ROME, APRIL 3, 2004 (Zenit.org).- Harvard Law professor Mary Ann Glendon prepared this address for the Pontifical Council for the Laity’s 8th International Youth Forum, held near Rome this week. Glendon was recently named president of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences. The text was slightly adapted here.
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University Students Today: Portrait of a Generation Searching
By Mary Ann Glendon
Since most of you are students, I’m sure you know what it is like to be assigned to write a paper in a field where you are not an expert. So I think you can imagine my reaction when the Council for the Laity asked me to give a talk titled “University Students Today: Portrait of a New Generation.” I was honored, but a bit daunted.
I. What the Social Scientists Say
I began my assignment the way you probably would. I went to the library to find out what the social scientists tell us. There I found that there is an enormous literature about the young men and women who were born after 1979, who came of age with the new century, and who for that reason are sometimes called the Millennials. In fact, no generation has been more studied than the cohort sometimes also known as Generation Y.
The social science data tells us that you are blessed in many ways. We are told that you are the best-educated generation in history. More young people from more diverse backgrounds are attending universities than ever before (although large gaps still exist between affluent and developing countries, and between rich and poor within the more affluent countries). Girls in particular have never had more opportunities to develop their full human potential.
A circumstance that has given a decisive stamp to your age group is that you and the personal computer grew up together. The first computers for homes, offices and schools were introduced by IBM in 1981, and you are skilled with them in a way that few of your elders will ever be. Another blessing many of you enjoy is that — thanks to improved longevity — no generation has ever had the opportunity to know their grandparents for so long a time.
In certain other respects, however, Generation Y bears unusual burdens. Probably nothing has had more profound influence on the hopes and fears of your generation than the social revolution that took place between the mid-1960s (when most of your parents were the age you are now) and the 1980s when most of you were born. Beginning in the 1960s, birth rates and marriage rates plummeted in the affluent nations of North America, Europe, Japan and Australia. At the same time, divorce rates rose steeply, as did the rates of births outside marriage, and the incidence of non-marital cohabitation.
The scale and speed of these phenomena were unprecedented — with increases or decreases of more than 50% in less than 20 years. When these rates finally stabilized at their new, high levels toward the end of the 1980s, we found ourselves on a social landscape that was utterly and completely transformed. Customary understandings that had governed human sexual behavior for millennia were not only widely disregarded, but openly rejected.
With hindsight, we can see that the changes in behavior and ideas that took place in those years amounted to nothing less than a massive social experiment. Though few realized it at the time, it was an experiment that was conducted largely at the expense of children. We now understand what should have been obvious all along — that when the behavior of adults changes, the environments in which children grow up are changed as well.
By giving priority to adults’ quest for personal fulfillment, society changed the whole experience of childhood: More children than ever before grew up in households without fathers. More were left in non-parental care at younger ages. Little thought was given to what these changes might mean for children, or for the future of the societies most affected.
Some of you may have heard reflections on that subject by Father Tony Anatrella, the psychoanalyst who addressed this gathering last year. According to him, the changing experience of childhood has had an adverse effect on the ability of many young people to have trust in others, and even on their ability to have hope for the future. He was rather harsh in his criticism of the generation that came of age in the 1960s. He claimed that while they, like all parents, wanted their children to be happy, many failed to teach their children “the basic rules of social life, the customs that are the treasures of a people, and the Christian life that has been the matrix of diverse civilizations.”
The story in the developing world is different, but changes in family life there have been equally rapid and profound. Industrialization, urbanization and globalization have accelerated the disruption of age-old customs and patterns of family organization. In many countries, the process of industrialization that had been spread out over a century in the West was accomplished in little more than a decade. In some parts of the world, children have been robbed both of their childhood and their parents by the ravages of AIDS — or by violent ethnic and political strife.
