A whole lot of folks out there would like to believe the answer is "yes."
The postmodernist myth is that we can dispense with a shared faith in objective moral truth. Can a whole society really discard old-fashioned norms that emphasize shared values and obligations — such as marriage — and instead become an America that prizes above all diversity, change, taboo-breaking and values-consumption, i.e., doing whatever you think works for you?
The thing about moral norms is they take work — hard work — to inculcate in any of us, much less the average 19-year-old. It would certainly be a lot easier for most of us parents if the postmodernist myth were true.
But this week two big pieces of evidence came in showing that the kids are not OK. Really not OK at all.
The first is a study published in the General Archives of Psychiatry on the mental health of young adults. More than 5,000 18- to 25-year-olds were interviewed in person for this groundbreaking research. The results are startling: Almost half of college-aged individuals had a psychiatric disorder in the past year.
Even allowing for "diagnosis creep" — this is a study which includes nicotine dependence as a psychiatric disorder — that’s a shockingly high figure. There was remarkably little difference in mental health problems by educational status: 46 percent of young adults in college had at least one psychiatric disorder, compared to 48 percent of young adults who are not currently in college.
Perhaps most troubling, about one in five of the next generation of young adults suffers from a personality disorder (a serious form of mental illness). Eighteen percent of college students fit the diagnostic criteria for a personality disorder, compared to 22 percent of young adults not attending college.
Equally troubling are the results from another large survey on the ethics of 29,000 high school students.
Thirty percent of high school students (and note the large proportion of teens who drop out were not included) say they stole from a store in the past year. Almost a quarter confessed that they stole something from their parents in the past year, and one in five high school students admitted they stole from their friends.
More than four out of 10 American high school students admitted they lied to save money in the past year, and 83 percent confessed that they have lied to their parents about "something significant." Sixty-four percent say they cheated on a test in the past year. Sixteen percent of our boys say it is more important to be rich than a good person.
Here’s the good news: 98 percent of teens agree. It is important for me to be a person of good character." And more than nine out of 10 agree that their parents want them to do the ethically right thing "no matter what the cost." Almost a quarter of students had enough shame to admit they disagreed with the statement "When it comes to doing what is right, I am better than most people I know."
Yet nearly half (48 percent) of boys also said: "A person has to lie or cheat sometimes in order to succeed."
Where are they getting that idea?
Not, it appears, from their parents, who by and large are trying to instill "traditional" moral values in these highly untraditional times.
We know how hard it is for parents to raise children who postpone sexual gratification until marriage (or even adulthood). Now it appears there are a large number of other moral rules our children are failing to internalize, or at least realize.
Thou shalt not bear false witness. Thou shalt not steal.
How many of the other Ten Commandments are we prepared to jettison because, under postmodern conditions, transmitting these values is exceptionally difficult?
Maggie Gallagher is president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy as well as of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM).