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Our Students’ Creeping (and Sometimes Creepy) Libertarianism

Georgetown University Professor Pat Deneen has this to say about a recent study of the opinion and attitudes of today’s college freshmen:

Contemporary liberals who significantly shape the views of today’s  young (especially through the media – 50% of respondents indicated  watching television more than 3 hours a day) believe that they are  ushering in a future of toleration and “laissez-faire.” However, this  attitude in fact buttresses the other overwhelming finding of the  survey: that students today are “in it” for themselves. Their view of  college is already determined before they enroll:   the purpose of  college is to increase their earning power. They are not in college to  be liberally educated or to understand the “meaning of life.” They are  not there to prepare for a life of responsible citizenship, parenthood  and neighborliness. They are “capitalist tools,” people whose lives are  dominated by professional ambition and bottom-line accounting.

Several disquieting questions should come to mind:  What kinds of citizens will these people grow up to be?  What kinds of parents and  what kinds of neighbors?  They will likely be willing to leave other  people alone—but will they care about others?  Will they love?  Will they serve?  Will they sacrifice?  According Charles Murray in his  recent book Coming Apart, it is the upper classes (which will be composed of the students in this survey) that have largely abandoned any idea of trusteeship and moral and civic responsibility toward those who have not won the meritocratic sweepstakes.  The survey suggests that this divide will only deepen in coming years.

I fear that we are not ushering in a utopia of toleration and sensitivity, but one of indifference and self-absorption.  Today’s young people have deeply absorbed the lessons that have been taught them by their elders.  Do we truly think a civilization can persist when it  teaches its young that the most important thing in life is indifference toward others and that the means to happiness is earning the most money?

Deneen’s comments are somewhat shrill.  But they’re still quite challenging.  For one thing, he’s right that it’s not true that students are becoming more liberal in the sense of being more for the expansion of the welfare state or especially for government redistrubtion of income to the less fortunate.  Their support for national health insurance, for example, is prety rapidly declining.

Students, more precisely, are becoming more libertarian or “let alone” when it comes to issues such as same-sex marriage and using marijuana. They agree with liberals (in the sense of progressives) only insofar as today’s liberals tend to be social libertarians.  According to Deneen, the perception that they’re becoming more sensitive and tolerant is equivalent to the perception that they’re becoming more indifferent to the choices and well-being of others.  They’re a lot less about the hate (and that’s good!), but they’re also less about the duties of personal love and civic responsibility (and that’s bad!).  There are, after all, plenty of studies Deneen could have cited that show that today’s young are more narcissistic and less moved by empathy than those of even a decade or two ago.

So, for Deneen, the disturbing thing about today’s students is that they’re in college for the money and the power.  They’re in training to be “capitalist tools.”  They don’t care about liberal education in the old-fashioned sense, and they’re not awed or full of wonder about “the meaning of life.”  They’re not searchers or seekers.  Nor do they view who they are as all about self-sarificing service to family or country or God.

The book by Murray Deneen mentions actually contradicts his more extreme claims.  Murray notices that today’s sophisticated college graduates are rather reliably marrying, having at least a kid or two, and involving themselves in their neighborhoods.  They are indifferent to those not of their class.  But it’s way too much to claim that their lives have been reduced to nothing but selfish exploitation.

I certainly agree with Deneen that one purpose of college ought to be correct the vain libertarianism of the young—of those who have entrepreneurs for heroes, think Ayn Rand novels are inspiring literature, believe that they, in their meritocratic excellence, owe other people and their country nothing, are certain for no good reason that God is dead, actually believe that biotechnology will allow them or give them indefinite longevity, and don’t have the “class” that should come with class.

But my own experience is scratch a vain, libertarian freshman and you find a searcher and a seeker just beneath the surface.  It’s the job of professors to do some scratching.  Genuine liberal education is no harder than it ever was.  It’s just that nobody much in charge thinks that it’s the job of our professors to give it the old college try.  This is the place where I might launch into a Deneen-like rant about assessment, “the bottom line,” soulless administrators, and stuff.

None of this has that much to do with my Berry College, where the freshmen are somewhat less libertarian and a lot more about the service to others and to God.  For them, in some cases, liberal education begins with lightening up.


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