Category: Just Plain Sociology

400 Years of Avoiding the Race Question

I decided that the focus of tomorrow night’s Race and Ethnic Relations class should be about the linkage between African American history and contemporary race relations, including the differential life outcomes that are so contingent on black/white issues. So I spent a good chunk of the weekend developing a fly-over version of African American history. I’m covering a period of 400 years in three hours. Forgive me if I overgeneralize.

I broke the history into four sections: Jamestown to the Emancipation Proclamation, Reconstruction to Brown v Board, Montgomery to the Voting Rights Act, and Affirmative Action (LBJ expansion) to Obama. In each period, one finds economic exploitation, political posturing, tensions between federalism and states rights, and occasional vindictiveness. Each time, someone takes a step to correct “the race problem” and then someone else reacts to that attempt. Eventually, the original attempt to improve the situation gets modified (emasculated might be a better word) by the Courts. It feels like little progress.

The use of executive action seemed to be a recurring theme. The Emancipation Proclamation itself, Truman integrating the military, Eisenhower and JFK calling in federal troops to force Southern school integration, or LBJ extending affirmative action as federal policy. This is understandable. It’s not hard to see how someone concerned about a situation feels willing to take a step to ameliorate the injustice.

Then I come to things like Reconstruction. What you have there is a vindictive group of Radical Republicans (not to be confused with today’s group) who wanted to punish the South for seceding. So they invoked laws that upset the racial order and imposed it from Washington. The minute that Reconstruction ended, Jim Crow laws start showing up to allow the South to do what they wanted and reassert self-management.

I looked at the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The former passed the Senate 73-27 but the South voted 1-21 against. Same pattern with the VRA: bill passed 77-19 with all 19 of the no votes coming from the South (if you count Robert Byrd in West Virginia). The outgrowth of this lopsided approach was Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” which kept race-baiting at the forefront of electoral politics and flipped the Dixiecrats into the Republican party.

Dred Scott
Dred Scott

Earlier courts went to extremes in the Dred Scott decision or Plessy v. Ferguson. More recently, Courts have consistently taken issues like affirmative action and then chipped away at its intent. In most cases, the rights of the privileged were given priority over the rights of the marginalized that the originally policies purported to address.

At the end of my review, I’m struck with a depressing picture. The African Americans who were supposed to be the focus of The American Dilemma, were used as pawns in battles between regions of the country or political philosophies. Little progress could be made because that would upset the balance of power that the factions were dealing with.

If I’m right, and I desperately need someone to tell me I’m not, then there’s little hope for positive change on issues of racial equality. Because the powers that be will keep pretending that they’re pursuing policies to help African Americans when they’re really trying to win a political battle that furthers their own power.

It will take a citizenry willing to say that racial inequality is unacceptable, that it is our future at risk, that we are willing to move beyond our own self-interests in pursuit of the common good. Not because that will show “those folks” in the South or the Republican party, but because our brothers and sisters of color require our action.

Reflections on Christena Cleveland’s “Black to School” Series

For the past three weeks, Christena Cleveland has been running a series she has called “Black to School”.  She invited black students to reflect on their experiences interacting with predominantly white classmates.

I’ve found the series fascinating for two critical reasons. First, I’m teaching Race and Ethnic Relations this semester. Second, and much more importantly, the students had all attended Christian colleges.Students

She started with an unnamed student from a Christian college in the suburban Midwest. The second was from DeLisa who attended George Fox. Rashad was at Geneva. Nikkita from Seattle Pacific. Drew from an unnamed Christian college in Pennsylvania (I could make some good guesses on which one). Joy from Westmont.  Finally, there was Jelani who transported from Portland (“the whitest major city in America”) to North Park in Chicago. Their stories are unique to them and yet cut across institutions. Some of their experiences result from the homogeneity of the evangelical populations that feed the colleges. Lack of exposure to difference causes insensitivity (which is why students felt it was okay to touch Joy’s hair).

Other experiences reflect less defensible patterns. To assume that black males must be musical or athletic. To assume that black students are experts at hip hop or dance. To isolate black students in class or make insensitive remarks. To joke about perceived threats from athletic black men.

The stories from these students break my heart. I can’t imagine asking any student to deny a part of identity. The sense of isolation they feel in the midst of Christian community is devastating. How can this be the case when we’re committed to a vision of Church that makes no separations (Galatians 3:28)?

