Telling The Truth To A Skeptical Millennial Village

millennialsMost of the students I teach are so-called Millennials. A few generations ago Americans were raised by parents. Then they were raised by the television. This generation was raised by the computer and related (mostly mobile) media. As Thomas de Zengotita has noted, the modern world is paralyzed by “options.” This is especially true of Millennials. They’ve been presented with so many choices throughout their lives that they find it very difficult to make choices for fear of missing out on something. I understand this intellectually, I see it but it’s difficult for me to relate to it. I had more choices than my parents but the world in which I was raised was more like theirs than it was like that in which the Millennials have been raised. My parents chose to raise us, in certain respects, in an old-fashioned way. I mowed the lawn with a manual push-mower (no engine) until we got an electric mower (that required running a cord through a window). There was no snow blower for us. I was the snow blower. We had three channels on TV. I’m still impressed by high def color TV, a multiplicity of channels, and air conditioning. Millennials, of course, assume these things as basic. They’ve been bombarded with sophisticated, demographically targeted ads to which, I’m told, they’ve developed an equally sophisticated filter. Indeed, my experience tells me that Millennials have been conditioned to be skeptical about all mass messages, whether ads or lectures. In their world, nothing really counts unless it is delivered personally, in the form of a text message to their phone. I haven’t figured out how to send my lectures in the form a text message and I’m reasonably sure it isn’t going to happen anytime soon.

They’ve been so bombard at the very same time they’ve been told (and apparently persuaded) that the world around them is an arbitrary social construct. They probably know intuitively that food doesn’t just appear in the market but, in their experience, it does. Yet, paradoxically, they some of them are foodies” of some sort. Their practical alienation from nature and their theoretical rejection of the idea of nature—any such thing as nature or fixity or what Ken Myers calls “giveneness”—means that they regard claims about what is “natural” as arbitrary and thinly disguised, illegitimate attempts to wield authority.

These factors and others contribute to a kind of Gnosticism: skepticism about sense experience. The real is the screen and the screen is real, which, paradoxically requires them to believe their eyes. Perhaps we should speak of a selective skepticism. Because their skepticism is incomplete, they are minded to believe that there is secret knowledge “out there” somewhere (e.g., an unwritten apostolic tradition). Some of them seem content to rest on implicit faith, a trust that authorities whom they don’t know have possession of what they themselves do not and probably cannot know. This is part of the attraction of Orthodoxy and Romanism to evangelicals. Epistemic skepticism produces despair and the only way out seems to be blind, implicit faith in the Roman magisterium or in an exotic Orthodox tradition and metropolitan. This is combined with a deep-seated belief in autonomy, which they exercise in choosing which claimant to “apostolic tradition” they are, paradoxically, autonomously choosing going to trust.

How is this possible? Their Baby-boomer parents, buoyed by the Reagan prosperity, needy for approval from their children and to demonstrate their “success,” vowed to bear any burden, to pay any price to make sure that their children had it all. So, Mom and Dad stood in line at midnight for the latest Christmas toys. They turned off the scoreboard so that no one’s self-esteem would be damaged. They  poured record amounts of money into schools and, as it has since the 1950s, the market responded to the Boomers. Where my university was dingy and depressed in the late 70s and early 80s, today it is flourishing and bursting at the seams with new buildings and dorms offering residential suites (with private bathrooms). College education is a big business fueled by boomer bucks. When schools and educators were relatively poor they had little at stake financially. Today, selected university faculty (in business or the sciences) earn salaries that rival some football coaches and administration (pushed by the Department of Education) swarm the campus, devouring federal funds like a plague of locusts. There’s little incentive to upset the fiscal apple cart by telling the truth to Millennials and to their parents.

Millennial children of the Boomers have been doted upon by parents and teachers alike but they’ve been cheated by their pre-schools, grammar schools, middle schools, high schools, and universities. As a class they are bright but not as well educated as they’ve been told they are. Remarkably, they are all above average but many of them are not prepared to write a serious research paper or listen to a lecture and distill from it what is important. They seem to have limited knowledge of the history of the West except the conviction that it has been imperialist and that capitalism is bad. Judging by what I read in the press, apparently their high school teachers and university profs aren’t all that different.

My (tweener) generation was raised and educated in a culture largely shaped by World War II (who were in their 40s when I was born), the Korean War (those vets were in their 30s when I was born) and Vietnam (those vets were in their teens and 20s when I was born). In the 60s through the mid-70s, there was a quasi-military ethos in the schools in which I was (occasionally) educated. We lined up. We marched to lunch, to playground, and to field trips. I remember being shocked and thrilled by the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” the first time I heard it on an AM car radio. It was quite unlike the staid film-strips and educational films we saw in school. There were occasional outbursts of rebellion (e.g.,  the “hippies,” at whom we marveled)  but they were put down quickly and sometimes with force. This was no golden age but it was different. It was ordered and disciplined. For the most part, conformity was valued more than creativity. I sometimes tell the story of one of my Greek profs at university, who, through the course of a Homer seminar, intentionally reduced the enrollment from 15 to 5 hardy souls, whose academic standards and pedagogy would be unthinkable today and whose last concern was our self-esteem. Think The Paper Chase but in Greek. 

