Among its many other meanings, Christmas points to a central truth of human life: a baby can grow up to change the world. But it is not just that a baby can grow up to change the world; in the human sense, babies are the world: a hundred-odd years from now, all of humanity will be made up of current and future babies.
Babies begin life with the genetic heritage of humankind, then very soon take hold of, reconfigure, and carry on the cultural heritage of humanity. The significance of young human beings as a group is obscured in daily life by the evident power of old human beings. But for anyone who cares about the long run, it is a big mistake to forget that the young are the ultimate judges for the fate of any aspect of culture.
Since those who are now young are the ultimate judges for our culture, it won’t do to neglect instilling in them the kind of morality and ethics that can make them good judges. I have been grateful for the lessons in morality and ethics that I had as a child in a religious context, and with my own children, I saw many of these lessons instilled effectively in short moral lessons at the end of Tae Kwon Do martial arts classes. I don’t see any reason why that kind of secularized moral lessons can’t be taught in our schools, along with practical skills and a deep understanding of academic subjects, especially if we do right by kids by giving them time to learn by lengthening the school day and year.
In at least two controversies, the collective judgments of the young seem on target to me. Robert Putnam of Bowling Alone fame came to the University of Michigan a few years ago to talk about the research behind his more recent book with David Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. He expressed surprise that many young people are becoming alienated from traditional religion when attitudes toward abortion among the young are similar to attitudes among those who are older. But the alienation from traditional religion did not surprise me at all given another fact he reported: the young are dramatically more accepting and supportive of gay marriage than those who are older. I am glad that the young are troubled by the conflict between reproductive freedom and reverence for the beginnings of human life presented by abortion on the one hand and abortion restrictions on the other. But there is no such conflict in the case of gay marriage, which pits the the rights of gay couples to make socially sanctioned commitments to one another and enjoy the dignity and practical benefits of a hallowed institution against ancient custom, theocratic impulses, and misfiring disgust instincts that most of the young rightly reject. In this, the young are (perhaps without knowing it) following the example of that baby born in Bethlehem, who always gave honor to those who had been pushed to the edges of the society in which he became a man.
The hot-button controversy of gay marriage is not the only area of our culture due for full-scale revision. Our nation and the world will soon become immensely richer, stronger, and wiser if young people around the world reject the idea I grew up with that intelligence is a fixed, inborn quantity. The truth that hard work adds enormously to intelligence can set them free. What will make an even bigger difference is if they also enshrine their youthful idealism in a vision of a better world that can not only motivate them when young, but also withstand the cares of middle-age to guide their efforts throughout their lives.
Knowing that those who are now young, or are as yet unborn, will soon hold the future of humanity in their hands should make us alarmed at the number of children who don’t have even the basics of life. By far, the worst cases are abroad. The simplest way to help is to stop exerting such great efforts to put obstacles in the way of a better life for them. But whether or not we are willing to do that, it is a good thing to donate to charities that help those in greatest need.
Also, I give great honor to those economists working hard trying to figure out how to make poor countries rich.
For those of us already in the second halves of our lives, the fact that the young will soon replace us gives rise to an important strategic principle: however hard it may seem to change misguided institutions and policies, all it takes to succeed in such an effort is to durably convince the young that there is a better way. Max Planck, the father of quantum mechanics, said “Science progresses funeral by funeral.” In a direction not quite as likely to be positive, society evolves from funeral to funeral as well—the funerals of those whose viewpoints do not persuade the young.
It is a very common foolishness to look down on children as unimportant. The deep end of common sense is to respect children and to bring to bear our best efforts, both intellectually and materially, to help them become the best representatives of our species that the universe has ever seen.