That is the sort of information I found when I looked to see what social scientists tell us about Generation Y. But as a university teacher, a mother and a grandmother, I felt that something was missing. I wanted to know more about what young people themselves make of their situations as they prepare to assume responsible positions in an era of turbulent changes wrought by globalization, conflict and widespread disruption of family life. And I wanted to know more about how Catholic university students, in particular, see themselves.
II. Some Voices of Young Catholics
So, to try to get a sense of your own hopes and fears for the future, I asked some colleagues and friends who deal with young Catholics in universities and youth organizations to circulate a little questionnaire for me. Here are two of the questions I asked: What social developments do you most hope for in your lifetime, and what do you fear the most? What developments do you most hope for in your personal life, and what do you fear the most?
What was most striking about the replies I received from Catholic students all over the world was the similarity in the way these young men and women expressed their personal hopes and fears.
From the Philippines to Kenya, from Europe to North and South America, the students mainly spoke of hopes for three things: hope to find the right person to marry and found a family with; hope for work that is satisfying as well as rewarding; and the hope to be able to help to bring about positive changes in society, which many express as building the civilization of love. Their chief anxieties concerned their ability to realize these hopes.
Thus, one young Spaniard wrote, “I look forward to marriage and the birth of each one of my sons and daughters, and I hope to find the kind of job that will enable me to better society. What I fear are the same things, because these are the most important decisions in my life and I fear choosing in the wrong way.” Along the same lines, a German student wrote, “I hope for a great family life and for the kind of work that will enable me to return some of what God has given me, but I fear not finding the right person to spend the rest of my life with.”
Anna Halpine, a remarkable Catholic activist who founded the World Youth Alliance five years ago when she was still in her 20s, summed up the reaction of her co-workers to my questions this way: “Our experience is that all young people are searching for meaning and purpose to their lives. Once this has been established, once they recognize the profound dignity that they possess, they are in a position to extend this to others. Before this cornerstone has been laid, they are unable to give any proposal to the world and any rationale to their own existence.”
Last year, the director of the European branch of the World Youth Alliance, Gudrun Lang, gave a speech to the European Parliament where she described her contemporaries this way: “It is my generation that is the first to experience what it means to live in a more or less ‘value-free’ continent. It is we who witness a society of broken families — you are aware of what that entails for the individual, the spouses, the children and all the people around them. It is we who witness a society of convenience at all costs: killing our own children when they are still unborn; killing our older relatives because we don’t want to give them the care, the time and the friendship that they need.”
She went to say, “Many young people I work with have experienced this loss of respect for the inviolable dignity of every member of the human family. Our own families are broken, our own relatives are lonely, and many do not see a meaning in life.” But at the same time, she noted the emergence of a determination to change things for the better. Her generation, she said, has “experienced the ideologies of the second half of the past century put into legislation — and we are not happy with them.”
III. The Quest for Meaning in the Postmodern University
What emerges from these data and impressions, it seems to me, is a portrait of a generation that is searching — a generation of young men and women who want something better for themselves and their future children than what has been handed on to them; a generation that is exploring uncharted territory and finding little guidance from its elders. It is only to be expected that, for many members of Generation Y, the search for meaning takes on special urgency when they enter the university, a place traditionally dedicated to the unrestricted quest for knowledge and truth.
What better place than a university, one might think, to pursue one’s quest for meaning. What better place to learn how to make measured and informed judgments. What better place to acquire skill in distinguishing between what is important and what is trivial. What better place to learn to identify what is harmful even it if seems attractive, and to discern what is true even if defending it may cost you friends or worldly esteem.
But if those are your hopes, you are apt to be disappointed in many of today’s universities. For universities themselves seem to be losing their sense of purpose and meaning. As a young woman from the United States put it in her answer to my questionnaire: “If I could sum up what has been drilled into my generation’s minds in one word, that word would be ‘tolerance.’ While this has resulted in us being pretty nice people, it has also produced in my opinion a generation that has little concept of objective morality or truth. We are equipped with few guidelines for judging right and wrong.”
