Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A generation's loss of "moral vocabulary"

Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput tells the story of how classroom reactions to Shirley Jackson’s famed short story “The Lottery," have changed over the last several decades. The story – set in rural 1940s America – "features the tale of a small town that gathers every year to implore an unnamed force to grant a good corn harvest the people. Each year, town members draw a piece of paper from a wooden box to see who will be chosen for human sacrifice. A young mother ends up drawing the ominous black slip and is stoned to death by the community as part of the annual ritual."

Chaput cites Kay Haugaard's analysis of reactions to the story in academic settings over the last decades. She said that "in the early 1970s, students who read the story voiced shock and indignation," but that sometime in the mid-1990s,"reactions began to change.” One classroom discussion she described, he says, disturbed him more than the story itself. "The students had nothing to say except that the story bored them."

This reminds me of a subtle yet decisive shift I first became aware of in the late 1990s in a different context. Until then, conversations about abortion (which I had followed since Roe vs. Wade in 1973) turned on the question of whether the fetus was a "human being" or not. Then, one day, it dawned on me that the ground had decidedly shifted beneath me, as I listened to a female student at Lenoir-Rhyne College tell me that the question was no longer about whether the fetus was a "human being" ("... Everybody knows that," she said), but rather about when it's morally okay to kill a human being.

Around that time, I remember reading Walker Percy's sequel to Love in the Ruins (1971), The Thanatos Syndrome (1987), and thinking how reminiscent it was of Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960), and how prophetic some books can be.

[Hat tip to J.M.]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"The Lottery" is a boring story, pushed because the author was a woman; I think the kids get it.