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

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Jim Norwine1
Regents Professor of Geography
Texas A&M University-Kingsville


Since 1990, through five distinct phases, my research team has surveyed and assessed the values and worldviews of undergraduates around the world (but primarily in the United States).  Each phase has keyed on a specific theme, including the self or personhood.  The overall objective has been to determine the extent, character and implications of a “postmodern turn”–i.e., a worldview-shift away from both traditional and modern assumptions/values-among tertiary-level students.  Secondary questions explored included, a) whether undergraduates at public universities are “more postmodern” than those who attend private, church-affiliated colleges; and, b) to the degree that a postmodern turn is found, whether undergraduates are in general more inclined to a worldview of extreme self-referentiality (here characterized as “radical postmodern”) on the one hand, or a tested or “anchored” self-referentiality, here termed “transmodern,” on the other. The background, rational and methodology of the work are summarized, as are key concepts such as worldviews and the nature of postmodernity.  Principal findings are reported, including the following:

  1. The worldviews of most undergraduates at most tertiary educational institutions around the world remain partly traditional (e.g., family values) and partly modern (e.g., values associated with technology and individuality).  Interestingly, only the Palestinian students in Gaza were found to be consistently traditional in outlook (e.g., ‘I am willing to die for my country”).
  2. Contemporary student worldviews are now commonly partly postmodern, i.e., do generally reflect a varying degree of a postmodern turn as seen in the fact that majorities to significant minorities identify with and affirm values such as choice, toleration, diversity and the equality of all ideas.
  3. Undergraduates at parochial or church-affiliated colleges are typically more traditional and less postmodern than those at state universities.  However, postmodern values have made inroads even at the most “orthodox” (conservative) Christian colleges.  E.g., forty percent of such students agree that “human and environmental well-being are equally important”; over 20% agree that “heaven is the here and now”; 23% “oppose any limits on my personal freedom/choice” (another 21% was undecided); 26% affirm that “humanity is the center of things”; and nearly as many of these students agree as disagree (39-47%) that every point of view is equally valid.
  4. Students tend to reject most exclusively self-referential (radical postmodern) value-statements (e.g., “I oppose any limits on personal freedom”) but tend to affirm many “transmodern”  (Vitz 2006) values (e.g, “True freedom is freely choosing to be a loving servant”).
  5. Strongly self-referential or “radical postmodern” student worldviews (extant mainly at public universities) tend to a “soft” nihilism (Rorty).  However, while “privileged” values are assumed to be illegitimate, the same undergrads often in fact privilege the necessity of environmental well-being.   Thus, a form of higher or “special significance” (Kolakowski) meaning, albeit perhaps one of “immanent transcendence” (Taylor), is acknowledged.  This implicit recognition, however incoherent, inchoate and intuitive, of a value beyond human flourishing is encouraging.  After all,  “imagination is the organ of meaning” (Lewis).

“…meaning has been in decline for a very long time, almost since the start of civilization…The past five hundred years have elevated us to the status of individuals and reduced us to the status of individuals…vulnerable to meaninglessness-to a world where consumption is all that happens…(we) traded context for individual freedom…We have to, somehow, produce (context) for ourselves; that’s what a modern life is about.”

B. McKibben

Defining Our Terms: Worldviews and Worldviews in Change

Many of us have by now shared a peculiar classroom experience characteristic of these early years of the twenty-first century.  One example may serve to make my point.  In an recent advanced geography seminar a bright female senior, in response to a question about “honor killings” of young Muslim women by brothers and fathers in France and elsewhere in Europe, argued that while she thought honor killings “are terrible I don’t feel that I have the right to impose my values onto another person or another culture.”  This kind of student attitude, now commonplace, sends shivers up the spine of even the most jaded teacher.  After all, if the vitality of a civilizational worldview as expressed by its young has eroded to the point that it is unwilling to defend its core values it seems fair to question its future.

From the start of our project we believed that we had observed, experienced and intuited sufficient changes of student attitude and even behavior to formulate a working hypothesis, i.e., that least some degree of a shift from traditional and modern to a postmodern Weltanschauung (worldview) had occurred or was occurring among many or perhaps most college students.

What do I mean by these terms?  Briefly, values in a Traditional worldview originate with God and are inherited.  As philosopher Charles Tayler puts it, “people recognized something transcendent to their lives, that is, a good which is beyond that of human flourishing” (Taylor 2007).   Personal identity and meaning are derived from one’s place in and contribution to a group or collectivity like tribe or kinfolk.  The sources of authority are sacred and learned texts/persons.  Obedience is more than a mere value, it is essential to survival.    Traditional values such as familial duty were non-negotiable because to do otherwise would have been to rebel against the obvious, true order of things; would, in other words, have been foolhardy, even crazy.

In a Modern worldview the source of authority is objective evidence, and the source of values is science and reason.  Personal meaning and identity are not inherited but discovered (e.g., finding one’s true calling or vocation) and the self has become central.  Technology, progress, and individual worth and merit as positive goods are as unquestioned as the air one needs to breathe (Norwine et al 2006).  Older values like obedience and self-abnegation, so vital in traditionality, come to feel outmoded, quaint, silly.

It is important to note that, while different, absolute values are assumed in both of these worldviews.  In neither a Traditional nor a Modern outlook would the toleration of “all cultures are equal, we have our values, they have theirs” (Kolakowski 1990) make sense.

But now, in Postmodernity, we have moved “to a conflicted age in which the locus of meaning is no longer unproblematically assumed to lie beyond or outside human life but is challenged by many who place it within human life (Taylor 2007).  Very little else is self-evident.  Identity is no longer inherited or even discovered but is provisional and shifting, like grazing over a salad bar, in an endless quest for personal authenticity.  Values are not absolute.  Now, according to the philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend, “the only principle that does not inhibit progress is ‘anything goes’.”  This idea, the antithesis of Dostoevsky’s “If God does not exist, everything is permitted” (Dostoevsky 2002; Cortesi 2007), captures and conveys a sense of what is meant by a Postmodern worldview.  No “privileged” perspectives are permitted, there is no unitary truth “out there,” and the source of authoritative answers is self-referential, that is, based on individual personal experience.

Finally, life and existence itself have become, in the worldview variant we characterize as “radical” postmodern, essentially meaningless.  In the words of comedian Jerry Seinfeld, life is “a show about nothing” (Lansing 2006).   We may, as the brilliant late postmodern philosopher Richard Rorty said, choose soft nihilism or hard nihilism but it nihilism all the way down.  I.e, because “there is no true world” (Nietzsche), nothing,–save power, pleasure and pain–nothing is any really any more important than anything else.  Or, in popular novelist’s telling phrase, nothing is essential.

When Did Postmodernity Begin and What New Values Did It Bring?

I believe that the 20th century experience of the dual success/failure of the modern project-which assumed that technological progress leads to humanistic progress–cannot be underestimated.  The horrors of The Great War and the Holocaust were made possible, were only possible, because of the progressive advances of modern society.   Our noses were brutally rubbed in the reality that not only were we not yet gods, we were never going to be gods.  Moderns were shocked to find that the world’s wisdom (1 Corinthians 3:19) contributed not just to the defense of the good and the innocent but to the evil angel’s  efficacy.  The specter of that failure haunts the children of the 21st century, our students.  Little wonder that they often seem to trust only a small circle of friends.

More pragmatically, a massive body of work by Ronald Inglehart of the University of Michigan suggests that as physical and economic security was realized in the decades following WWII for a large majority in Europe and North America and elsewhere in the developed world, the personal values of many people began in turn increasingly-especially for the young, for whom such security was normal-to shift upward in Maslow’s hierarchy to such “higher” values as quality of life, privacy, choice, animal rights, toleration and the environment (Box 1).

Box 1

  • “Environmentalism,” i.e., environmental well-being as a worldview, including such “primary” values as animal rights,  e.g., “…(journalists) know that a story about cruelty to animals will today always getbigger reaction than one about cruelty to children” (Humphreys 2006);
  • the “right to die”/”death with dignity”;
  • “quality-of-life”/lifestyle (with at least an implied threat to the worth of those too incomplete/impaired/weak to live a full life of sufficient “quality”);
  • privacy;
  • the subjective and the personal over the objective and the universal;
  • toleration, diversity and inclusivity;
  • gay/ethnic/indigenous rights;
  • psychological satisfaction, including meaningful life goals, developing into one’s best self, self-validation, personal spirituality, personal authenticity; and, above all; personal autonomy and choice.

