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"Students' Broken Moral Compasses"

  • Dr. James Emery White

    James Emery Whiteis the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he…

  • 2016 Sep 15

A recent article in The Atlantic had an arresting title: “Students’ Broken Moral Compasses.” The author, a high-school English teacher, lamented the absence of character education in the classroom.

And chronicled its great need.

He tells of presenting the following scenario to his junior English students: 

Your boyfriend or girlfriend has committed a felony, during which other people were badly harmed. Should you, or should you not, turn him or her into the police? 

The class erupted in commentary, universally agreeing on one thing: loyalty to their friend was paramount. Not one student said they would “snitch.” They were equally united in their lack of concern for who was harmed in this hypothetical scenario.

The teacher then worked overtime to help expand their thinking about who and what is affected in various ethical dilemmas, and why it matters. In the end, he asked, “Do you think you should discuss morality and ethics more often in school?” The vast majority of heads nodded in agreement.

Engaging in this type of discourse, it seemed, was a mostly foreign concept for the kids.

The article brought to mind something I wrote about in my book A Mind for God.

Kay Haugaard, a professor in Southern California, reported an experience in The Chronicle of Higher Education that she could only describe as chilling. 

Her twenty students were discussing Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery,” which is found in numerous literary anthologies designed for students. 

Set in a small town in rural America, the townsfolk gather for a seemingly innocent ritual deemed critical for the well-being of the crops and the community, of which the center of attention is a lottery. Mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, come forward to draw pieces of paper. As they draw their paper, anxiety; as they find it blank, deep relief. Suddenly, the story reveals the frightening reality that the draw is for a human sacrifice. In the end, a woman draws the slip of paper marked by a black spot. Stones are gathered; she is circled, and killed. 

Even her small son had pebbles in his hand. 

When the New Yorker first published the essay in 1948, it was met by a storm of outrage. The story’s moral - the danger of “going along” in blind social conformity - was repugnant to the generation that had stood up to Hitler. 

Times change.

On the warm California night that brought chills to Haugaard, her class registered no moral response at all.

“The end was neat!” one woman offered. 

“If it’s a part of a person’s culture... and if it has worked for them, [it’s okay],” another suggested. 

“At this point I gave up,” wrote Haugaard. “No one in the whole class of twenty ostensibly intelligent individuals would go out on a limb and take a stand [even against] against human sacrifice.”

So yes, students today have broken moral compasses.

But God help us if we feel the answer is throwing moral education into the school curriculum.

The place to throw it is into the home before they get there.

James Emery White



Paul Barnwell, “Students’ Broken Moral Compasses,” The Atlantic, July 25, 2016, read online.

James Emery White, A Mind for God (InterVarsity Press).

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite

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