by Tom McBride


Association of Catholic Colleges & Universities,

February 1, 2015, Washington, DC

Tom McBride

Generation gaps are tricky, and their subtlety ranges from the trivial to the profound. At the level of the silly is the mother who tells her fifteen year-old daughter that she will put her “John Hancock” on a school permissions slip, only to have her daughter respond: “Mother, stop talking dirty at your age.” More deeply, the lessons learned by one generation seem irrelevant to the next, as illustrated by how the privation and patriotism of the Greatest Generation made no sense to the far more prosperous Baby Boomers who donned their beads and grew their hair and broke store windows in order to protest the Vietnam War and infuriate Richard Nixon. Yet many of those same Boomers now vote Republican. Perhaps the process of aging has a way of closing generation gaps. Mark Twain said that at seventeen he thought his father the dumbest man alive; when he saw him again several years later he was astonished at how smart the old man had become so very quickly.

The Mindset List Project tracks these changes. When hash tags (#) become the new version of pound (#) it’s the solemn duty of my partner Ron Nief and me to note this fact and to ponder what it means in some larger sense, and we have written two books using this method: The Mindset Lists of American History and The Mindset List of the Obscure—perhaps you detect a pattern in the titles! Because today’s audience is a philosophically inclined group, it would be proper to say that the Mindset List Project traces contingency. The project trades on the irony that the necessity of one generation is the option, or even bane, of another. Some of these discontinuities are so well known that they need only a bare mention. An older generation might think that a white, Christian nation is a necessity. A younger generation might conclude that a multi-cultural nation, a rainbow coalition nation, is both inevitable and desirable. At a more mundane level an older generation believes the youngsters should look up and greet them in a coffee shop. The younger generation thinks its smart phones are far more enticing than some old member of the Silent Generation trying to keep down his decaf. One of my recent students wondered if Peter, Paul, and Mary weren’t just three old people singing harmony and then rushing to the bathroom.

In the past decade, as the cohort of Americans born in the last part of the old century and first part of the new one have come to receive the solidifying label of “Gen Y” or “The Millennials,”researchers have done systematic surveys of their attitudes and expectations, from their self-images to their work habits. Two studies, from Pew and Carnegie, have concluded that today’s “youngers” may be “spiritual,” but they are not “religious.” Carnegie finds that nearly six out of ten profess to have “talked to God” but that a far smaller percentage actually go to church, synagogue, temple, or mosque. The gap between talking to God (spiritual) and going to church (religious) is smallest among African-American young people and greatest among white Millennials. But all Gen Y types in these studies prove to be more spiritual and less religious. (In her response to my remarks Professor Sandra Estanek will explore the nuances of “spirituality” among Catholic college students.)


Meanwhile, another professor, David Campbell of Notre Dame attributes this irreligious attitude to churchly involvement in politics. Because the younger generation is mostly liberal, the promotion of laws against same-sex marriage and abortion by churches has turned them off. You here today are familiar with influential studies of Catholic college students, each study trying to measure the extent to which a Catholic higher education brings students closer to the Catholic faith. One of them, conducted by the Center for Applied Research at Georgetown, finds that students largely disagree with the Church’s teachings about abortion and same-sex marriage while concurring with the Church’s stance about taxation and the death penalty. This would appear to confirm Professor Campbell’s view that college students are mostly liberal and are turned off whenever organized religion takes more traditional positions on social, political, and economic issues. Hence, they are spiritual perhaps, but not religious; they may be individually worshipful but not institutionally sectarian.

Should we hail this turn to spirituality separate from religion? There are some apparent reasons to be glad of it, to the extent of being happy that at least there is an interest in spiritual things. At Beloit College some ten years ago we realized that there was this spiritual hunger, so we hired an able spiritual advisor (in earlier times a chaplain) who not only promoted an ecumenical tolerance for various religious holidays but also established spaces in which students and faculty and staff could speak about matters of ultimate concern and where they could meditate, too. People could talk to God, whatever they meant by God, and talk to one another, too. Some students even mused that perhaps not all reality is material. And they found small, face-to-face communities of like-minded persons.

But is this an exception? Do Millennials generally find community today only online, and is there space for them to discover communities face-to-face—and in what places, sacred or non-scared, may they do so? Professor Esternak will also touch on this question. Here I will comment that students in their on-line communities encounter home pages that change every minute, while cathedrals are nearly always the same in order to represent what is immutable. And students who live in on-line communities are able, for better or worse, to evade parental influence, thus assuring that vertical leverage, which may be more traditionally religious, is trumped by horizontal, peer leverage, which may well be more secular.

In the meantime, one wonders if an occasional spirituality is the same as a habitual religiosity. Is religious life a matter of planned schedules—like other human endeavors such as law or teaching or sewing or painting? Does it take regular practice to get good at it? And in order to get “better” at prayer and forgiveness and hope in the face of pain, does one have to schedule regular goes at these things every week, against standards of perfection that only God can represent? Here I am reminded of Wittgenstein’s commnt to Iris Murdoch that to have only one philosophical discussion is like having only one piano lesson. Even more pointedly, does the spiritual life, as opposed to the religious one, ask you to give up anything that you might really like and not want to do without, and to replace these things with things more informed, as Flannery O’Connor put it, by the far less obvious light of eternity?

Whether or not a spiritual generation will be more humane and merciful than a religious one may become an unanswerable question. It is still a question worth asking over time. And here are two related questions. First, if we are headed towards a minority majority society, in which Hispanic and African Americans will become over fifty percent of the population, what will be the effect of a powerful group that so far has stuck with traditional religious practice? And second, even if today’s better-educated Millennials are spiritual now, might they be religious later in life? The CARA/Georgetown study concluded that Catholic college students are more likely to return to regular mass attendance than Catholic non-college students are. Will this be true of college students overall? Stay tuned.


