“Competing Contemporary Values: Traditional, Modern, Radical Postmodern and Transmodern”

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Although a bit simple-minded, one way to characterize the manner in which we have endeavored to apprehend and assess student values is to imagine a worldview scale with Dostoyevsky at one end, the “traditional” end, and Feyerabend on the other, postmodern, end. (A “modern” position, confident that there is in fact one truth “out there,” would fall roughly in the middle).  Where, we asked ourselves, do contemporary undergrads fall on this spectrum and, so what?

When I first became interested in this question in the late 1980s I surveyed the social science literature and was surprised to discover that although sociologists and others had conducted many studies of ethics, very little had been done on values per se.  (Later I found out why: It is one thing to ask an ethical-behavior question like, “Would you return a wallet you found in the lavatory?”  Worldviews and values are a whole ‘nother thing.  They are so rich and deep, ambiguous and elusive, that although the fundamental bases of ethical decisions, they do not readily lend themselves to empirical study.  Hence, rather than truly scientific I think of our work as “exploratory” (which seems quite appropriate for an venture led by a geographer…).

I then assembled a multi-disciplinary team which began our studies in 1990 with the development of a questionnaire of about 100 statements to which surveyed students would respond on a Likert strongly agree-to-strongly disagree scale.

This questionnaire was administered to about 1,600 undergraduates at three public universities in Texas in 1991.  Among the findings we reported were strong identification with “traditional” values such as honor and family as well as “modern” values like self-expression and technology.  However, we also found that 50%-70% of the respondents agreed with expressions of two postmodern themes: (a) the radical equality of all ideas and values (e.g., “all ideas have equal worth”), and (b) the celebration/elevation of personal choice and toleration (e.g.,”happiness is whatever makes me feel good”).

Since that beginning, through four distinct cycles we have surveyed thousands of undergraduates at about 30 colleges and universities around the world (but mainly in the U.S.).  Nearly half these institutions have been church-affiliated colleges while most of the others were large secular state universities, with a few private secular schools (e.g., Harvard University) mixed in.  Each phase utilized a unique questionnaire instrument designed to plumb a specific value-theme, such as personhood and environment.

For example, in Phase Three our goal was to plumb the students’ responses to determine the extent to which their “personhood” or identity might be characterized as Traditional, Modern, Radical Postmodern or Transmodern:

  • In a Traditional worldview human flourishing in general and self-realization in particular were transcended by another/other value(s). An example of a Traditional statement from our survey would be “On my own, I am nothing.”
  • What was peculiar to the Modern world(view) was (I am quoting Taylor again) “the rise of an outlook where the single reality giving meaning…is a narrative of human self-realization (my italics), variously understood as the story of Progress, or Reason and Freedom, or Civilization or Decency or Human Rights…” (Taylor 2007).  A typical statement example might be, “The problems of society can be solved through the application of science and technology.”
  • In the variant we characterize as Radical Postmodern, any lingering doubt is long-gone.  Nothing trumped or topped human flourishing/self-realization.  In fact, anyone who suggests otherwise seems quaint at best, more likely crazy and frankly dangerous. As Taylor puts it, transcendence has been abandoned and thus any “higher” meaning lost.  Statement example:  “The best humankind can do is try to create meaning out of individual lives.”
  • Finally, “Transmoderns?” are, I think, those struggling to recapture transcendence and meaning.  Sometimes this takes the form of a traditional religion more or less orthodox in substance but one fairly radically altered experientially (the “emergent” movement among Christian evangelicals, the “new age” version of Sufism commonly practiced in the United States and, among Jews, Chabad or Bratslaver Chasidism, all may be examples).   My favorite Transmodern statement is, “True freedom is freely choosing to be a loving servant.”