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College Students: Idealists? Nihilists? How about both?

January 25, 2010

Are today’s students idealists? Nihilists? I would argue that they seek to be both. This is an idea I expressed a while back, but worth elaborating on.

An inherent paradox exists in the lives of this particular generation of college students.

It’s the consensus opinion that today’s students are more socially minded than previous generations. They are more conscious of the problems and injustice in our world, and refuse to stand idly by while things go from bad to worse. They seek to be responsible global citizens, on issues from the environment, to Haiti, to suppressed civil rights, to cancer. Case in point: here at Penn State, Dance Marathon-or “THON,” as it’s known–has become one of the biggest events of the year, and the single biggest student-run philanthrophy in the country. Last year, it raised over 7.7 million dollars for pediatric cancer. Not bad.

Yet these same students who seem intent on “doing right” by day seem equally intent on “doing wrong” by night. That’s not my value judgment–that’s theirs. Just listen to the This American Life episode “#1 Party School” about Penn State, and hear how the students express their own guilty reservations about their actions. Whether it’s getting wasted several nights of the week, random anonymous hookups, or debasing yourself in other ways, students are pursuing quicker ways to party themselves into oblivion.

By day, students are saving the world. By night, they’re partying as if it’s about to end.

By day, they fight to preserve human dignity for others. By night, they abandon their own.

They’re idealists. They’re nihilists. They’re both.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. January 27, 2010 3:56 am

    It’s exactly true, and it resonates with students. One of the most common places for me to begin conversations about Jesus is observing that there’s so much in the world that’s good, and so much that’s bad, just as there’s so much in us that’s good, and so much that’s bad. I’ve found James Dunn’s commentary on Romans 5 in the Word Biblical helpful. His description of an Adam Christology in which Adam is paradoxically the symbol both of perfection and fall has helped me explain how Jesus, the New Adam, responds to our condition.

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