Meanwhile, older collective values-the assumption of marriage and children as essential to happiness is one clear example-ebbed just as quickly.  Leszek Kolakowski calls this the “death of taboos” (Kolakowski 1990).  In fact, human-centered values associated with individual autonomy in particular ascended so conspicuously and completely that it might fairly be argued that they triggered the larger cultural shift: in postmodernity at least, values may have led worldview instead of vice versa.

Thus, for example, while privacy as a fundamental personal value often seemed to elders living in the latter half of the twentieth century to have been invented almost overnight, to have sprung up out of thin air, to many or even most people who grew up during that same period its primacy was obvious.   (Ironically, just as privacy became self-evidently “sacred” many observers argue persuasively that privacy is already technologically obsolete, archaic, as much a thing of the past as maypoles and girdles [Froomkin 2000].)

This transformation to “postmodern” worldview and values unfolded so rapidly, and so completely, that, at least until the tragedy of 9/11, its not-so-eventual triumph seemed guaranteed.  Although that outcome, like Fukuyama’s proposed “end of history,” may no longer be assured, our research demonstrates that at least in the developed world the momentum and urge to “higher” values like choice continues to gather pace.

It is important to recall that while a given worldview dominates among a group it may be thought of as a cultural condition, even the cultural condition for a particular society.  The example of the long centuries of European Christendom comes to mind.  Such a worldview offers an explanatory means which might be thought of as a latticework by which to ascend to true knowledge, but each is also a kind of closed or “magic” circle (Koestler 1967) within which all other knowledge must fit and outside of which lies only fantasy, ignorance or heresy.

Worldviews do change but very, very infrequently.  There have in fact only been a handful of truly major worldview shifts through all of human history.  Because they last so long, and because each seems absolute and self-evident while it does persist, when a worldview dies and is replaced by another the effect is vastly greater than the upset associated with a change of zeitgeist.  Apprehension of the essential nature of the world, of life, even of our individual selves, undergoes drastic and fundamental revision when one Weltanschauung replaces another among a culture or society: the Europe prior to and the Europe following the birth of science and modernity seem in more ways than not different places entirely.

Contrasting the Modern and the Postmodern

Postmodernity is at once anti-traditional and anti-modern, rejecting as it does both a) the Judeo-Christian-Muslim assumption of mankind’s special “greatness and dignity” (Kolakowski 2001) and b) modernity’s assumption of the human ability, necessity even, to make the world a better place.  It is thus not surprising that many inhabitants of today’s western world are troubled by an uncomfortable feeling that things no longer seem to quite add up, make sense or feel “right.” Why?

If one asks, what if anything is fundamentally different about a postmodern outlook? one must I think point to a crucial inversion of freedom and limits.  Where once we inherited limits and cobbled together personal freedom as best we could, now that relation is exactly reversed.  For tens of thousands of years a universal of our condition was one of inherited more-or-less fixed limits-where we lived, what we did for a living, etc.–and our great challenge was to somehow find freedom within those assumed constraints.  Although the precise character of the inherited confines certainly changed, this was for all practical purposes the human condition.  The upside was that these inherited constraints could act as lattices upon which one might grow vine-like toward meaning.  The downside was, as Spinoza observed, that these same limits and rules could, by instilling not virtue but obedience, breed faux meaning: “so that they will fight for slavery as for salvation and not think it shameful…”  (Spinoza quoted by Dirda 2007).

In postmodernity, personal freedom has become an assumed, almost sacred, “absolute,” and the great challenge for contemporary students is to find or invent limits which can give meaning or significance to their radical freedom.  And, notwithstanding Rorty”s “soft” nihilism (Oventile 2007), it remains unclear whether this is “doable”, that is, whether a condition of self-created lives is now or ever possible, much less desirable.  Put rather simplistically, if it is we may have arrived at the beginning of the beginning of a thrilling new meaning of what it means to be human.   If it is not it may be the beginning of the end of all meaning, including that of “humanness” itself.

Undergraduate Worldviews and Values: Our Research Project and Its Findings

By and large our current students’ great-grandparents’ and even their grandparents’ experience was largely one of modernity.  While their outlooks retained important aspects of traditionality, if many only symbolic, they were mostly moderns rather than traditionals, because they expected to mainly discover rather than inherit their calling and identity even as they read their Bible and studied their John Dewey.  But, things change.  Now, students-well, all of us, really–may choose to be devout or logical or kind but we choose to do so and next week we may choose not to.  The cultural condition we inhabit has become such that the “sacred” or non-negotiable value in all this is not devotion, reason, or self-giving, which are but options, but choice itself.  Thus, the experience of most contemporary undergraduates seems likely to be mostly an essentially postmodern experience to a very considerable degree.

