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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
(more on the Journal)

Spring 2009
Vol. 36 No. 1


Dueling Weltanschauungen
Contemporary Collegiate Worldviews Part II
Toleration and Diversity as Defining Values?

 
Jim Norwine1

 …the most important issues…are what one’s values in life should be—the existence of God, death—that’s real interesting to me. Whether it’s capitalist society or socialism—that’s superficial2

The long period of deconversion, which first broke the surface… at the time of the French Revolution, appears all but ended.3

 What is hated is not particular values, but rather the very idea of values as such.  A world where one has this value or that, this preference or that, and more particularly a world where no value is transcendent, where there are only values, is antithetical to the idea of religious truth. What is hated is the conjunction of values and desire, where values are a matter of choice, of the value we give them because of the degree to which they conform to the desires we have.4 

Diversity…seems to bring out the turtle in all of us...the more ethnically diverse the people we live around, the less we trust them…in more diverse settings, Americans distrust not merely people who do not look like them, but even people who do.5

Little animals from cartoons, talking rabbits, doggies, squirrels, as well as ladybugs, bees, grasshoppers.  These have as much in common with real animals as our notions of the world have with the real world.  Think of this, and tremble.6 

Background

“Dueling Weltanschauungen,” the first part of which appeared in the fall 2008 issue of Religion and Education, explained our twenty-year study of the shift of dominant contemporary worldviews7, and corollary personal values, i.e., from traditional and modern to—for want of a better term—postmodern. It documented this incomplete, ongoing shift through an exploration in the form of a series of unique survey questionnaires administered to thousands of mainly but not exclusively American undergraduates between 1991 and the present, and endeavored to reflect on the significance, implications and meaning of this shift. 

In Part I, I sketched an overview of the background, rationale and methods of the project in general, followed by a rather detailed discussion of the findings of the first four phases, several of which keyed on a particular theme (e.g., personhood; environment) by means of a questionnaire designed specifically for that topic. Here, in Part II, our focus will be on aspects of what we think of as “manyness”: difference; plurality; toleration; and  diversity, particularly religious diversity.  We seek specifically to plumb how diversity is embedded within contemporary student worldviews. For example, is diversity a defining, quasi-sacred feature of postmodernity, and thus an indicator value of those we might label as young postmoderns? Finally we reflect again on what these findings, together with our earlier ones, suggest about the nature and challenge of this  newly emerging cultural condition.  

I am happy to acknowledge firstly, that the idea of this twenty-year research project is a kind of stepchild of Ronald Inglehart’s ground-breaking studies; and secondly, that Part II’s emphasis on diversity owes much to the work of many scholars—some of whom I have doubtless forgotten, for which I apologize, but above all to Robert D. Putnam, Bill Bishop, Philip Rieff, Diana Eck, Peter Wood, Isaiah Berlin and Charles Taylor.

Re-Introduction

Contemporary, postmodern, western democratic societies struggle to address the rare extra-ordinary challenges we might term singularities. Think the 
Holocaust, or the Great Depression. The two most obvious current examples are the West’s “war on terror”—many experts believe it probable that American 
and/or European cities will be attacked with WMDs within a decade--and global warming, although many signs point to the very real possibility that what 
Robert Kaplan calls the "revenge of geography"--i.e., natural human-constraining influences and forces like water--also belongs, maybe even should head, this
 list."

We are accustomed to problems which give us months, years or even decades to discuss and debate possible solutions, and then eventually come to some consensus concerning about what to do. We are also used to situations like the Second World War where a single great threat must be confronted. Responding to radical Islamists is different because we do not agree about which is the greater existential threat, the terrorists or the loss of the civil liberties which define us. With global warming, we not only disagree about the reality and severity of the problem but face a situation in which necessary sacrifices must be borne by those who will mostly not live long enough to benefit from them. 

Does the unparalleled and growing cheek-to-jowl heterogeneity of contemporary western societies present such a threat? We reassure ourselves that it does not, that in fact diversity is a positive value. At the same time most of us also fret, if silently, that this may not be so: are we are deluding ourselves to believe that we can thrive given this unprecedented explosion of spatially and temporally compressed manyness?

We have previously documented that the values of contemporary undergraduates tend to reflect a new worldview—hybridity—at once traditional (e.g., the value of family), modern (e.g., the value of technology) and postmodern (e.g., the value of choice), a hybridity especially striking for an interpenetration of seemingly mutually exclusive values. This discovery, one which might have seemed incredible as recently as when we began this project twenty years ago, now has the feel of remarkably self-evident old news, obvious with respect not just to college students but to the larger cultural condition. That a majority of Americans prefer, for example, the statement “everyone has to decide for themselves what is right and wrong in particular situations” rather than “there are absolute standards of right and wrong that apply to everyone in almost every situation”8 is likely nowadays to elicit more yawns than gasps.  

