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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
(more on the Journal)

Fall 2008
Vol. 35 No. 3

Dueling Weltanschauungen: Contemporary Collegiate Worldviews
Part I

Jim Norwine11                                                               

We live during a period of millennial change in the Western worldview—a revolutionary time, intellectually speaking, not unlike Plato’s and Descartes’. One worldview, the modern mechanical worldview, is gradually giving way to another.  Who knows what future historians will call it—the organic worldview, the ecological worldview, the systems worldview—?  (Because) we don’t know now what it will become we call it (postmodern) while we wait..2

Those of us of a certain age, startled to find ourselves inhabiting a new century and millennium, can readily identify with Mark Twain, who complained in 1910 of having outlived his century, and with Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in 1825 of living amidst those who “know us not and whom we know not.”  The experience which left Twain and Jefferson feeling cast adrift in an alien time was that of crossing the boundary between zeitgeists, that is, between the spirit of one age and that of another.  Zeitgeists are important.  If as is sometimes claimed the “spirit” of the twentieth century, the American century, was born as utopian dreams died in 1914-18 along with millions in World War I, and ended with a new burst of optimism with the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, the spirit of the early twenty-first century already seems as elusive as it is unlike its predecessors—e.g., has history ended with the triumph of western modernity3 or is it now “the West against the rest”.4  Uncertainty may well be the anthem of this age: it speaks volumes when the inhabitants of the sole hyper power are as dubious about the future as Americans almost universally appear to be.  Sometimes these changes are between generations, sometimes between centuries, but they do come and go.  Those who live to a great age are consequently almost certain to share the outlander-at-home experience of Twain and Jefferson.  In other words, changes of zeitgeist are unsettling but essentially normal. 

Worldview shifts on the other hand are quite another thing: continental plates in collision where zeitgeist thresholds are by comparison mere speed bumps.  These changes are such a big deal it is hard to exaggerate their significance.  This first hit home to me about twenty-five years ago, when it struck me that our cultural values and assumptions, as reflected in normative behavior and attitudes, seemed to be changing in interesting and maybe important ways.  For example, where once people dressed in ties and jackets or dresses in public settings like ball games and airports, today tee shirts, baggy shorts, pajamas, even uncovered lingerie and underwear are standard attire.  Student sensibilities in particular appeared unlike those of a few generations previous.  They tended to wander in and out of class quite unselfconsciously, for example.  I was even more intrigued by what appeared to be a new locus of student perspectives on life and the world.  They seemed, in a word, self-referential

Max Weber, sociology’s colossus, proposed that authority has three forms, traditional, rational and “charismatic.”5 The latter he characterized as “wild and disruptive, derived from the exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character of an individual person.”6 This is what roughly I mean by describing students as “self-referential,” that their default mode of authority, how they answered tough questions, was neither the sage or sacred text of traditionality nor the rational, objective evidence of modernity.  Rather, it was personal experience.  Is echinacea an efficacious cold-preventative?  Maybe what Aristotle had to say on the subject was food for thought, and the findings of medical science were not without interest, but neither was convincing by itself or even together.  No, what was persuasive was the authority of one’s own personal experience, leavened perhaps by those of other people.  In other words, where the notion of experience as distinct from the experiencer was quintessentially modern, as Taylor puts it,7 the modern becomes the postmodern when this is no longer the case: my experience is authoritative because it is at once my world-view—my lens on the external—and my self-view, i.e., the path to the internal, to self-realization. 

I was, to put it mildly, fascinated: was this an unfolding “postmodern turn” and if so, so what?  Thus began my journey into undergraduate worldviews and values, the subject of this article.

Values have gotten immense attention in recent years, largely replacing the “virtues” of previous generations, but agreement concerning values remains elusive, other than the fact that they are important.  The question of their source, for example, is hotly contested.8 It would seem obvious that least some are “imposed” on us as embodied, living creatures subject to natural laws like gravity or entropy; and subject to the particular evolutionary experience of our species; and also, many would add, subject to transcendent, even divine, influences on us and on the entire created order.  Not so, others respond: our values are largely or entirely human creations, the product of a combination of factors like cultural conditioning, habit and individual whim and preference.   This latter perspective seems to deny the importance of such universal “shock of the real” encounters as the pain of stubbing one’s toe on a bed-frame in the dark of the night.  Thus, while culture and personal preference are undoubtedly influential, it is difficult to take seriously a proposal that we are the source of all human values, especially such “deep” values as our preferences for attractive mates or tasty foods or even our shared assumption that knowledge is superior to ignorance.

The newly elevated concern about and interest in values owes much to the fact that where once values were, like one’s homeland, almost entirely inherited, collective, and mostly more or less permanent, they are now increasingly personal, chosen—often self-consciously—and provisional.  Most of us like what we have gained from this exchange but worry about what we may have lost.  The more individualistic and placeless our lives become, for example, the more we fret about a perceived absence of connection or community in our lives, that is, of group- or place-bound rootedness.

One of the consequences of teaching for the better part of a half-century is that you notice that even quite fundamental things do, indeed, change.  When we graybeards complain that academic life is vastly more bureaucratic than two generations ago, for instance, these are more than merely the frustrated gripes of grumpy old men and women.  They represent a melancholy—I am tempted to say heartbroken—recognition that not only is “accountability” simply a fact of contemporary professorial life, a formerly essential value is now lost in the mists of memory as part of a larger paradigm-shift: society no longer trusts us.
The cultural shifts I thought I noted twenty-plus years ago brought to mind a prescient 1974 paper by a human geographer named Wilbur Zelinsky in which he identified “a (new American culture) of virtually unconstrained personal impulse” he described as “selfward bound.”9 To cite but one example, I remember giving a seminar assignment to identify some “sacred places”.  The students’ responses, almost to a person, chose places which exhibited a) “secular sacredness” (e.g., “Javelina Stadium,” the home of our seven-time Division II national football champions), b) a distinct measure of irony, (e.g., a popular near-campus nightspot) and (c) an assumption that individual personal experience/feelings were determinative of a place’s sacredness.  Why do research into which places were sacred to, say, Black Elk or Mohammed, if sacredness is exclusively a matter of expressive individualism.10  When I protested that so self-referential a definition might include the McDonald’s to which I repair for my morning “senior coffee,” their answer was puzzlement: Of course, why not, whatever!  A sacred place was in other words any place that was in some way “special” to me

Over the next few years I noticed a pattern of similarly self-referential attitudes and behaviors, some as trivial as students commonly wandering out of class for ten or fifteen minutes for a bathroom break (later a cell phone call, followed now by text messages done in class) or a smoke, or as they might put it: “whatever”.  Was I observing the effects of the much-described worldview change or cultural paradigm-shift from a modern to a postmodern “master narrative,”11 at the heart of which was the conviction that “there are no natural or god-given centers or final stages…nor are there natural and necessary forms of marriage, work, school…All are, equally, human constructs…”?12

Like many geographers, I had been fascinated for some time by the way in which human nature appeared to be trumping nature-nature.13  Cultural “fictions” appeared to be replacing nature as the everyday “default” reality within which humans are imbedded. Beginning in 1990 and continuing to the present I have led a multi-disciplinary team which has, through four distinct phases, surveyed the values and worldviews of undergraduates in the USA and selected international locations.  The objective of this project has been to explore the world imagined by contemporary university students.  Having found evidence of a “postmodern turn” away from traditional and modern assumptions and values, we have grappled with the meaning of such a change.  A fifth and ongoing phase focuses on the place of religious diversity and pluralism within student Weltanschauungen.

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