Character and Nuclear Anxietynby John P. Sisknteft:i^^rf inAmerican society is widely recognized as youth-oriented,nbut it has been a long time since any authoritativensource has given us really good news about the young.nRecent reports from the American Medical Association, thenNational Research Council, and the Council of PhysicalnFitness have been especially discouraging: the young exercisentoo little, eat too much of the wrong food, and get toonfat. Most of those who are worried about physical flabbinessnare even more concerned about the spiritual flabbiness itnimplies. No doubt they would agree with the 27 educators,nschool officials, and policymakers who, after their conferencenin Washington in the fall of 1984, announced that thenmoral condition of the young was bad and likely to getnworse. Young people today, they noted, “are more likely toncommit suicide, or kill one another, and males are morenlikely to make unmarried females pregnant.” Their conclusion,nissued in a “Thanksgiving Statement,” was thatn”schools in general are not doing enough to counter thensymptoms of serious decline in youth character.”nSince America has always been a land of individualnopportunity, a nervousness about the character of the youngnis inevitable: if the young become morally and physicallynflabby, we may individually and communally miss ournopportunities. The character of the young has always been anprecious natural resource. Even the immigrant Mafia kingpinnJoseph Bonanno, in his autobiographical A Man ofnHonor, lamented that he was “too old for the modernnworld” in which there are no “certain fixed values” to guidenthe young as they strive toward manhood.nJohn P. Sisk is Arnold Professor of the Humanities atnGonzaga University. His forthcoming book is Tyranniesnof Virtue (University of Oklahoma Press).n24/CHRONICLESnnnFixed values (traditionally approved, of course) are whatnAmerican character is all about, whether you take your standnwith Cotton Mather, Theodore Roosevelt, or Jerry Falwell.nAnd character, whether in the service of an establishment orna successful revolution, helps to keep human affairs movingnat a manageable pace. This is no less true of America than ofnthe Mafia and the Boy Scouts, both of which are threatenednby the accelerating and centrifugal force of freelancingnindividualism. Indeed, the Boy Scout oath is not toondiff’erent from the Mafia code. When Joe Bonanno’sntradition started to break down, he says he began to livenbetween hammer and anvil. This is about where the 27neducators and policymakers saw the nation’s schools.nOne of the last persons to be thoroughly optimistic aboutnAmerican youth was the late Ralph Gleason, a foundingneditor of Rolling Stone. For him the good news was thatncontemporary popular music “is an energy source todaynunlike anything in history, yes, even including religion.”nThis music, in its role of “societal glue,” was to Gleason anmind-expanding and view-realigning force that could notnhelp but change society for the better, and in fact hadnalready been incorporated fruitfully by advertisers, politicians,nand preachers. Here, argued Gleason, was a programnfor the moral invigoration of youth.nAmericans, of course, have long associated traditionalncharacter formation with the impulse-denying work ethic ofnthe Puritans. Often enough they have allowed their thinkingnabout character to be overdetermined by a caricature versionnof that ethic, so that it appears to be a moral straitjacket. Thisnis why Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, with itsnportrayals of a prelapsarian natural world uninhibited bynbourgeois sexual conventions and crippling personal commitments,nwas so popular for so long after its appearance inn