Faith in History
A Jeremiad with Statistics: Christian Smith on the Nihilistic Lives of College-Age Americans
Smith's statistics may confirm what many have suspected about college-age Americans, but the raw statistics remain stunning. Of course, there are a number of objections and caveats one might offer: how do we know that these statistics are any worse than they were, say, in 1990, 1950, or 1850? Historians have shown, for instance, that per-capita alcohol consumption was much higher in antebellum America than it is today. Although Smith carefully notes that he is not trying to compare this generation to any previous one, a jeremiad always carries an implicit comparison to those who have gone before us.
We also are not given information about the differences that race and class make in the emerging adult cohort. The recent discussion engendered by Charles Murray's Coming Apart would lead one to think that class divisions may well have a lot to do with this story, and we have long debated the disparities in family life between various racial groups. But Smith and his co-authors defer these kinds of questions, saying that others should study them later.
Some might also wonder if this is not a story that is often repeated through history: youths cut loose from the strictures of home go off to sow their wild oats. Then some reality of life (getting married, having children, etc.) sobers them, sometimes literally. Perhaps these nihilistic, hedonistic drifters will settle down someday.
Lost in Transition closes with the most surprising chapter of the book, one that demonstrates how utterly uninterested most emerging adults are in politics. I have to confess that I felt some ambivalence about this chapter; greater political involvement is normally good for the republic, but comparing it to the disturbing sexual practices of the previous chapter seemed a jarring juxtaposition. And—may I say it?—I do not find it especially troubling that Smith's emerging adults do not vote, if they are truly ignorant of political news and issues, and unprepared to assess with any moral clarity the political challenges we face.
Judiciously, Smith and his co-authors offer almost no practical solutions to help today's teenagers become more ethically adept than this cohort of college age adults. Even his tentative proposals—better moral education in high schools?—seem nearly hopeless. But parents and pastors sure ought to think about a solution; the average American teenager's cultural diet of school, media, sports, and/or church is not preparing them to emerge as morally capable adults.
Thomas S. Kidd teaches history and is a Senior Fellow at Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion. He is the author of Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots and God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution. Follow his writings via Facebook and Twitter.