If I had to speculate about why more young men are succumbing to nihilism in the culture at large, I would guess that our curriculum has something to say about it. Perhaps young men feel dishonored when the prevailing feminist ideologies that they encounter in their classes at most universities belittle their masculinity instead of giving their best energies honor and discipline and direction. The great tradition of the West can give them that discipline.
Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal ran a long piece beginning on their front page: “A Generation of American Men Give Up on College: ‘I Just Feel Lost.’” Nationwide, WSJ reports, the proportion of male and female students going to college has shifted steadily over the past decade or so, and at the end of the last academic year, almost 60% of college students were women. In the lead photograph, one of the young men interviewed for the article gazes out with unfocused vacancy from the chair in his bedroom. To his right is a desk that supports a huge monitor, a laptop, and a microphone; to his left is his bed. The implication of the photograph is that this confined space between online virtuality and sleep constitutes his chosen world.
Several weeks ago, I mentioned that my wife and I had been listening to Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, curious to see what Peterson might have said that helped a friend of ours recover his faith. Peterson’s success in speaking to young men makes sense of this WSJ story. In one chapter, he describes an intelligent high school friend of his who had always scorned academic achievement as embarrassingly uncool and who now drifted down the path of drugs and alcohol, as though life were obviously meaningless and nothing worth doing. Peterson rightly diagnoses the endemic nihilism – “What difference will it make in a hundred years?” – that seems to be the default position for many similar young men today. I suspect that, at least in part, this nihilism helps explain the steadily decreasing college attendance among men and the poorer performance by those who do attend.
The young man in the WSJ story might not actually be a nihilist, but the photograph makes him look like the poster boy for a generation of the lost. He tells the reporter, “If I was going to be a doctor or a lawyer, then obviously those people need a formal education. But there are definitely ways to get around it now.” The only reason to attend college, in his mind, would be for professional training that would enable him to make more money. When he considers the expense of formal education, he reasons that there are many new ways to make money (he sells his music on Spotify, for example) that do not require college.
One of our emblematic quotations at Wyoming Catholic College comes from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment: “Low ceilings are bad for the soul.” I could not help contrasting this young man (and the others cited in the article) with our freshmen, who backpacked through the mountains of Wyoming for 21 days in August. They had no access to cell phones or the internet. Instead, they were learning about each other and themselves, undergoing a daily spiritual regimen, and mastering skills that they will need on the many outdoor trips they undertake in the next four years. Back on campus in Lander, they went into their classrooms, where, in Philosophy, they took up the tools of logic. In Theology, they have been studying Genesis and thinking through the fall of man and the nature of the divine call to Abraham and his descendants. In Humanities, they have encountered the wrath of Achilles and the tragedy of mortal limitation.
Unfocused vacancy is by no means their characteristic look.
Wyoming Catholic College attracts both men and women, and the proportion differs from year to year: this class has more men. What is it about this education that attracts them? Different things, to be sure, not least strong family backgrounds that have guided them in the right direction. What else? The sense of adventure, the opportunity to grow in faith, the recognition that the most important things transcend jobs and money. God calls them to serve Him, just as he called Abraham, just as he called St. Paul – a call that is as alive as they are. The extraordinary challenges of the contemporary world will require all the resources of body and heart and spirit, and this education will help form them to be more than disapproving observers and bystanders.
If I had to speculate about why more young men are succumbing to nihilism in the culture at large, I would guess that our curriculum has something to say about it. Perhaps, for example, they feel dishonored. In the Iliad, which our freshmen are reading this month, Achilleus, by far the best of the Achaians, intervenes to help the army discover the causes of a devastating plague. King Agamemnon takes offense when the seer reveals that the god Apollo has unleashed the plague in anger at Agamemnon’s refusal to return a captive woman to her father. The king cannot strike at Apollo, but he furiously dishonors Achilleus by taking the warrior’s own war prize and belittling his accomplishments. In his wrathful response, Achilleus withdraws from the fighting, calling upon Zeus himself to avenge him and restore his honor.
Perhaps, like Achilleus, young men feel dishonored when the prevailing feminist ideologies that they encounter in their classes at most universities belittle their masculinity instead of giving their best energies honor and discipline and direction. The great tradition of the West can give them that discipline. It needs to be earned with hard intellectual labor, but when has the challenge of difficulty ever been a problem for men eager to show their true capacities, especially when they are honored for it? Perhaps they will even transcend the need for honor as they gain in wisdom, and wisdom will enable them to act with justice and mercy, to serve God, to help redress the evils of the world that has forgotten the true ways to the good.