrong, it’s wrong.

Accordingly, we in the ivory tower believed our obligation was to challenge our students to grow beyond such truncated and simplistic assumptions and embrace the various facets of “truth.” Surely our students needed to step away from the comforts of home and church and become more nuanced in understanding the relative complexities of moral reasoning.

I no longer believe this. In his book “Generation X Goes to College,” Peter Sacks argues that one basic characteristic of modern college students is the oxymoronic belief in absolute relativism. Rather than entering college thinking everything is black and white and right or wrong, today’s students start their academic years assuming the exact opposite: Nothing is right or wrong. Everything is relative.

The contention that it’s all about personal choice and individual preference and the nearly universal judgment that it’s best not to judge is pervasive. Moral relativism is in the DNA of almost every millennial, Gen Zer and Gen Alpha. Very few of them believe in moral absolutes.

And facts don’t matter. Affirmation of their feelings is what they expect of their education, and most college administrators and faculty, like Claudine Gay of Harvard, are all too willing to go along and give our precious little darlings the participation trophies they so desperately want.

The problem here is obvious. If we remove the cornerstones of moral absolutes from the ivory tower, it inevitably crumbles into the moral confusion of the Tower of Babel. The result is that students like Cynthia and college presidents like Claudine Gay do not get the intellectual training they need to recognize evil.

What Cynthia needed to understand was this: We do have the right to judge the Nazis of 1933. What Ms. Gay needs to understand is that she has an obligation to judge the Hamas of 2023. It was wrong to shoot Jews in the head then, and it is equally wrong to behead Jewish babies now.

If you want to know why America seems to be on the cusp of being led by a generation of moral nihilists who think parachuting into a music concert and slaughtering all the attendees is justified, look no further than America’s schools and colleges.

What’s taught in the classroom will always be practiced in your culture. The chickens always come home to roost. Ideas always have consequences. And the morally vacuous ideas at Harvard, Dartmouth, Princeton, Yale, and even in the high school in your own backyard are horrifying. 

There’s a reason Cynthia couldn’t condemn the Nazis, and there’s a reason Claudine Gay can’t seem to condemn Hamas. It all goes back to terrible education.

• Everett Piper (dreverettpiper.com, @dreverettpiper), a columnist for The Washington Times, is a former university president and radio host.

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