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.”

Consistently through four cycles of surveying and across a multiplicity of locations and institutions, four principal patterns have emerged (Box 2):

Box 2

1.        Nearly everywhere, undergraduate worldviews tended to reflect traditional and modern values to a considerable extent;

2.        Nearly everywhere, some evidence of a self-referential “postmodern turn” was found in the worldviews of many if not most contemporary undergraduates;

3.        This “turn” to self-referentiality was in general much more pronounced and accelerated among students at state universities, who tended in general to be more postmodern than students attending church-affiliated colleges; but,

4.        A smaller but clear degree of a shift to postmodern values was evident among many students at even the most conservative or “traditional” of church-affiliated campuses.

Each of these patterns was repeatedly and consistently revealed across all our survey phases.  A few representative examples of typical response-patterns in each instance may serve to make the point (Box 3):

Box 3

  • Traditional values such as family, honor, duty, and hard work were affirmed by 80-90% of students regardless of locale or institutional type.
  • Modern values such as individual merit, technology, progress, change and science were typically affirmed by majorities, usually sizeable majorities.
  • Postmodern values tended to be validated by many more undergraduates at public universities than at parochial or church-affiliated colleges. For example, nearly 70% of the former compared to less than 40% of the latter affirmed that “everybody’s point of view is equally valid,” and where a majority of the former agreed that “my only duty is to be true to me,” 96% of the church-college students rejected this statement. I was particularly struck in our 2001-2002 and 2003-2004 studies by a clear impulse toward what might be called radical toleration or anti-judgmentalism: although overwhelming majorities everywhere affirmed that, indeed, “some values are superior to others,” fully 50% of public university undergraduates agreed that “teaching any particular value as better than another is wrong,” while only 27% disagreed. (For the church-college group the respective percentages were 13-67.) Here we seem to encounter a worldview in which in principle some values are absolute but in practice nearly anything goes…
  • Postmodern values have made inroads everywhere, including even the most “orthodox” (conservative) Christian colleges. E.g., forty percent of parochial college students agreed that “human and environmental well-being are equally important”; over 20% agreed that “heaven is the here and now”; 23% “opposed any limits on my personal freedom/choice” (another 21% was undecided); 26% affirmed that “humanity is the center of things”; and, as noted earlier, nearly as many of these students agree as disagreed (39-47%) that every point of view is equally valid.

There were of course other intriguing patterns.  A particularly striking one was our discovery in 1992 (perhaps somewhat presciently?) that only the Palestinian students at the College of Science and Technology, Gaza, had a coherently traditional worldview.  In contrast to the roughly 50-50 response nearly everywhere else to the statement, “I am willing to die for my country,” for instance, 100% of the Palestinian students agreed, and most strongly agreed.  Where the worldviews of students at every other institution we have surveyed over the years reflected varying admixtures of traditional, modern and postmodern values, traditional values were uniquely dominant in Gaza.

A second contrast we found was that the state university students’ tended in general and more frequently to affirm modern statements and, strikingly, those expressive of a radical postmodern worldview, while the church-affiliated students’ values tended more commonly to affirm transmodern as well as traditional values.  For example, a plurality of the “secular” (state university) students agreed with the benchmark Modern statement that “only education can save us” while only 17% of the parochial undergrads agreed; and, in response to the quintessentially Radical Postmodern statement that “my only duty is to be true to me,” 50% of the state university students but only 2% of the church college undergrads agreed.

Finally, it is interesting to consider the average statement-responses of the undergraduates at some distinctly different kinds of institutions.  For instance, this table (Box 4) provides some comparisons from our 1992 Phase II international study.  I invite each of you to reflect for a few moments on the near-unanimity in some cases (e.g., the importance of friendship and the affirmation of hopefulness over despair) and of extreme difference in others, such as the necessity of children for a happy life or the equality of ideas.

