The Mentor That Inspired Me to Inspire

Larry Nelson died on Jan. 14, 2014. No, not the professional golfer who currently plays on the Champions Tour -- this Larry Nelson was the history professor who taught for about three decades at the University of North Alabama.

Although the passing of Dr. Nelson does not rise to the level of national news, for me, it serves as a reminder of what the American educational system so desperately needs: inspiration.

In the fall of 1981, my freshman year at a relatively unknown Midwest liberal arts college, I wandered into an American History survey course taught by Dr. Nelson. I was a clueless 18-year-old who, up to that point, had sleepwalked through much of my 13 years of organized education. At the time, Dr. Nelson was a young professor in his early to mid-30s. Neither the appearance of the man standing at the front of the classroom nor the classroom itself gave much hope for transcendence.

The classroom I walked into could not have been more primitive even by early 1980s standards. It once served as a temporary Army barrack during World War II. Old creaky wooden floors, dismal lighting, unwashed chalkboards and an assortment of uncomfortable desks oddly situated to fit an unaccommodating structure clearly indicated it was never intended to nurture the development of higher order thinking skills.

As for Dr. Nelson, he was a tall, gawky, and prematurely bald man who, despite his youth, had no time for hipness. He was not going to waste his or our time with cool. He had committed his life to something far more important than trying to impress a class of recently minted high school graduates. He had roughly three-and-a-half months of our time and attention, and he was not going to waste it with charm or thinly veiled attempts to stroke his own ego. He wanted to help us think about the world in deeper and more profound ways, to consider our own humanity by examining how those who came before us searched for meaning and constructed a view of the world we inherited.

Each day he walked into class, picked up a piece of chalk, and wrote "GHIIH." He quickly explained to us that those letters stood for "good history is intellectual history." I had no idea what that meant; it did not matter. By the end of the first 50-minute class, he made me do something remarkable: think. Not because I had to in order to pass a test, earn a grade, or move another step closer to economic independence, but because it offered a far greater reward, a means to a far grander end--a life of meaning and purpose.

Dr. Nelson left my school for the University of North Alabama after my sophomore year. Although his departure devastated me, in two years I took as many of his classes as I could squeeze into my schedule. I came a long way in those two years with Dr. Nelson. I had no clearer sense of what I wanted to do with my life, but I had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted to be: a person committed to finding meaning and purpose in this life by engaging in deep reflection and a greater appreciation for how my choices affect not only my life, but the lives of others.

The path Dr. Nelson offered has not been an easy one to follow. I have encountered many twists and turns, dead ends, and obstructions along the way. I have made mistakes, many mistakes. My education, though, rooted in the liberal arts, has equipped me to self-correct, appreciate my agency in the pursuit of happiness, and ultimately build a life of meaning and purpose. I owe Dr. Nelson a lot.

In my service as a university president, I hear a lot about the need for another "I" word: innovation. Education generally, and higher education particularly, faces many challenges, and there is no doubt that innovation plays a part in meeting them, but it is secondary to the role inspiration plays in the cultivation of curious minds.

"For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." Yes, Jesus was warning his disciples of the dangers of investing in earthly things above heavenly things, but his words can also serve as a valuable warning to the stewards of our democracy. If we do not invest in the next generation of Larry Nelsons, no amount of technological innovation can save us. Democracies only survive with an educated, engaged citizenry, and the seeds of such a citizenry can only be planted by those called to inspire the next generation to learn, question, and serve.

May Dr. Nelson rest in peace; we need the likes of him now more than ever.