“Dueling Weltanschauungen” indeed. Contemporary values are “dueling” not simply between competing worldviews but even within those of individual students. Little wonder that student worldviews have so often appeared incoherent. I have to confess that, compared to the we-shall-yet-be-as-gods hubris of modernity, this shift is not without its appeal, for an acceptance of the limits of human agency is a first step toward remembering that human flourishing depends on knowing that some values transcend human flourishing.
Still, there are undeniably deeply disturbing aspects of postmodernity’s “pluralist” inclination. What does it mean to be a “true believer” in such a worldview-a pariah, perhaps? And when true belief–other than toleration itself-is illegitimate who will stand for the innocent and even the not-so-innocent when the storm troopers knock on their doors? Does toleration as a new sacred value inoculate us against, or will it generate, those storm troopers?
I think that we find ourselves challenged to share our experience and understanding with students who are discomfited by any hint of “privileged” perspectives. Most of us apprehend that some values are in fact absolute-you need not be a religious believer to know that gravity, for example, possesses an authority we deny at our peril–and thus some voices, or at least some ideas and opinions, are superior to others, our duty is to endeavor to subvert that aspect of postmodern culture which often suggests that all such claims are illegitimate.
Contemporary undergraduates inhabit, inherit and inform a new and different western culture. In today’s world, humans are not the center of the universe and they are capable of great evil. Heirs to a broken age, equal parts abundance and emptiness, it should hardly surprise us that our students can seem to have become beloved strangers. What is easier to overlook is how brave they are. Would we do as well were we twenty-year old undergraduates today, facing the challenges and contradictions of the postmodern condition?
The more I have studied the postmodern experience the more it has come to feel like a test, a soul-test of vocation, worldview, and even at least in my own instance faith. It is a test not unlike that one on which Mark Twain’s novel Huckleberry Finn famously turns. We all recall that Huckleberry ultimately obeyed the authority of his personal experience of Jim’s humanity. In this way and contrary to the received wisdom of the day, he knew that he knew that he knew (to borrow an apposite pentecostal truism) that Jim the slave did not have only “half a soul”. It is important to remember that while in hindsight we know that Huck was right, at the time the best he could do was to test one source of authority–his own intuition and experience-against others like tradition (MacIntyre 1984) and the law. After all, Huck had all too much experience of “wantons” like his father, ruled by personal desires overlain with whim, prejudice and caprice (Frankfurt 1988), to have unalloyed trust in exclusive self-referentiality, even his own. He tested his personal experience against society’s rules and this time-this time-found the former more authoritative, even if “I go to Hell.”
1With: Michael Preda, Midwestern State University; Michael Bruner, Humboldt State University; Allen Ketcham, Texas A&M University-Kingsville; Bruce Rosenstock, University of Illinois-Urbana; Martin Brittain, Texas A&M University-Kingsville.