Box 4

Comparative Responses at Five Distinctive Institutions

Phase II. International Student Worldviews 1992


% Agreement**

Statement                                                                             1     2     3     4     5

“Live free or die” is a motto that I accept.                  42  33  85  100  54

Merit should be the basis for status in society.           31  18  74   82   62

Cigarettes should be banned.                                      62   55  55  70   50

Sometimes violence is necessary.                               57   72  45  80   41

Personal sacrifice is essential for happiness.              64   58  93  90   33

A white person can understand a black person.          40   94  97  94   28

A man can understand a woman.                                47   62  92  65   56

Friendship is important to me.                                     88  98  97  92   96

My ideas are as good as…an authority’s.                     82   71  98  16   38

I am more hopeful…than despairing.                          80   80  91  82   80

I would be willing to live in poverty if…content.       14   68  56  94   75

One must have children to have a happy life.               4    8    87  81   18

(Sex before) marriage is morally wrong.                     39   88  37  84   40

All ideas have equal worth.                                          67  36  82   18   10

I am willing to die for my country.                                7   58  56  100  27

*1=Grambling State U., LA, USA; 2=Colorado Christian College, CO, USA; 3=Vina del Mar University, Chile; 4=College of Science and Technology, Gaza; 5=University of South Korea, Seoul, S.K.**Where agreement = % strongly agree + agree or strongly disagree + disagree.

The Fourth Phase: “Postmodern Environmentalism.”

Probably the most important challenge facing humanism today is the growing culture of misanthropy: the powerful mood of disenchantment with humanity and its potential for playing a positive and creative role.  And the sources for this sentiment are mostly secular, not religious (Furedi 2006).

In Phase IV we explored the question, what place does environment occupy in the value-scapes of contemporary college students?  We aspired in particular to address the riddle of what might be termed “postmodern environmentalism.”  By now we had concluded that contemporary college undergraduates typically presume-or are at least beginning to incline toward a presumption of–the essentially autonomous and self-referential nature of authority.   Dubiety is their default presumption regarding inherited/imposed or so-called “privileged” propositions.  And, to be fair, such skepticism seems logically consistent with their experience of a cultural condition in which it often seems that a) everything is negotiable because nothing is obvious or “simply true,” and in which b) personal experience is determinative of choices and answers. Even postmodernity’s would-be “sacred” values-personal freedom/choice and toleration/diversity-are secondary to self-referential authority.

Yet-and here one enters the maze-our own experience of the same cultural condition suggested that today environmentalism is more than just another menu-option, indeed is perceived as one which must be privileged because it is in fact simply true.  Thus the puzzle of postmodern environmentalism: only personal experience is authoritative…but unlike even choice and toleration the value of environmental well-being in general, or even of a particular 2,000-year old redwood tree, trumps self-referentiality itself.

It struck me that the findings of this environment-oriented theme of Phase IV might prove illuminating, perhaps even defining.  In environmentalism we seem to be dealing not just with an important value embedded within a larger master narrative, such as postmodern choice, but with an emerging alternative worldview itself.

The detailed results of Phase IV are presented in your monograph, but as time is short I’ll only mention two patterns revealed in the environment-oriented student values that seemed singularly noteworthy.  First, the worldviews of these American undergraduates, while still very traditional and somewhat modern in a number of regards, do clearly reflect an ongoing or unfolding paradigm shift.  We found that for a significant minority of students environmentalism is their worldview, and that environment is a favored value for a majority of college students who, in varying degrees across institutional divides, “think green”-e.g., only 13% of the students at the relatively conservative church-affiliated campuses agreed that it “doesn’t matter if I mess up Earth if I have a relationship with God”.    Strikingly, 75% of the state university undergraduates and 40% of the Christian college students agreed that “environmental well-being is as important as human well-being.”

This is a rather big deal.  Environment has clearly become an important value in student Weltanschauungen and is almost certainly still ascending in importance, perhaps already at rough parity with the other contemporary non-negotiable values of personal freedom, choice, toleration, and diversity and, who knows, perhaps even heading toward  hegemony over not just consumer capitalism but self-referentiality itself…

Secondly, it was revealed that while environment is a more “sacred” value to the secular than to the church-affiliated students, neither group is much inclined to actually make some personal sacrifice for environmental well-being.  And, strikingly, the secular university students, although typically strongly pro-environment, tended to be even less sanguine about accepting actual lifestyle sacrifices than students attending parochial colleges.  Environment as a sacred value for which few seem yet willing to sacrifice.  Hummm.  I confess that I am reminded of the chasm between my Christian value of loving enemies and the reality of my lived-life…


…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.

“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.”

Thank you.


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.