Christian colleges have long recognized the need to become more welcoming to diverse populations. We create diversity task forces and focus on recruiting minorities. We take pride in seeing our percentage non-white increase over the years. These are good things, but the focus on demographics doesn’t address the issues of institutional culture.

The reality is that we’ve set the bar too low. We look at histories in which students of color were discouraged from attending at all or where interracial dating was seen as norm violating.

Pew conducted a recent study on racial progress. In general, they found that whites felt that progress was being made on racial issues because past injustices were past. We take pride in not having separate bathrooms or poll taxes or segregated schools. It lets us think that because we don’t do those things anymore we’re making great progress.

The Black to School stories remind me that the bar is really much higher. But it’s not those students who have to clear the higher bar.

It’s me and folks like me.

At a CCCU Sociology gathering nearly 25 years ago, I heard a remarkable presentation by Ray DeVries, then of St. Olaf  and now of University of Michigan medical school. He spoke on Structural Evil, but quickly shifted from large scale issues like poverty or racism to the small-scale issues. The small-scale issues were the patterns of interaction that reinforced advantage for some and disadvantage for others. It’s easy to avoid being seen as racist. It’s hard to be open and welcoming to all we contact.

Here’s where my Race and Ethnic Relations class comes in. I agreed to pick up the class about a month ago, but I’ve taught it several times before. This time, however, the class feels strange to me.

When I lived in San Diego, we went to the Safari Park run by the San Diego Zoo. You got to ride around in little vans and look at animals in their “natural” habitat (if you ignore the fences that kept the lions from the zebras and so on).

And now we come to the hyenas. Here are the giraffes! There’s a herd of gazelle!

Most Race and Ethic books work like the Safari vans. After some introductory theoretical material, we look chapter by chapter at different racial or ethnic groups. Here are the Hispanics. There are the Asians. Here are the Blacks. Over there are the Native Americans!

Each chapter looks at some historic patterns and then shifts to contemporary challenges for each group. But this runs the risk of setting that bar low again.

It’s awful what we did to Native Americans. But we no longer relocate people from their native lands, do we?. We seriously exploited Chinese immigrants when we build the western railroads. Isn’t it great that we don’t do that anymore? Can you imagine what it was like to have segregated schools? Thank God, now all we have are schools characterized by residential isolation (sarcasm font needed).

We then look at the patterns of economic achievement (or lack thereof), prison incarceration (or the avoidance thereof), family patterns, educational prospects, etc. We become aware that there are major gaps between whites and either hispanics or blacks. But we seem unaware of how those impacts play out.

We set the bar too low because we don’t pay enough attention to the stories like those that Christena brought forth. Or this testimony this morning from Osheta Moore. Or this heartbreaking story from Grace Sandra.

I’ve been trying to avoid reading comments on blog posts lately. The insensitivity of those denying someone’s story (maybe you could tell that differently, maybe you’re making too much of that slight) is hard to take. It’s as if these stories of being isolated, misunderstood, abused, or taken for granted don’t count. As it only the big stuff matters.

This is where Ray DeVries’ talk messes with me after a quarter of a century. I know that I can’t ignore those stories without diminishing the experience of real people. What other definition of structural evil can there be?

All this causes me to think deeply about this course I’m teaching this semester. The Race and Ethnic Relations course seems to invite consideration of Racial or Ethnic groups as reified structures. It’s as if we’d call the course RACE and ETHNIC Relations. I’m coming to see that we must, especially in Christian colleges,  come to see the course as Race and Ethnic RELATIONS. If it’s the latter, there’s no way I’m off the hook. It would make me responsible, either directly or indirectly, for every one of the stories shared by Christena’s friends.

And that’s as it should be.

Because I am.

And Liberty and Justice for All

[My September submission to the American Evangelicals dialogue at This month’s topic is on Evangelicalism and Politics.]

An introductory comment: A reader responding to a recent post asked if I (and other writers in this series) saw any future in evangelicalism at all because he read the posts as attacking evangelical positions. I’ve been pondering that over the past few weeks and realize that I could be clearer on my intent. I’m raising concerns about some aspects of evangelical culture in an attempt to call out the latent consequences those pieces may have — especially in terms of the broader culture hearing the heart of evangelicalism as it shares the love of Christ in prophetic ways to the broader society. After the critique, I’ll try to do a better job of speaking to the positive future.