A young woman who teaches in Kenya wrote that university students there “need role models and something to believe in and they search for these desperately. There is a constant clash between how their parents brought them up and what society is offering them.” Sad to say, the postmodern university seems even to be losing its vaunted regard for tolerance of diverse opinions — at least where religiously grounded moral viewpoints are concerned, and especially if those viewpoints are Christian.
Thus we find ourselves in a curious situation where all too many of the most highly educated men and women in history have a religious formation that remains at a rather primitive level. Have you noticed how many well-educated Catholics seem to be going through life with a kindergarten level apprehension of their own faith? How many of us, for example, have spent as much time deepening our knowledge of the faith as we have on learning to use computers!
I must admit that when I read in the Holy Father’s letters to the laity that we are supposed to fearlessly “put out into the deep,” I can’t help thinking there should be a footnote to the effect that: “Be not afraid” doesn’t mean “Be not prepared.” When Our Lord told the apostles to put out into the deep, he surely didn’t expect them to set out in leaky boats. When he told them to put down their nets, he didn’t expect those nets to be full of holes!
This brings me to the most important point I wish to make today: I want to suggest to you that poor formation represents a special danger in a society like ours where education in other areas is so advanced. In contemporary society, if religious formation does not come up to the general level of secular education, we are going to run into trouble defending our beliefs — even to ourselves. We are going to feel helpless when we come up against the secularism and relativism that are so pervasive in our culture and in the university. We are going to be tongue-tied when our faith comes under unjust attack.
When that happens, many young Catholics drift away from the faith. Countless young men and women today have had an experience in the university comparable to that which caused the great social theorist Alexis de Tocqueville to lose his faith 200 years ago at the height of the Enlightenment. All through his childhood, Tocqueville had been tutored by a pious old priest who had been trained in a simpler era. Then, at the age of 16, he came upon the works of Descartes, Rousseau and Voltaire. Here is how he described that encounter in a letter to a friend many years later:
“I don’t know if I’ve ever told you about an incident in my youth that marked me deeply for the rest of my life; how I was prey to an insatiable curiosity whose only available satisfaction was a large library of books. … Until that time my life had passed enveloped in a faith that hadn’t even allowed doubt to enter. … Then doubt … hurt led in with an incredible violence. … All of a sudden I experienced the sensation people talk about who have been through an earthquake when the ground shakes under their feet, as do the walls around them, the ceilings over their heads, the furniture beneath their hand, all of nature before their eyes. I was seized by the blackest melancholy and then by an extreme disgust with life, though I knew nothing of life. And I was almost prostrated by agitation and terror at the sight of the road that remained for me to travel in this world.”
What drew him out of that state, he told his friend, were worldly pleasures to which he abandoned himself for a time. But his letters testify to a lifelong sadness at his incapacity for belief. How many young Catholics have fallen into those same pitfalls when they had to make the difficult transition from their childhood faith to a mature Christianity. Tocqueville at least was confounded by some of the greatest minds in the Western tradition. But many of our contemporaries are not even equipped to deal with simplistic versions of relativism and skepticism!
Some young men and women, like Tocqueville, may spend their whole lives in a kind of melancholy yearning. Others may start to keep their spiritual lives completely private, in a separate compartment sealed off from the rest of their lives. Still others imitate the chameleon, that little lizard who changes his color to blend in with his surroundings. When parts of their Christian heritage don’t fit with the spirit of the age, the chameleon just erases them.
How many of these lost searchers, I wonder, might have held their heads high as unapologetic Catholics if somewhere along the way they had become acquainted with our Church’s great intellectual tradition and her rich treasure house of social teachings?
Today, in the age of John Paul II, there are really no good excuses for ignoring the intellectual heritage that provides us with resources to meet the challenges of modernity. No Catholic who takes the trouble to tap into that heritage has to stand tongue-tied in the face of alleged conflicts between faith and reason or religion and science.
