Allan Bloom began his Closing of the American Mind with this memorable observation: “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.” (25) College education does not make these students relativists – they come to university that way. This is what I have seen myself from high school students over the last ten years.
This becomes evident during an exercise I give to them in which they are asked to distinguish “facts” from “opinions.” I give them twenty statements, such as “Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa” and “Goodnight Moon is the best children’s book ever” and have them label these as one or the other. Among the twenty statements are three moral statements: “Sexual exploitation of minor children is immoral,” “it was unjust for the Nazis for persecute the Jews” and “human sacrifice should not be allowed as a form of religious freedom.” Overwhelmingly, students will label these as “opinions.”
Why? They consider statements “facts” which are provable by observation and experiment, and therefore carry widespread assent. Moral statements are to them disputable and unprovable. They are “intangible” or “emotional” or “cultural.” This makes them opinions. There is almost no crime so heinous – genocide or child molestation or ritual sacrifice – that they will not shrug and say, “but the people who were doing it thought it right.” For them, nothing offers a basis for argument or proof in moral questions. All views have equal weight.