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Expressway: Today's students weigh right and wrong

"For moral dilemmas, the guiding principle for my present students is their belief in an all-inclusive community," writes Gerard T. Seifert. Photo Credit: Handout

"But he's gay," I said, trying to stir up some discussion. My students looked at me with gazes that said, seriously?

We were in the midst of an exercise in a group dynamics psychology course I teach at St. Joseph's College in Patchogue. My class was assigned to pick six people from a list of 10 who would be the only ones to survive a global disaster and rebuild society.

My 16 students were divided into four groups to debate their choices. Each of the 10 characters had pros and cons. This activity was probably developed a decade or so ago, and then being gay was seen by the author to be a problem. Not for my students. In fact, the gay architect was the only person all 16 agreed to save -- because he'd be able to direct the rebuilding. Even the hypothetical 16-year-old pregnant high school dropout was not universally accepted. This annoyed one student, who couldn't believe some classmates wouldn't take advantage of that buy-one-get-one opportunity.

For about 25 years, I've been teaching psychology as a part-time lecturer at St. Joseph's and engaging students in similar exercises. For moral dilemmas, the guiding principle for my present students, most of whom are Long Islanders, is their belief in an all-inclusive community.

This sense of community may come from the suburban culture of childhood entitlement and personal affirmation. Parents, family, friends, teachers and coaches have instilled in these students a strong sense of themselves. Nobody seems impressed by others' trophies because they all have their own. They are all in this together, and the only sin is to exclude another. Other values are flexible and situational, which leads them to make some interesting moral decisions, sometimes to the puzzlement of their 65-year-old teacher.

When we talk about the legal system in my social psychology course, I divide the class into mock juries to decide court cases. One question is the proper punishment for a 21-year-old college student who drives drunk after having six drinks at a party, and kills a passenger in his car.

In the 1980s, most students felt that having to live with the fact that he killed a friend was punishment enough. Most voted for little or no jail time, but preferred sanctions like license revocation and community service. In recent years, most agree that five or more years in prison is just. They've clearly been affected by anti-drunken driving messages since childhood, and by their belief in the sacredness of the community.

In another course, adolescent psychology, I ask students what a high school student should do when he or she notices someone cheating on a test. It's unfortunate that most would do nothing, especially if the copier were a friend. "I may need help sometime," one student said. Knowledge in the age of Google is communal and helping another out is how they frame it.


Back to my shelter task: One of the people on the list of 10 was a violinist who had been in prison for selling drugs. Most did not want him. I figured this was because of the conviction, but when I asked students to explain their decision, it wasn't the drugs, it was his advanced age of 46. Their idea of community was only so flexible, and the "old" were not allowed. My turn: Seriously?

Reader Gerard T. Seifert lives in Patchogue.