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

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…if there was one thing that people were willing to pay for, it was personal significance.  They’d pay large amounts of money for the thing, substance, or condition that set them apart from their peers and make them seem special (Dietz 1993).

A hitherto uncharted, multidimensional domain of geographic phenomena can be detected hovering over the surface of the United States: the world of virtually unconstrained personal impulse (Zelinsky 1974).

We have changed from a condition in which most people lived “naively” to one in which almost no one is capable of this (Taylor 2007).

We assume the absolute validity of our current values, which gives us a sense of moral superiority to the benighted past (Beauchamp 2007).

I have returned-not entirely unscathed–from my years of exploring the thickets of student valuescapes with a few hard-learned lessons concerning what “being-in-the-world-is-truly-like” for early 21st-century undergraduates.

The single most important finding of our research is that contemporary students share a worldview that is, in varying degrees, a mixture of traditional, modern, and postmodern.  Family (a traditional value), technology (modern) and personal choice (postmodern), for example, are all assumed to be non-negotiable values.  Put another way, we have surveyed several dozen colleges and universities and have yet to find even one student body (again excepting the Palestinian students in Gaza) whose shared worldview is singularly traditional, modern or postmodern.  Rather, they seem to reflect an acceptance of what Taylor (2007) calls “navigating between one ‘engaged‘ standpoint, living as best they can a particular worldview and set of values, and a ‘disengaged‘ one in which they, if only inchoately, see themselves  as occupying one standpoint among a range of possibilities”.

If everywhere we discovered student values which reflect an eclectic mixture of dueling Weltanschauungen, the future remains unclear.  Our work verifies that self-referentiality as a, or even the, locus of personal authority is in the ascendancy and indeed is one of the principal ways we can distinguish between “postmodern” and “modern” worldviews.  Our results also confirm that “postmodern” values like a privileging of personal choice and the horizontality or equality of ideas (e.g., an intolerance of “judgmentalism”) are affirmed by majorities or significant minorities at almost all of the institutions surveyed.

On the other hand, we have found that, if anything, undergraduate Weltanschauungen often seem more inclined to include or incorporate values which are more properly thought of as “transmodern” than “radical postmodern”.   This finding seems particularly intriguing, for it suggests a rejection of hegemonic self-referentiality in favor of an embracing of a “testing” (Taylor 1989) of the authority of personal experience against that of one or more “others” like nature, people, or God.  Much more than their predecessors, for example, students today believe that all voices must be heard and valued, particularly those which have been marginalized.  To identify with the other is no small thing, as I am reminded when my grandsons root for the Indians rather than the cowboys as we watch an old western.

I am of course referring to a genuine enlargement of outlook.  A rejection of the known in favor of the unknown or the other as an expression of mere cultural fashion is precisely the opposite, a narrowing of vision and experience.  In other words, it is my hope that my grandsons’ identification with “the Indians” is not because the Indians were better than the cowboys-it would be patronizing and demeaning to consider native peoples as anything other than fully human, i.e., less than angels, more than beasts, just like you and me–but because they were different, interesting and, as with all those of divine-image, more than valuable: precious.