While we are waiting patiently for these answers, we might ask whether or not this spiritual versus religious thing is just a matter of politics (liberal versus conservative) as Professor Campbell suggests? Or is it just a question of websites replacing cathedrals or peers replacing parents? Might more be going on? I think there’s more, and I once more give it a name: contingency—the notion that nothing is fixed and necessary; that everything is always in flux, including not only trends and memes but also values and God.

Though they rarely get into its philosophical dimensions, Millennials worship contingency, and it is no wonder. Empirical evidence for it abounds. They have grown up in the most rapidly discontinuous change the world has ever seen. To be sure, fast change can occur in wartime, too, but here in the United States we are at peace. That has not stopped the almost instant demise of such antiquated technology as CD players, desktops, cell (as opposed to smart) phones, and the viewing of TV everywhere except on TV. If someone predicts that in five years goggles that project moving images on a wall will replace big screen televisions, a young person will just yawn, and we elders have become so conditioned by this incoherent constancy of change—this omnipotent contingency—that we might just stretch our jaws, too. In such a world it is hard sometimes to envision the eternal, the immutable, the unchanging. How might this affect an abiding tension in higher education: that it should supply the latest theories and information, that it should even risk being trendy in the name of an open-minded pursuit of facts, but that it should also communicate the wisdom of the ages?

What sort of education would be relevant in a world of information being tripled every year, becoming less and less reliable, more and more subject to modification, and less and less connectible in its multifarious bytes to anything transcendentally large?

What is a good education in a world of almost vengeful contingency? Surely it is an education that must always be rooted in the most fundamental aspects of the human condition, for from an early age we are inclined to find out what is true and what is false, what is attractive and what is not, and what is good and what is bad with regard to our fellow Earthlings. If higher ed were an automobile, then Truth, Beauty, and Goodness are presumably the engine, and not just luxury seat covers, for aren’t Truth, Beauty, and Goodness essential to human inquiry from the get-go? At the start of human life this motif may be, “Does Bobby like me? Is this a pretty color? Should I break in line or not?” An education based on these sorts of questions—not the questions themselves but their categories—ought to transcend the various and sundry issues of whether or not Vicodin or cholesterol is good for you or bad for you.

And of course my thoughts here are hardly original. Plato and Aristotle thought citizens should be educated to produce beautiful things, practice good ethics, and theorize about the criteria of truth. St. Thomas Aquinas, following their lead in a theological key, wrote that the great questions had to do with the relationships between one and many, motion and rest, good and bad, necessary and optional, essential and accidental, likeness and difference. And he thought there was perfection in the embodied realization of answers to these questions, and that this perfection was God; and that the striving for answers to these questions was indissolubly linked to the worship of God and inquiry into God’s nature. Here, God is not just one more option to make us feel happy; God is the principle of holiness in the quest for knowledge and loveliness and virtue. Here, God does not reward us for being nice but calls us to join a never-ending search party.

Today’s Millennials are unlikely to become overnight converts to the ideals of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. But they might be rescued from the notion that contingency is all there is. Perhaps their spiritual longings have to do with a quest for something that never changes. And maybe they are ripe for an education that demonstrates

•that the categorical syllogism, with its logic and predications, is an inescapable part of their musing about anything (including the latest hot revelation on BuzzFeed); or

•that proportion and form and color are ineluctable portions of their aesthetic preferences (even if it’s Taylor Swift or the new home page design of Yahoo we are talking about); and

•that their causative relationships with others are indispensable factors in their development as decent human beings (even if we’re only discussing Facebook courtesy).

The special role of Catholic colleges and universities, planted as they are in the traditions of the Good and True and Beautiful, might be to remind a generation obsessed with change that in the face of what does not change—suffering and death—humanity has always sought some universal inspiration. Where is such uplift—at once intelligent and moving—to be found?

I will close with an illustration. Michael Morton was wrongly convicted in Texas of murdering his wife. He had lost his freedom and reputation, and his son no longer wished to see him. One night in prison he asked God to free him and got no answer. Exhausted and bitter, he withdrew to his cell and at random put on his earphones. A radio classical music station was playing harp music. Morton knew he had his answer at last. The music told him he was blessed, and soon enough whether or not his conviction was overturned was less important than an ineffable goodness, truth, and beauty of what seemed to be communicated by the harp. In time, he was freed; DNA found someone else guilty; but in his view that paled compared to the God of the Harp. For Morton, now a professional psychologist, the great question had been, “Why is life so overbearingly unfair?” And he never got an answer to that question, but he did find out an answer to another question: “Does God love me and invite me to keep struggling and searching?” Sometimes the best answer to one vexed question is the answer to another.

Morton’s was a mystical experience, but here today we are thinking about educational experience, right? Yet I wonder if there isn’t a strong bond between the two, for both an ineffable sense of truth and beauty and goodness, and a dedication to learning rooted in its idealism, supply some penetrating answers to Dostoevsky’s “accursed questions,” which have a way of coming round over and over again, quite independent of the latest on Buzz Feed or Flickr. Just ask Michael Morton. As Millennials age, leave college, and attend the School of Hard Knocks, they are less likely to avoid the questions that haunted Mr. Morton. In fifteen years you may see them at mass, wrestling with those same questions, worshiping but also searching.

A good education in fundamental questions is a down-payment in the womb of time.


Tom McBride, along with Ron Nief is co-author of THE MINDSET LISTS OF AMERICAN HISTORY (John Wiley and Sons, 2011); and THE MINDSET LISTS OF THE OBSCURE (Sourcebooks, 2014).

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