It was the fall of 1981 and I was teaching my very first Introduction to Sociology class. I’d been a TA for the course in grad school but now I was responsible for the lectures myself. When I got to the broad institutional areas (of which Politics is one), I contrasted different views of governance: town hall democracy, Jeffersonian government by elites, oligarchy, and special interests. As I finished giving the lecture, I suggested that many in the church had adopted special interest tactics and that I was worried that the Body of Christ would be seen as simply another advocacy group.

The Moral Majority had been formally established just two years prior and CNN the year after that. Evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell could regularly be found on the new cable news outlet speaking on political issues on behalf of Christians. It had been eight years since the Roe v. Wade decision but was still five years away from the formation of Operation Rescue.

Sociology professors talking to undergraduates are  not prophets. Yet in my own small way, I was trying to be a voice about something that could prove problematic. Maybe if my undergrads paid attention and acted differently as a result, we’d find a better way of engaging the political realm.

The last three decades have seen my meager warnings come to full flower. We now have major political organizations organized around Christian themes (e.g., Family Research Council). Or are they Christian organizations organized around political themes (e.g., The Family Leader)? When political candidates flock to the  Value Voters Summit (“Faith, Family, and Opportunity for All”) to prove their conservative credential to a room full of Christian delegates, the lines between religion and politics seem to disappear.

The impact of “evangelical as special interest group” has been well documented. Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? suggested about a decade ago that evangelical voters were enticed into voting for political candidates on promises to address social issues like abortion and prayer in schools but those issues didn’t remain important to the candidates after the election. He argues quite cynically (Frank is really good at cynicism) that if the issues were addressed, the voters might return to their economic interests as a basis for voting. Perversely, one of the outcomes of the special interest approach is that the establishment keeps the issue on the table to maintain funding and voter participation but doesn’t create the desired social change.

The dynamics of the special interest approach show up in the midst of the “millennials leaving church” argument. The Barna Group’s data suggests that at least some of the disaffection of today’s young people comes from seeing church leaders as overly strident on social issues, being anti-science, anti-homosexual. In short, it’s about being known for what one is against and not what one is for.

Listen to any news program discuss what “evangelical voters” care about. Sure, they’ll take about their concerns over abortion or traditional definitions of marriage. But you’re just as likely to hear them decry Obamacare, support lower taxes and limited government, and favor a strong military. This is another outgrowth of the special interest approach — parties build “big tents” of various special interests and those coalitions start to bleed over into common talking points.

Evangelicals may have access to varied outlets in television, radio, or internet, but it doesn’t change the basic principle of electoral politics: numbers. Consider the following chart produced by UConn sociologist Bradley Wright from General Social Survey data. It’s his estimate of the percentage of Americans who can be classified as evangelicals.

Wright Evangels-in-US

The GSS data suggests that evangelical strength peaked in about 1990 and has been slowly waning since. Other data suggests it’s waning even more rapidly among the young with the percentage evangelical for those under 30 falling to 17% in 2010. This means that evangelicals cannot shape public policy without significant assistance from non-evangelicals. That 24% of the public may be strident and therefore more likely to vote than the average citizen, but elections are likely to follow demographic trends similar to the 2012 election.

Here ends the negative griping. What is the alternative going forward? Let me suggest three strategies.

First, we should recognize the difference between what is scriptural priority (to some eyes) and what makes for public policy solutions. If evangelicals are only a quarter of the population, we’ll need to find better ways of engaging with those who don’t share our faith perspectives. It means being willing to influence those things we can while not fighting over the things we can’t. For example, there is interesting data from a recent Baylor Religion study suggesting that a segment of the evangelical public isn’t fighting gay marriage as a matter of social policy. A debate is brewing among some Christian bloggers about whether this represents caving to liberalism or crafting a “messy middle” My read of the report suggests the latter. The correlation data suggests that these Ambivalent Evangelicals (really needs a new label) share few if any characteristics with liberals. (I’m in conversation with the Baylor sociology folks to get a better read on the data and may update this as that comes together.)

