Horwitz speculates that the answer has to do with increased social capital among working and middle-class abiders, which accrues to them through religion itself. Those in the professional class already have high levels of social capital. Their parents are likely to work in well-paying jobs, to be involved in civic and political life, and to have had college and graduate-level education. Their lives are often more or less “in order” so that, when a crisis hits, they know whom to call. If someone from the professional classes needs a lawyer, a medical specialist, or a CPA, he likely already knows someone who can help, and it may be a friend or colleague. Children from these classes also know lots of adults who appear in their lives as coaches, teachers, family friends, and parents of friends. They have abundant resources.
This is not always the case for the working and middle classes, and certainly not for the poor. But religion steps in to offer a ready-made source of social capital. At church, otherwise modestly situated young people are introduced to all sorts of people of different ages, in different roles. An adolescent might know her senior or youth pastor, the church secretary, and a host of other adults who attend church with her. She may volunteer through her church and meet yet another group of adults in the community. She will have friends at different schools through youth groups, whose parents are likely to be involved in their lives. She will, in short, have developed a network of contacts and also a network of accountability. All this pays benefits in keeping her grounded and within “God’s guardrails,” as Horwitz puts it. Unsurprisingly, then, such adolescents are much less likely to get in trouble with the law or have children before marriage, and thus to succeed in high school and subsequently attend and graduate from college.
It is, however, the top 25% who are the most intriguing part of this study. Here is where things take an unexpected turn—at least unexpected for Horwitz. She finds that the professional-class abiders often do not take the expected next step of applying to and attending the most prestigious and selective college they can. In fact, they often “undermatch”—i.e., they attend a school that is less selective than others that they are capable of getting into. Susanna, a typical young woman interviewed in the study, “does not see college as a stepping-stone to a successful career . . . instead of pursuing new experiences or stepping out of her comfort zone during her college years . . . Susanna sticks to the tried and true.” And her “primary ambitions remain the same after college as they were in high school: to start a family, help others, and orientate (sic) her life around God.”
Horwitz does not directly criticize these aspirations, but she immediately turns to a contrasting group—Jewish adolescent girls—who possess much more admirable characteristics. Unlike the abider girls, the Jewish girls are “open to new experiences” and the prospect of college is “exciting” rather than “fraught with anxiety” as it was for the abiders. In the words of one young Jewish 14-year-old, “I like people who are interested in learning and observing—not people who stay afraid on the surface and hang out there.”
Just as interesting to Horwitz is another group of high-achievers: atheists. Atheists, unlike the compliant abiders, are “intrinsically motivated to pursue knowledge” and are “autonomously motivated individuals who think critically and are driven by curiosity.” Abiders do well, by contrast, primarily because they are following a “hidden curriculum” that emphasizes “conformity” and “compliance” over actual merit. Our schools, Horowitz maintains, are shaped by “White Protestant culture,” and thus prepare students for “docile compliance with authoritarian work and political structures.” Abiders appear to do well in this framework.
Horwitz highlights one young atheist, Janet, who comments that the Bible and other religious books express ideas that are “just plain ludicrous . . . I think that anyone who claims to live their life by the Bible either hasn’t read it or is not telling the truth.” Horwitz then observes that “Janet doesn’t just thirst for knowledge—she also adapts her perceptions and understandings of the world as she accumulates more of it. She’s constantly reflecting on what she has read or seen in her own life to see how it fits or alters her current worldview.” Again: Initiative, inquisitiveness, and intellectual bravery are attributed to atheists; abiders are cautious and content with the social order.
Especially in the top 25%, religion seems to work against the goods of social progress, especially for those who undermatch and fail to aspire to the highest levels of professional success. The sentiments of abiders, comments Horwitz in her conclusion, “are likely to be at odds with some readers’ views of social progress.” In a subsequent, telling sentence, she wonders how religion can be good “if it places limits on people’s autonomy and endorses traditional gender roles?” I think what might be required is to question the very concepts of autonomy and gender roles—by considering the shocking possibility that autonomy might not be our highest good, and that traditional gender roles might carry some wisdom from the past.
Ultimately I want to offer both praise and criticism for this book. God, Grades, and Graduation is clearly written, easy to follow, and interesting to read—none of which are “givens” in modern social science writing. Horwitz has taken religion seriously and asks compelling questions about it.
But I think she fails to appreciate the actual variety and complexity of choices that face young people in the contemporary world. While many of them do embrace career, affluence, late childbearing, and uprooting themselves for a career, others—alternatively countercultural or benighted—pursue a different vision, one that comes to them at least in part through their faith.
Perhaps these young Christians imagine that family, place, and orientation toward God are more important in the final analysis than career and ambition. Thus they choose to stay put, to pursue less prestigious colleges and jobs, to have multiple children, and to stay near their parents. Such choices are not necessarily passive or fearful—indeed, it may take far more self-assurance to pursue such a course than to do what the world expects.
And though the survey data may imply that such people are less “curious,” it may also be that they are curious about quite different things: about what it means to be saved, what the Christian moral life requires, and how to bring one’s will in line with the will of God. These are not minor matters. Certainly I have known many young Christians who enthusiastically employ their well-developed “critical thinking skills” against precisely the kinds of goods and progressive political views that secular culture tells them they must pursue. Horwitz has not yet fully appreciated that religion is not just another demographic characteristic, but that it can entail a complete and radical revaluation of values, and a liberating expansion of the moral imagination.