Friday, September 22, 2017

Education and the "Inwardly Compelling"

One of the most memorable ideas I encountered while reading Rod Dreher’sThe Benedict Option” comes from sociologist Philip Rieff:

The death of a culture begins when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideals in ways that remain inwardly compelling…

I immediately recognized the concept as something I have been struggling to articulate for some time regarding most K-12 education.  With the rise of self-destructive behavior and suicide rates among youth, the usual response is for some individual or group to create a new educational program promoting better outcomes.  There seems to be an endless supply of new anti-bullying or anti-substance abuse campaigns, and the debate rages about the best ways to reduce teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease.  (Teach “abstinence” or “everything you never imagined” about sex?) 
But in most of these programs, I see little that is “inwardly compelling,” and often much that is contradictory to what is taught elsewhere in the same school.  If a child is taught that humans are merely carbon-based life forms that accidentally came into being, what is the compelling reason to “be nice” to the other accidental beings?  If a student is taught that humans are merely animals and that sexual acts are just bodily functions, what does it matter if another human is a forced participant? 
Although a number of philosophers and thinkers have attempted to create viable “ethical” systems for materialists, (e.g. Camus,) for most people such systems fail to provide any “inwardly compelling” motivations.  That is not to say that moral systems based on transcendent realities yield perfect results (and adherents do not expect them to do so,) but the spiritual aspect seems to create more inwardly compelling reasons than “be nice because the teacher said so.” 

As such, most of the efforts I’ve seen to end bullying, or reduce consequences of promiscuity, or even just promote civil discourse, are merely band aids on flesh wounds; the wounds themselves are much deeper.  And much more deadly.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Remembering Jerrell Shofner and the Study of History

Flipping through the latest issue of my University of Central Florida alum magazine, I was surprised to see a small notice that Jerrell Shofner had died.  When a UCF history major back in the early 1990’s, I had thoroughly enjoyed Dr. Shoffner’s Florida History class.  He was one of those professors who presented history with contagious enthusiasm, like a master storyteller.  In addition to teaching at UCF, Shofner published 16 books and served as president of the Florida Historical Society.  He was gracious and polite in the classroom, but a demanding instructor, and I know many students found his class challenging.  Shofner’s obituary in the Orlando Sentinel includes this quote from a former colleague, “He did not suffer fools lightly.”  True, but he also recognized and encouraged sincere effort.  Although he often returned essay exams with stern lectures lamenting some of the more dismal results, one day as he handed me my exam he smiled and said, “I so enjoy reading what you write!” It was an encouragement I needed and cherished.

I loved studying History at UCF and attended graduate school on scholarship in another state.  Sadly, my graduate school experience was not a happy one and I left after one year.  Although there are a multitude of reasons I abandoned my studies, one is that I found a much less compelling approach to history in my new environment.  Trying to interpret everything that ever happened anywhere and at any time in terms of class warfare is not only tedious, but a denial of the nature of humanity.  I learned that many modern historians have discarded the “story” element in favor of a dry, materialist, and cynical science.  What’s compelling about that?  

Dr. Shofner, along with instructors like Thomas Greenhaw, John Evans, and E. B. Fetscher, made studying history at UCF a great experience, and I remember those years with fondness.  I did not have knowledge of their personal beliefs, but my memory is that they presented history as a compelling story: neither overly heroic nor overly dismal, but one that reflects the complexity of what it means to be human.  For this I am ever grateful.  

R.I.P. Jerrell Shofner, and thanks for sharing your love of history with so many.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Holly Hansen Blogs

Political blogging at