Second, regardless of one’s view of Christian America rhetoric (there are a vast number of good Christian history sources laying the claim to rest, but it survives in spite of it), we need to craft an understanding of the country based on the current realities. Let’s not fight over Jefferson’s views on religion or the church memberships of the signers of the Declaration. We live in a culture that is marked by demographic diversity. We are surrounded by ideological diversity. We need to engage that discussion on the basis of guiding values and not on claims of superiority. It will require much patience, careful listening, and far less pronouncing. While 24% of the public isn’t majority language, it’s worth being heard as evangelicals.

Third, evangelicals are at our best when we’re advocating for those who can’t advocate for themselves. This has been the heart of the pro-life movement. But it goes beyond that. It means that we are passionate about justice — not just in a narrow partisan sense but in the “least of these” sense. Let’s worry less about political party orientation and think together with non-evangelicals about how we speak on behalf of those without voice. The poor, the broken, the abandoned, the hurting, the addicted, the dispirited. As people reflecting God who gave himself up for us, we cannot be guilty of a self-interested approach to democracy. It’s not about us. We already received more than we could possible imaging.

It’s about “liberty and justice for all”. There’s a reason the pledge ends with that line. It’s the hope of the nation and evangelicals have a unique role in seeing that hope come to fruition.

What do President Obama’s Higher Ed Proposals mean for Christian Colleges?

President Obama spoke Thursday at SUNY Binghamton to introduce his ideas about higher education in America. Friday he elaborated on those remarks at Lackawanna College in Pennsylvania. Binghamton is a research one university with just over 15,000 students. Lackawanna is a two-year (community) college with 1500 students and a focus on vocational training. From the itinerary, it seems clear that the president doesn’t have a “one size fits all” view of higher education. There’s a reason that he’s focusing on very different higher ed sectors. His remarks on Friday included passing references to the for-profit sector and to law schools.

I followed some of the initial reporting on Friday about the Binghamton speech. The president suggested clearer measures on college completion, tuition escalation, and lifetime earnings. The hope is that families being aware of “value for the dollar” will pick those institutions that hold costs down while achieving high outcomes, creating a competitive environment where the incentives shift from “what the market will bear” to “demonstrating quality“. He also gave a shout-out to innovations in technology (flipped classrooms, MOOCs) and competency-based education or credit for life learning. I didn’t get too excited about the president’s comments because it’s very early in the idea phase much less the implementation phase. It’s only today that I’m reading responses to Friday’s speech.

That didn’t stop organizations from issuing their immediate disclaimers calling out the normal suspects. For example, the AAUP came out with this statement on Saturday. They raise the normal concerns about shifting state revenue, No Child Left Behind, and the financial impact of federal compliance. Actually, much of their critique was a response to articles in the Wall Street Journal from December. They critique highly paid administrators and raise questions about how a focus on graduation rates will disproportionately impact students who are lower class or people of color.

Two weeks ago, Council of Independent Colleges president Richard Ekman wrote an open letter to President Obama about public pronouncements on college costs. Ekman rightly observes that most of the attention in the media and in Washington has gone to elite private schools and the escalating public institution tuition increases (on a percentage basis) due to decreased state funding. He points out that the private college sector is playing a vital role in both access and affordability.

While the top 100 colleges enroll 17 percent of their students from low-income backgrounds, smaller, private, nondoctoral colleges and universities, despite smaller endowments and less selective admissions, enroll approximately one-third of their students from low-income backgrounds.

