Several months ago, I attended a presentation outlining the attributes of the generation of students that dominate today's universities, the so-called 'Millenials' or Generation Y (those born since 1980). The presenter (Michael Meeks from San Francisco State University) described a number of characteristics of this generation that can make higher education, at least in the ways it's typically organized and delivered, challenging for them. Some of these are familiar: a technology-induced desire for instant gratification; a general lack of written literacy; a delayed onset of maturity traceable in part to helicopter parents; a culture of relentless self-esteem boosting that leaves them ill-equipped to deal with the first confrontations with academic diversity, and at its worst, fosters a sense of entitlement or narcissism. These characteristics are doubly challenging for those of us teaching philosophy — a discipline that rewards patience, intellectual independence, humility, and strong verbal skills!
There was, however, one particular feature of Millennials that Meeks mentioned that got me thinking about teaching ethics, and in particular, the sort of sensibility needed for students to profit from the study of philosophical ethics. (I'll just call this 'the ethical sensibility'.)
Certain Millennial traits actually seem to be part of the ethical sensibility. Millennials are supposed to be socially conscious, and in my experience, this generally holds true. Most of the students I teach think it's important to be ethically good and are at least minimally sensitive to ethical considerations. Of course, every course has its cynics or moral skeptics, but they've been in the minority. On top of that, Millennials tend to be confident and optimistic, owing to their Boomer parents arranging an orderly and generous environment for them. It's hard to imagine students being motivated to think about ethical questions if they think that ethical problems are intractable or irresoluble.
But here's the flip side to their optimism: I've observed that Millennials are alarmed by the prospect of even apparent ethical dilemmas or conflicts. I gather that many of use ethical dilemmas and conflicts as teaching tools — as ways of illustrating theoretical differences, highlighting salient features of the issue under discussion, etc. But I've noted that students try their best to avoid having to make a difficult ethical choice. Some efforts along these lines are actually welcome. For example, students often respond to dilemmas or conflicts by asking for additional facts that (they hope) will dissolve the dilemma or conflict in question. This desire for a full empirical picture of the situation at hand is something I think we should encourage. At the same time, you can't just stipulate facts in order to avoid hard ethical analysis and deliberation. I can think of several exchanges with my students that have gone something like this:
CHOLBI: So Student, what do you think Mr. A should do in this situation?
STUDENT: If P is true, Mr. A should definitely X.
CHOLBI: P isn't true (Or: We don't know if P is true.)
STUDENT: I don't know (Or: (awkward silence))
I've also had students become angry or disengaged in response to this kind of dialectic, lashing out at me or at the subject matter because the facts just don't line up so as to yield simple resolutions to ethical dilemmas or conflicts.
I'm curious if others have had similar experiences and how the issue might be approached pedagogically. The Millennial sensibility is optimistic with respect to ethics: It's epistemologically optimistic, holding that even apparent conflicts and dilemmas dissolve with a dash of additional empirical facts. It's metaphysically optimistic in that it supposes that the world is normatively unified rather than fragmentary — that whatever the ethically right thing to do is leaves no residue or regrets. These are substantive methodological commitments, but I think students have to earn their right to these commitments by considering the possibility that such commitments are misguided — and to do that they have to take the ethical dilemmas and conflicts we propose to them at face value. The ethical sensibility necessary to profit from the study of philosophical ethics isn't hostile to Millennial optimism but it is not especially compatible with an uncritical optimism.
Or so it seems to me.