There is some basis for that concern. The findings of this new survey, the results of the recent national tests of reading skills (page 18), and the articles on teaching about Vietnam and the revolutionary developments in Eastern Europe (pages 30 and 32) present a disturbing picture of the moral and mental condition of too many young Americans. Taken together, the evidence reveals that more than half of our young people have no firm moral code to fall back on; that nearly 60 percent of the nation’s 17-yearolds are unable to read and write at a level needed to survive, let alone thrive, in a rapidly changing information society; and that a majority of our teenagers are not aware of, or do not understand, the social and political issues that are shaping their world. And, what is worse, they are not interested in, and have no desire to become involved in, the civic affairs of their community and country.
Disturbing as this situation is, it is surely not new. Most teenagers in the 1940’s had no idea what World War I was about. And a national survey of adult Americans shortly after World War II revealed that only one in five had any reasonable idea of what the Bill of Rights is. The new reading-test results notwithstanding, the literacy rate in the United States is higher today than it has ever been. And there is much in American history to suggest that immorality could also be found in the “good old days.’'
But the probability that today’s teenagers are no worse than their parents or grandparents is not all that reassuring. The fundamental premise of our democracy, after all, is government by the people. What lies ahead for America if the people lack the interest, the values, and the talent for governing?
Those inclined toward pessimism can only be discouraged by what they see in the younger generation. They are understandably frightened that as technology proceeds with such incredible rapidity, the development of the moral and social sophistication needed to deal with its consequences proceeds at such a glacial pace--if at all.
The more optimistic take heart in the progress that has been made. They point out that a higher proportion of young people than ever before are attending school; that while 60 percent of youngsters say they would not participate in voluntary service (such as the Peace Corps), 40 percent indicate they would; and that most children today do operate on the basis of moral assumptions, albeit not uniform ones.
Moreover, as Robert Coles and Louis Genevie point out in our cover story, there is often a difference between what people say they will do and what they actually do. Who could have predicted, on the basis of student attitudes and behavior in the early 1960’s, the unprecedented activism of students in the late 1960’s? Who could have dreamed, even two years ago, that the sleeping students of China and Eastern Europe could awaken with such fervor? Who knows what will awaken commitment and compassion in today’s children?
“Like its politicians and its wars,’' wrote English author J.B. Priestley, “society has the teenagers it deserves.’' The younger generation’s uncertainty about values and confusion about personal and civic responsibility might result from the fact that they’ve been observing the way the older generation has been behaving. How they will ultimately behave when they take the stage remains to be seen.
--Ronald A. Wolk
A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as Democracy’s Next Generation