Ekman goes on to observe that many of these private schools have experimented with flipped classrooms, online education, and non-traditional delivery for decades. However, face to face interaction is still mission central. (I’m always surprised to read course evaluations from online courses in my department where the students says “I wish we had more personal contact with the professor“.)
If I put all this together, we have many sectors of higher education under consideration. Large public research universities, community colleges, for-profit, elite private, small residential private, and within that sector, the Christian college or university. There is no way a single policy initiative can cover that breadth. That’s why accrediting institutions begin with institutional mission and then ask the school to evaluate its success against its unique mission.
This morning I read a wonderful post by Matt Reed in Inside Higher Education. Matt, a community college administrator in Massachusetts, usually has excellent insights on major trends in higher ed (and child-rearing). Today he focused on a geeky report from the Brookings Institution. The report, by Beth Akers and Matthew Chingos, made great use of regression statistics. They used  inputs (SAT, ACT, and student body characteristics) for major universities to predict an expected six year graduation rate for 15 major universities. Then they compared the actual six year rate to the predicted. As the following chart shows when you control for inputs,  the relationship between institutional ranking and graduate rates seems to go away.
They go on to argue that one could control for inputs more carefully and see if schools outperform their estimates. They contrast the University of Michigan (which slightly underperforms when inputs are controlled) with MSU (which overperforms). Not trying to start any in-state fights here in Michigan — it’s just what the data suggests.
Reed suggests “Deploying a squadron of sociologists to improve public higher education in America strikes me as public money well spent.” Naturally, I think this is a FABULOUS idea!
But he does suggest an approach to understanding quality outcomes within a given sector that could work. In addition to considering input data (Ekman observed that private schools disproportionately draw from lower income, first generation populations), we also need to consider the kinds of jobs that our graduates pursue. One would also need to do regressions on differential percentages of graduates heading into fields like ministry, social work, education, engineering, computer science, and finance. When career aspiration is controlled in the same way as input data, you’d have a better measure of institutional effectiveness that wouldn’t favor only some privileged sectors.
One more thing. You could even factor in contact measures like average class size or student faculty ratio as a means of controlling for the educational philosophy that drives institutional choice (for both the college and for students deciding to attend there). We’d then be able to compare Spring Arbor to the University of Michigan by statistically controlling for the various correlates of success. Multiple Regression is a Wonderful Thing!
I think the Sociology Squadron needs a good name. Any suggestions?

First Step: This Time It’s Different


One reason I’ve followed the whole “millenials leaving the church” discussion is because it’s directly related to a central theme of my book. Many of the responses to the millennial debate have either focused on  personality characteristics or life cycle issues. The former argue that millennials are entitled and narcissistic, so they are unhappy because the church doesn’t meet their unique needs. The latter argue that all young people are estranged from religion but tend to return once they’ve married and had children.

I believe both of these positions have missed the central question surrounding millennials — that they’ve grown up in a remarkably different culture than earlier age cohorts. The confluence of their cultural location with their questions about faith suggest the need for real changes in Christian education.

The third chapter of the book addresses the changes  social scientists have documented in recent years about today’s young adults. The chapter has informed much of what I’ve written in this blog. The first entry attempted to argue why these changes are important to Christian Higher education. I won’t repeat all of the argument here: today’s young adults are marrying later, have a less traditional commitment to institutions, are affected by Moral Therapeutic Deism, and have remained connected with diverse groups of others.

The culture they grew up in is what David Kinnaman calls “Discontinuously Different”. They were eight on Septermber 11th; they heard over and over that the world had changed. They grew up not only seeing gay characters on television, but they have known gay students throughout their schooling. They see science as a significant part of modern life and don’t see it as a threat.

The most important issue is that they’ve grown up in a culture where matters of faith were things that one had to nuance. Not everyone around (except in some Christian high schools) assumed biblical authority or religious orthodoxy as a given. That’s the significance of the chart above from Putnam and Campbell’s American Grace. It shows the percentage of 18-29 year olds who are identify as evangelicals or as religious nones. In a relatively short twenty years, the relative strength of evangelicals gave way to nones. In 1995, evangelicals had a 7% advantage over nones. By 2010, nones were up by 10%.

Millennials with faith commitments are looking for ways of engaging their questions without retreating from the broader culture. This is why the Barna research centers on concerns about science, doubt, homosexuality, cultural acceptance, and power. Our students are struggling to stay engaged with their culture while maintaining their Christian voice.

If Christian universities find the means of adjusting to these students’ concerns, we will play a central role in the culture unlike anything we’ve ever dreamed. If, on the other hand, we ignore these changes we’ll wake up one day irrelevant to the broader cultural dynamics.

First Step: What Am I Doing Here?


This scene could be from any college. It the point during Orientation when students make their goodbyes to the parents and the Second Big Transition can begin. Sociologically, the First Big Transition occurs when students leave home for the structured bureaucratic environment we call public school. (Doesn’t quite work for you homeschoolers).  The Third Big Transition comes as students anticipate leaving college for to pursue their futures. But in this moment, after the hugs and the tears, things are different. The student is in college, ready to make her way in this new environment.

In many ways, the bureaucratic approach to education presents a major challenge to learning. We make school about putting in seat time, meeting due dates, doing busy work, and waiting for the end of the period/course/semester/graduation. And that’s just the case for faculty — imagine what it feels like for the students!