In “Novo Millennio Ineunte,” the Holy Father has a message that is highly relevant to the topic of this conference on “Witnessing to Christ in the University.”
“For Christian witness to be effective,” he writes, “it is important that special efforts be made to explain properly the reasons for the Church’s position, stressing that it is not a case of imposing on non-believers a vision based on faith, but of interpreting and defending the values rooted in the very nature of the human person” (51).
Three implications of those wise words need to be spelled out:
First, those of us who live in pluralistic societies have to be able to give our reasons in terms that are intelligible to all men and women of good will, just as St. Paul had to be “a Jew to the Jews, and a Greek to the [pagan] Greeks.” Fortunately, we have great models of how to do that in Catholic social teaching, and in the writings of John Paul II.
Second, we who labor in the intellectual apostolate need to keep our intellectual tradition abreast of the best human and natural science of our times, just as St. Thomas Aquinas did in his day.
And third, because we live in a time when our Church is under relentless attack, we need to be equipped to defend her. That does not mean we have to react to every insult no matter how slight. But we do need to learn to have and to show a decent amount of pride in who we are.
There is nothing wrong with taking pride in our Church’s intellectual tradition — a tradition that predates and outshines the impoverished secularism that is stifling thought in many leading universities. There is nothing wrong with taking pride in our Church’s record as the world’s foremost institutional voice opposing aggressive population control, abortion, euthanasia, and draconian measures against migrants and the poor.
At a time, and in a culture, where Christianity is under assault from many directions, Catholics do a great disservice when they do not contest the myth that the history of Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular is a history of patriarchy, worldliness, persecution, or exclusion of people or ideas.
As a university teacher and a parent myself, I am acutely aware of how difficult it is to “witness to Christ in the university.” Thus, I was delighted to read last month of the Holy Father’s proposal to the bishops of Paris for the creation of “schools of faith” at the university level. After all, why should religious education cease just at the point when faith is apt to be faced with its most serious challenges — and just when many young men and women are for the first time away from home?
It seems to me that the Church needs to follow her sons and daughters to the university. She needs to find ways to accompany them on that dangerous journey toward a mature Christianity. There are many ways this could be accomplished. In many places, the great lay organizations are already present to university students — they have done wonderful work, showing that formation and fellowship go hand in hand. But much more can and must be done along these lines. I would also like to mention two wonderful recent books that have appeared just in time to serve as “travel companions” to members of Generation Y: “Tell Me Why: A Father Answers His Daughter’s Questions About God,” by Michael and Jana Novak, and “Letters to a Young Catholic” by papal biographer George Weigel.
IV. Conclusion: The Answer to the Question that is Every Human Life
To sum up, then: I would suggest that the “Y” in Generation Y might stand for yearning — yearning, questioning, searching, and refusing to be satisfied with easy answers. No one has understood this better than Pope John Paul II — and that, I suspect, one of the reasons why young people love him so much and why the World Youth Days have been such a transformative experience for so many.
As he wrote in “Tertio Millennio Adveniente,” “Christ expects great things from young people. … Young people, in every situation, in every region of the world do not cease to put questions to Christ: they meet him and they keep searching for him in order to question him further. If they succeed in following the road which he points out to them, they will have the joy of making their own contribution to his presence in the next century and in the centuries to come, until the end of time: ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and for ever'”(58). Jesus Christ is the answer to the question that is every human life.
What a difference you Catholic university students are going to make in the world! No one can foresee just how each one of you will respond to your baptismal callings to holiness and evangelization. But one thing is certain: there is no shortage of work to be done in the vineyard. There are families to be founded and nurtured; intellectual frontiers to be explored; young minds to be taught; the sick to be cared for; the poor to be lifted up; and the faith to be handed on to future generations. My wish for you is that the Lord will multiply you, and that each one of you will touch thousands of lives.