One of the most memorable ideas I encountered while reading Rod Dreher’s “The 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.