When we make education equivalent to a production line, we rarely stop to reflect on what we’re doing. In my experience, the students pictured above aren’t really clear on why they’ve even come to college. More likely, they have a number of conflicting ideas and part of the challenge of the Christian university is to help them navigate that conflict.

The second chapter of the book considers the student who may well have been carried along by the momentum of the educational system. Having decided she was college-bound early in life, suddenly the day has arrived. She runs the risk of continuing to go through the motions, checking off the prerequisites, and racking up the right number of credits arranged in the right way. It’s possible for her to go through four years of college experience and not really get much out of it. We build systems for tracking her progress and making sure she doesn’t quit along the way. This is good, but we don’t want to settle for smoothly running systems. What we’re doing is more important than that.

There are four potential reasons students may have selected any particular Christian university. The first is the bureaucratic one I’ve just described: “it seemed like the next thing to do“. That’s not wrong. It’s just not enough to carry them over the ebbs and flows of the next four years.

The second reason is screamed across newspaper and internet pages: “I need a Job!” Over the last thirty years, we have increasingly made higher education into a commodity that one cashes in for future opportunities. I’m not denying that graduates need to support themselves. But the vague idea that college graduates can’t find jobs just isn’t reflected in the data. Surveys regularly show that employers desire workers with the critical thinking and communication skills that accompanies liberal arts education. Even in the depths of the Great Recession, the unemployment rate for college graduates was well below their counterparts with only a high school diploma.

By nearly any measure, money spent on college provides a significant return on investment. Based on estimates by census department analysts, a college graduate has an advantage in lifetime earnings of over $850,000 for women and $1.1 Million for men. Even with our concerns about college debt, this is a good deal when seen from a long-term perspective. Besides, we are preparing students for careers (even if they switch jobs frequently) and not for the first job out of college. It’s important but it’s not the key reason for what we do.

Some students have selected a Christian university for its secure environment, my third reason. This has both positive and negative elements. The positive version is that students want a school that honors their faith commitments, provides chapel music opportunities, opens the possibility of finding a Christian mate. This proves slightly more difficult than they might think, as later chapters discuss. The negative view has to do with biases about large state schools with questionable reputations. Perhaps there will be faculty that will ridicule people of faith. Perhaps the roommate will belittle one’s experience. And then there are the parties, and the drinking, and the perception (which recent data is questioning) of the hook-up culture. These students will also have some adjustments as they’ll have their faith engaged, they’ll find people who party and hook-up, and struggle with the roommate (even though both claim to be Christians).

The fourth reason for college has to do with finding one’s place in the larger context of God’s creation. Students coming to college, as my friend Lou put it, understand that they are taking 41 courses in self. It’s not about self-satisfaction (leave the narcissism comments aside) but about self-fulfillment. Who are they called to be and how do their educational experiences enable them to pursue that calling? This is the one of the four answers that most contributes to the building of God’s Kingdom and to the unique expression of life in a Christian university.

In fact, I argue that if you start with the fourth reason and pursue it passionately, getting the job isn’t a problem. Navigating the various and sundry freedoms of college life is more manageable. You’re less likely to drop out, lose your way, struggle academically, or take a bunch of extra credits. Start with meaning first, and all the rest lines up.

Media concerns about jobs notwithstanding, students understand the interplay between these reasons for college. They always have. Every year the Higher Ed Research Institute at UCLA gathers data on incoming freshmen. They ask questions about student motivation in terms of their college experience.


This is the HERI data going back nearly 40 years. While it’s true that the Great Recession has made jobs a higher priority, general education and liberal arts are still mentioned by 70% of students. They also want to make money and get better jobs. But meaning is not separate from these other endeavors. When students can affirm that they are learning in preparation for who they’re called to be, all the other things will fall into place.

Stop the Millennial Bashing!

Maybe I’ve just become highly sensitized to concerns over Millennials. As I wrote in my last post, I’m wrapping up a book project on freshmen entering Christian universities. To do that, I’ve had to get myself into the mindset of those born in the 1990s. So when people attack this generation, I take it personally in spite of my official Boomer status.