In contrast, the Millennials have been raised in a regime in which education is regarded as a creative, cooperative project in which their evaluation of the teacher is as important as the teacher’s evaluation of them, in which their experience is more important than actually learning the material. They’ve been conditioned to be radical social democrats and they don’t know it. The collapse of the Berlin Wall and of Soviet totalitarianism is ancient history. They are post post-modern. They assume that everything is a social construct just waiting for them to deconstruct it. As one website, devoted to Millennials, has it: “You can change the story.” Perhaps, but can they read the story? Can they write one and if they can’t, who will tell them and at what risk?

What now? Part of the remedy to persuade Millennials to “see something, say something.” Paul and at least some of the Apostolic Fathers, and most of the Reformed tradition assumed the general reliability of sense experience. The screen is mediating an artificial reality. There is a more fundamental reality beyond the screen. In this respect, Their burgeoning concern to eat “slow food” and the like should be encouraged. Some of them are actually leaving suburbia and moving to rural areas. These seem like a positive steps toward recovering nature. The world was made to be known and we were made to know it. Against the Gnostics, the Apostolic Fathers and the Apologists in the second century affirmed the essential goodness and perspicuity of creation as did the Reformed churches.

A corollary to the first is the essential perspicuity (clarity) of Holy Scripture. Christian Millennials need be encouraged to recover the ancient Christian and Reformation doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture. What must be known from Scripture for salvation and the Christian life, can be known.

7. All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them (Westminster Confession of Faith, 1.7)

There is no secret, unwritten apostolic tradition preserved by a magisterium in the Orthodox or Romanist communions. The claim to possess such developed out of exaggerated polemics and apologetic responses to sectarians and heretics that got out of hand. It’s a myth. Ironically, Millennials who turn to Rome or Orthodoxy for relief from late modernity are actually submitting to a story that really does need to be deconstructed.

The truth is that everything we need to know about salvation and the Christian life is in God’s Holy Word and the church catholic has been reading that Word together for two millennia. It isn’t all about “control, authority, and power.” It’s about truth, what is and that truth, God’s truth, can be known in Scripture.

Obviously, I think someone should tell the truth to Millennials about what’s happened to them. There is a way forward but it won’t be easy. They are capable of learning but are we willing to risk their disapproval by telling them the truth?

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  1. Thank you, Dr. Clark. Your post has helped in analyzing what I have intuitively felt re: education today.

    A few stories and a summary:

    1. My wife is a speech pathology professor at a university (grad school students). I taught church history at a classical Christian school. When she read some of the essays from my ninth graders, she noticed the ninth grade essays were far superior to papers she had received from grad students.

    2. My wife had to attend a seminar where the audience was told that in order to effectively teach the students, the professors had to use the latest technology in the smart room: students would text their answers instead of speaking publicly, etc. After an hour of being told that profs had to dumb down their lectures and use gadgetry suitable for a sixth grader, a very stately, “old school” professor who had been quiet during the extravaganza asked a question during the Q and A time. He asked in a James Earl Jones voice,

    “Can they read?”

    3. I grew up in your generation. I confess we had major weirdness (colleges being set on fire, Woodstock, etc). Yet all things considered, I miss the “technology-free” school days! They had less distraction and it seems that students actually learned to read and write, etc.

    4. I spent a summer in Papua New Guinea. No computers, no iPads or i anything, no cell phones. Little electricity. All we had were Bibles with paper pages, notebooks, pens and pencils. It was glorious. We actually talked with one another.

    5. I don’t like racism, prejudice, or slavery. Yet I love the South. Why? because at its heart is a love for Agrarian life… and a tender affection for a “sense of place” and being tied to the land. Therefore, history matters in the South. All of this brings simplicity and genuineness to the southern mind. Thus, for example, there is a great love for the arts and great literary output. God’s beautiful creation is observed and time is taken to stop and appreciate it and to write about it. In an industrial hyper technology world, these things are virtually impossible to value.

    6. Point number five (above) splashes into our view of the Lord’s Supper and the means of grace. We may be offended by their simplicity and “banality.”

    7. RC Sproul got a lot done with a chalk board.

    Summary: Technology is good and helpful (I use google and email quite often and I am not against Kindle, etc!). Yet I believe in the end, technology brings more damage than good.

    We can’t seem to handle it.

  2. I’m a boomer. I teach Millennials psychology and organizational behavior. In my estimation, they’re still the same as us – fallen humans. With hearts which still ache for truth, though numbed by postmodernist relativism. They are still aching for ‘truth and grace’, and that is why only Christ, and His gospel of justification, is their only hope. Perhaps coming only lately to the Reformed persuasion, I feel it more keenly. However, I am determined to teach and share that faith of Christ to these Millennials. However much we do not appreciate the ‘Donut Man’, his message is still potent – ‘there’s a hole in the middle of our hearts’, and only Christ, His Person and work of justification, can more than fill it.

  3. After reading Augustine, I have a sneaking suspicion that the pluralistic, jaded, cosmopolitan and sophisticated world of the fifth century/late antiquity was actually a whole lot more like post-modernity than we are used to imagining.

    • Well history does repeat itself. After taking just an intro course on Western Civ after 1600 (nothing too in depth) I came to see post modernism as a repackaged romanticism. I believe Dr. Clark noted the same thing in his RRC.

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