In his controversial 1987 best-seller The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom explains that university students in his day avoided making any moral claims whatsoever. Although non-judgmental, their apparent moral relativism, Bloom claimed, created a void within the souls of American students. This archetypical student of 1980’s described by Bloom has, today, evolved into something more active and more pernicious.
According to Dr. Harrison Kleiner, a professor of philosophy at Utah State University who focuses on liberal education, Bloom’s conception of the American student is dated; college students today do make moral claims. Their claims are based on the idea of “living your truth,” individually, as opposed to aligning life with a conception of higher moral truth that exists independent of individual opinion. The contemporary iteration of the university student is judgmental, castigating any who do not fall in line with their politically correct “moral authority.” Students protest, preventing speaker appearances with opposing points of view, shouting them down as fascists, unworthy of a platform (as in the common case for Ben Shapiro, or the extreme case of Charles Murray); they stand up and loudly oppose anything that is “objectively” untrue, from the viewpoint of “their truth.” Ironically, the basis for “truth” changes with culture.
There is no simple way of explaining ideology and attitude of all students, but the story told here is descriptive of conditions at universities generally. However, Brigham Young University does not fall under the same stereotype of the modern university. This is likely due to the fact that B.Y.U. does not invite controversial speakers, the school is run by a religious organization, and filled with a religious student body. Brigham Young University, in many ways, stands apart and above other institutions of higher learning. That being said, we are not totally immune to nihilistic and relativistic tendencies of the contemporary, postmodern university.
Universities no longer focus on education as a whole, but on prestigious, rolling research. While important, research should not affect the quality of professor students have access to, nor the quality of education provided at any given university. There are those graduating today with P.h.D.s in their fields who come from schools that are not “prestigious” enough, who have not published enough, but who would likely make incredible additions as teachers, and mentors. Such a committed and focused professor will not be hired, unfortunately. She will be passed up, in favor of the candidate from Harvard, with no desire to be in the classroom, in need of an office for her research. Certainly, the latter candidate will still offer classes, not out of desire, but of requirement. This should not be misunderstood: those publishing research are essential and should be hired. However, has the focus on research has improved the quality of education, or has it simply increased notoriety for universities?
Instead of focusing on research, focusing on mentorship would aid against the tides of moral relativism. Good mentors help students recognize their own talent, they challenge and bring out the best in us. Mentors aid in understanding truth; one could attempt to read a hefty book like Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, alone; but it is much more enlightening and productive to have a mentor.
Being required to take generals brings an awareness of the truth that exists across disciplines. However, when those classes are taken at random, it is difficult to see common threads of truth that exist between history and biology, or philosophy and theology. A more integrated curriculum that consciously makes the links between subjects would enable students to see objective truth more clearly. All truth comes from one whole, but if classes are taken willy nilly, truth may begin to appear relative.
Perhaps most importantly, if education is viewed as merely a means to “get a job”, it is difficult to see why truth even matters. If the destination, and not the journey, is all that matters, then why bother to use your education to learn truth. No, at B.Y.U. we must truly enter to learn, and go forth to serve to combat moral relativism.
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