Christians from my evangelical tradition tend to be predisposed to view the world in pessimistic terms as if the trajectory of history ensures a spiral into moral chaos and decadence. This is largely due to the influence of premillennial eschatology which predicts precisely this decline prior to the supernatural return of Christ. When you adopt that perspective, you start looking for anything to feed your assumption. Gay marriage? Check. Transgender washrooms? Check. Clearly the world is going to hell in a handbasket!
With that in mind, I’ve been struck by comparing my own experience with high school thirty years ago with that of my teenage daughter. On multiple points there has been a noticeable improvement. Mind you, I’m not talking merely about my personal experience vs. that of my daughter. (Personally, I had a great time at school. For example, I was class president in grade 12, carried to power by my rock band’s accompaniment to my stump speech and an advertising blitz courtesy of friends in the art department that included the slogans “Nothing Compares 2 Randy” and “You can’t touch Randy. But you can vote for him.”)
Rather, I’m talking about the culture of high school as I experienced it vs. that experienced by my daughter. On multiple points, the culture of high school today appears to have improved markedly. Granted, the veridical strength of such anecdotal comparisons is limited. But limited is still worth noting, particularly if one has reason to believe the comparison is indicative of overall trends.
Let’s start with this: my elementary and high school (we had no junior high) had a lot of fights. Most days there would be a scrap out by the bike racks as masses of seemingly civil kids melted into a nightmarish Lord of the Flies melee. Bullying was common. The classic 1980 film My Bodyguard depicts a world that I had witnessed. And I got in my own share of fights — especially in elementary school. In grade 7 the police prevented a “rumble” between the grade 7 kids of my elementary school and that of a neighboring school.
My daughter has never witnessed a physical altercation at school, a fact that still amazes me. And there is a far greater awareness — and social stigma — today of bullying. Granted new forms of bullying have emerged (e.g. cyberbullying), and granted as well that there is still much work to do. But my formative education was the wild west compared to that which my daughter has experienced.
And that’s not the only difference when it comes to violence. When I was in school thirty years ago teachers were also violent. Not violent in the English boarding school way, but violent in the sense that they would yell and scream at wayward kids, launch projectiles (erasers, chalk) at your head, twist your ear, or pinch your arm. To be sure, not all teachers behaved in this manner. But many did, and nobody (at least none of the students) thought it was abusive or inappropriate.
Racism, Sexism, and other Prejudices
Thirty years ago my schools were largely monochromatic, homogeneous in ethnicity and religion. We weren’t overly racist — two of my best friends were Asian (Chinese and Japanese). But I think it is fair to say that we were soft racists. We didn’t consider ourselves anti-Semitic, for example, but we still referred to shrewd bargaining for a lower price as “jewing” somebody and discount Tuesday at the movie theatre was “Jewsday”. As with the violence, we never stopped to reflect on how blushingly racist this was.
When it came to issues like feminism, we laughed about the idea of women firefighters. Homosexuals were a punchline or an accusation: “You faggot!” The physically and mentally handicapped existed on the periphery of existence.
My daughter’s friends are a rainbow of ethnicities and religions. Consider this: her first three best friends were a Sikh, a Buddhist, and a self-described atheist. Racial slurs are not tolerated. Those with various disabilities have been integrated into the community while facilitating greater awareness. Inflammatory epithets of sexual minorities are not tolerated in polite company (though one suspects the matter may be different in the boys locker room).
The other day I was with my daughter when Guns ‘n’ Roses “Paradise City” started playing on the radio: “Take me down to Paradise City where the grass is green and the girls are pretty!” My daughter was shocked. “Omigosh!” she said with a withering moral rebuke, “That is so sexist.”
I assume alcohol abuse remains a problem among young people and in many ways drug use has become far worse. But I am heartened that the social stigma of tobacco usage is far greater than it once was. Indeed, that’s an understatement since when I was in high school there wasn’t any social stigma. We still lived in an age of Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man. It’s no surprise that we thought smoking was cool. After all, as kids we were raised on Big League Chew and Popeye Cigarettes that issued a puff of powdery smoke to replicate the genuine experience as closely as possible.
But no more. There is now far greater regulation on the marketing of cigarettes to children to say nothing of the general restrictions on tobacco advertising.
The Environment and Animals
Growing up there was no such thing as a Blue bin, and the only “recycling” we did was turning torn jeans into cutoffs. Our first real awakening to the environment came in the mid-1980s with the growing concern over acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer. But even so, concern for the environment was hardly on our radar screen.
And concerns over the ethics of food production was not on the horizon. I don’t know that I even met a vegetarian until university.
Today concern for the environment is an abiding concern. And my daughter has several vegetarian and vegan friends. She has also stated her own desire to limit her meat intake driven both by concerns for environmental sustainability and animal welfare.
I could continue enumerating examples, but these should suffice to make my point. Christians (and others) who bemoan the declining state of civilization have a highly selective read of the data. By many measures (indeed, I’d say by most measures) the western world is a far more civil and humane place today than it was thirty years ago.