Fair enough. Still, we would do well to guard against being complacent about what could be the most significant worldview-shift since Copernicus. And this is a real temptation. Like it or not, deny it or not, all of us are in varying degrees enmeshed, even complicit, in the new Weltanschauung of choice and toleration, so much so that it is impossible to free oneself from its enchanted circle. We may protest that we are as orthodox as Saint Paul or as modern as Darwin but it isn't so. Neither Paul nor Darwin, for all their differences, was self-referential. We are.  This can hardly be over-emphasized, for it is just such key differences which allow us to identify worldview divides. For instance, we can recognize the break between traditional and classical explanations in the attempts by Thales and the other pre-Socratics to offer natural rather than supernatural causes—e.g., you have a stomachache because of something you ate not because somebody put the evil eye on you.

In this new, still-unfolding worldview we call "postmodern," choice and toleration are assumed, and their denial—judgmentalism—is a pariah sin. (One is tempted to say it must be so given our new condition of ultra-plurality.) For instance, in Part I, I cited the example of a bright female undergraduate in one of my senior-level seminars thusly: “I don’t approve of honor killings of Muslim girls by male family members, but who am I to judge the sincere beliefs of another culture?”

Hence diversity is seen as a positive value. Diversity’s place (e.g., in education at every level from kindergarten to doctorate) is now so secure that it is difficult to recall how recent and rapid has been its ascendancy into the ranks of the non-negotiable values.

Beneath the arguments about such educational benefits of diversity as enhanced openness of mind, it seems likely that diversity assumed its present status as a rising value as an inevitable consequence of a larger worldview-shift, modern to postmodern, one documented exhaustively by Inglehart.9  In Part I, I offered a very brief review of the various possible causes of this change, post-war affluence and rapid technological change being the leading two candidates. I agreed with this assessment but added that the colossal, shocking modern failures of the first half of the twentieth century (i.e., the slaughters that were World War I and the Holocaust) together with the whole unraveling experience that was the sixties in the second half, may well have been essential catalysts in effecting, or at least expediting, the transformation of the western cultural spirit.

Whatever its causal triggers, once a dominant Weltanschauung is replaced, new personal values inevitably cascade downwards like rain from storm clouds. Or, perhaps better to say that values are reevaluated and restructured. Some become assumed, taken for granted like air, as was the case for the value “getting enough to eat” for most people in the developed world in the decades following 1950. Others come to seem hopelessly passé and thus are abandoned outright.  While this process of value-transformation is sometimes doubtlessly driven by government, media and market actors, my intuition is that it is mostly unconscious and moreover, probably is to a considerable extent bottom-up. For instance, it is my sense that most Americans spend a significant percentage of their incomes on cars not because they are corporate dupes but because at some inchoate level they have decided the freedom they associate with these vehicles is worth the sacrifice. Perhaps here I reveal my ideological stripes; the reader can decide.

The point is that now, in “the aftermath of Enlightenment,”10 as postmodern self-referentiality became the locus of authority, choice and toleration arose as higher values because in the newly dominant worldview, difference had replaced sameness. To the extent that the postmodern condition has a reason-to-be, this is it. To paraphrase Isaiah Berlin, we have crossed a frontier, leaving behind modernity’s old terrain of a “unitary system of common belief”.11  On this side of the divide, in the valuescapes of postmodernity’s multiple/ironic truths, heterogeneity did not merely join homogeneity as a value, it replaced it.  Hence the privileging of difference; hence the hegemony of toleration; hence diversity.

In other words, because difference as a privileged value is the child of the new worldview, one that as we will see may in fact require the privileging of difference to cohere, we have quickly come to assume as self-evident not just diversity as one more useful value to be nurtured and encouraged (e.g., among college students) but diversity as non-negotiable, unchallengeable and as quasi-sacred as motherhood and apple pie once were. One would perhaps not exaggerate much to say that where moderns had faith in knowledge, we have faith in diversity. 

The reader may by this time be thinking that my sketch so far is really rather obvious, even banal. Has not in fact this shift from the intolerance and oppression of sameness to the tolerance of manyness obviously been a good thing? It is pretty to think so, to borrow a line from Hemingway, but maybe not…the jury remains out. More about that problematic question shortly.

 

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