In a recent New York Times column, conservative (in the non-radical way) David Brooks cited a recent study that contends that young people are bad at “thinking and talking about moral issues.” I was struck by the column, not only because I see literature classes as a major way to address the issue, but because I had just learned about Brooks’s own high school upbringing. English teacher Carl Rosin, a regular reader of this blog, has informed me that Brooks graduated from Radnor Township, where Carl teaches.
Suddenly I have a new perspective on an article by Carl that I published recently, “Teaching Integrity in High School English.” Carl puts integrity and ethics at the center of his English courses. His students must wrestle with moral issues and can’t just go with their feelings. Brooks would be obviously be proud of his alma mater since he sees educators and parents as too often falling down on the job, leading to the situation described by the study he mentions:
When asked about wrong or evil, [young people] could generally agree that rape and murder are wrong. But, aside from these extreme cases, moral thinking didn’t enter the picture, even when considering things like drunken driving, cheating in school or cheating on a partner. “I don’t really deal with right and wrong that often,” is how one interviewee put it.
The default position, which most of them came back to again and again, is that moral choices are just a matter of individual taste. “It’s personal,” the respondents typically said. “It’s up to the individual. Who am I to say?”
Rejecting blind deference to authority, many of the young people have gone off to the other extreme: “I would do what I thought made me happy or how I felt. I have no other way of knowing what to do but how I internally feel.”
Reading Brooks’ column got me thinking about another article I read recently in The New Yorker (Sept. 5, 2011) about self-help guru Timothy Ferriss, author of the runaway bestseller The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman. Although author Rebecca Mead never says so overtly (she just lets the facts do the talking), she clearly sees Ferriss as a self-absorbed entrepreneur out to bend everything to his will.
Ferriss claims to draw inspiration from the stoic Seneca and the transcendentalist Thoreau, but both philosophers would be appalled at Ferriss’s unquestioning acceptance of free market capitalism and his lack of interest in social justice. When Seneca calls us to cultivate self possession and Thoreau to live deliberately and to suck the marrow out of life, they don’t have in mind the hyperkinetic program of body building and non-stop self-marketing that Ferriss engages in.
My concern is that many young people today see Ferriss as the kind of life they should aspire to: always on the go in a frenetic attempt to find happiness and make a lot of money. Moral wrestling seems out of place in this world.
An author I’ve just finished teaching provides a warning to narcissistic gurus and the narcissistic societies that make them rich: John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester.
Wilmot was the most notorious rake of the British Resotration and perhaps of English history. Like Ferriss, he strove to “live outside the inbox” (Ferriss’s phrase), preaching a carpe diem philosophy and rebelling against social constraints. In “Satyr against Reason and Mankind,” he calls upon us to follow our animal instincts—eat when we’re hungry, have sex when we feel the urge, be true to our nature.
But Wilmot came to understand the desolation of a life devoted only to pleasure and to self. I think of him as someone who tried to live the life he preached and as a result came to understand its emptiness. “To a Postboy” shows that such a life is hell:
Son of a whore, God damn you, can you tell
A peerless peer the readiest way to Hell?
I’ve outswilled Bacchus, sworn of my own make
Oaths would fright the Furies and make Pluto quake.
I’ve swived more whores more ways than Sodom’s walls
E’er knew, or the college of Rome’s cardinals.
Witness heroic scars, look here, ne’er go,
Cerecloths and ulcers from top to toe.
Frighted at my own mischiefs I have fled
And bravely left my life’s defender dead,
Broke housed to break chastity, and dyed
That floor with murder which my lust denied.
Pox on’t, why do I speak of these poor things?
I have blasphemed my God and libelled kings.
The readiest way to Hell? Come quick, ne’er stir.
The readiest way, my lord, ‘s by Rochester.
Wilmot, incidentally, was also a fan of Seneca. But rather than see the Roman author as enjoining us to seize the moment and control our environment, he considered him rather as a reality check. In “A Fragment of Seneca Translated” he writes that we have this life and this life only:
Let slavish souls lay by their fear
Nor be concerned which way nor where
After this life they shall be hurled.
Dead, we become the lumber of the world,
And to that mass of matter shall be swept
Where things destroyed with things unborn are kept.
Devouring time swallows us whole.
Impartial death confounds body and soul.
Such pessimism awaits us unless we find something beyond ourselves to live for—something beyond just doing what we feel like.
Go here to subscribe to the weekly newsletter summarizing the week’s posts. Your e-mail address will be kept confidential.