It’s so easy to pick on the millennial generation. We’re told that they’re narcissistic, only focused on what’s in it for them while recording their every move with their ever-present smart phones. Even attempts to challenge the narcissistic claim, like this one in Slate, begins with a joke about how millennials “took a break from Googling themselves”.

Unbelievably, Jeff Bethke (source of the “why I love Jesus and hate religion” YouTube sensation), took on millennials in the Washington Post, claiming somehow that millennial Christians are the “new fundamentalists” because they supposedly raise their own interests above scripture (whatever that means). Never mind that his definition of fundamentalism is flat wrong AND that he’s a millennial himself who found “fame” through video self-expression.

Then, of course, there are the never-ending Facebook posts written by my generation about today’s young. Here’s a standard example.


I could write another whole piece on the spanking part. Where the idea that spanking built character come from is beyond me. It’s just one of those tropes thrown out like the claims you can’t have Bibles in school.

I really am focused on the “trophies for participating” line. We could throw in Lake Wobegon’s “where all the children are above average” (although Garrison Keillor has been using that line for nearly 40 years, so it can’t be about millennials). What makes me crazy about the cartoon above is that is seems to absolve previous generations as well as the broader culture for the patterns put in place for millennial children.

Our kids were born in the cusp of the millennial transition (1981 and 1985). For whatever reason, they didn’t wind up in tons of organized activities in sports or dance or gymnastics. Probably has something to do with my lack of athletic prowess. But even if they had, I really don’t think they would draw deep meaning from a participation trophy.

Participation trophies aren’t for the kids. They’re for the parents. We’ve made the affirmation of children a measure of our success as parents. If they don’t get to play on the team and get affirmation, parents are hurt.

I have seen this play out over the past ten years with regard to the Helicopter Parents of college students. They call a faculty member or an administrator and want to run interference for their child. In doing so, they deny the child the opportunity to solve problems in complex settings like universities. Why do they do this? I think it’s because they think good parents do that. (I have lots of helicopter parent stories)

The broader culture doesn’t help. The rise in Reality Television (which bears a scary resemblance to “The Family” in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451) feeds our narcissistic fascination. Who cares about Kardashians? Why do we watch Jersey Shore? What about almost any show featuring beauty pageants, cooking, models, or having lots of babies? All of them perpetuate a focus on individual entitlement, complete with the single-camera-shot interview where you explain what you were thinking at the time.

Don’t think we’ve glamorized narcissism? Look at the magazine covers in the grocery store check-out lane.

Millennials didn’t make reality shows popular. But they may use them as models for self-expression. If so, who did that?

Social media plays a part. We feel the need to share affirmation of what other people post. We don’t mildly agree, we “like”. And people then add LOVE, LOVE, LOVE to a post. It takes away our perspective.

The grandbaby will be here in a month, so I’ll have to eat these words before long. But not every picture posted on Facebook of the baby or the pet is the cutest thing ever. Not ever profile picture is gorgeous, hot, beautiful. Even my dog isn’t the most adorable dog ever.

Millennials, who are more tech savvy than earlier generations, have adopted these social norms. They have repeated patterns they’ve grown up with.

Millennials, however, are deeper than this. They are asking questions that deserve to be asked. They are not superficial and self-centered. They are exploring options for their place in the world.

Yesterday, I drove to the Epworth Forest Conference Center in Northern Indiana to sit in on an event called IdeaFarm. It’s a gathering of a small number of recent college grads, many from Christian universities. The participants had submitted proposals on an vision-related project they wanted to pursue. For four days, the leadership team is investing in them as individuals to help them turn their passions into action.


I got to participate in one of the small group discussion and talked to a number of the participants over lunch. Yes, these young people are tech savvy. Yes, are concerned about acceptance. But are they fundamentalists who think the world revolves around them? Absolutely not.

They see the world as complex and are trying to find their place in that world. They are decidedly NOT trying to accept the conventional, reality-tv version of life. They are looking for authenticity and impact.

I have a couple of hypotheses on what’s behind the millennial bashing. First, we are reacting (correctly) against the artificial version of reality present in the media. If those images represent today’s youth, we may say, then we’re all in trouble. Recognizing the falseness of the images portrayed can go a long way. Second, and more importantly, I think we bash millennials because older generations are unwilling to admit their complicity in the culture millennials inherited. We blame them so we won’t blame ourselves.

But if they are trying to change that culture, isn’t it the right thing to be on their side?