August 1, 2008

On Personal Responsibility in Education

We read in the Bible, that there is one glory of the sun, another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars...These are worlds, different departments, or mansions, in our Father's house. Now, those men or those women who know no more about the power of God and the influences of the Holy Spirit than to be led entirely by another person, suspending their own understanding and pinning their faith upon another's sleeve, will never be capable of entering into the celestial glory to be crowned as they anticipate; they will never be capable of becoming gods. They cannot rule themselves, to say nothing of ruling others, but they must be dictated to in every trifle, like a child. They cannot control themselves in the least, but James, Peter, or somebody else must control them. They never can become gods, nor be crowned as rulers with glory, immortality, and eternal lives. They never can hold scepters of glory, majesty, and power in the celestial kingdom.

Who will? Those who are valiant and inspired with the true independence of heaven, who will go forth boldly in the service of their God, leaving others to do as they please, determined to do right, though all mankind besides should take the opposite course.

Will this apply to any of you? Your own hearts can answer (Brigham Young, JD 1:312).
Much has been discussed regarding dissemination of knowledge in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I want to share a few thoughts on the topic of education, knowledge, history, and personal responsibility before more fully explaining my view of the recent Bushman seminar

First, by way of clarification I assert that I believe the current Sunday School, seminary and higher CES instruction could definitely stand some improvement. I also keep in mind that as far as gospel instruction on Sunday is concerned, teaching positions are not filled with professional clergy but with regular members of the Church. The manuals and lesson plans are structured with specific purposes in mind, historical inquiry seemingly secondary to the weightier matters of preaching Christ and Him crucified, and enjoining Saints to have faith and live the gospel.[1]

Perhaps like you I have sat through some mind-numbing lessons when the teacher apologizes for forgetting to go over the lesson during the week or that they were called at the last minute. I have occasionally cringed during what I self-righteously felt was an inadequate sacrament meeting talk or one that expressed what I believe is false doctrine. I have been caught offguard by various surprises in Church history, such as the "Adam-God" theory or "blood atonement" and wondered if these things were discussed in a Seminary class through which I was writing a note to a girl or sleeping with my head on my desk. In the meantime I also recall all of the Simpsons episodes and Utah Jazz games I've watched, the afternoon naps, the summer water fights, all the music I've listened to, enabling me to sing along to every word with favorite bands.

With all that in mind, I don't mean to ridicule those who have less gospel understanding than me, indeed I often feel dwarfed by others; as Will Rogers said: "everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects." I do not wish to lay complete blame of ignorance at the feet of Saints who have felt the Church somehow let them down in regards to disseminating information; as Bushman mentioned in his paper, some feel shocked or misled when they discover what they feel is unflattering aspects of Church history; they can lose trust. I wish to emphasize a key gospel principle enjoining all to take personal responsibility now; to remind us that each must be "anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness; For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves.  And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward" (D&C 58:26-29).[2] For now, I will approach the responsibility to seek this learning, as Brigham explained above, initiative is key. Ironically, most of the people who read this likely don't need to hear it; I'll be preaching to the choir.

For my text I refer to a talk given to BYU students in 1976 by Eliot Butler, former dean of the College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences.[3] I feel a little like he did; it may seem presumptuous to talk about what it means to be an educated person, but like Butler, I take comfort in the observation that "one is not required to be that which he describes."

What does it mean to be an "educated person"? Butler defines it (not comprehensively, but rightfully, I believe) as one who by his or her own initiative and discipline is consciously, vigorously, and continuously learning. He notes some characteristics that mark any educated person:
  • Learning is not an aberration, but a continuing, vigorous process.
  • Learning is the result of self-discipline; not just the result of demands or pressure from others. 
  • Learning does not place responsibility solely on teachers, parents, etc.
  • Learning includes the freedom of doing more than is expected or required rather than the slave-like position of doing only as much as is required.
Butler briefly describes some processes of gaining knowledge:

You learn that rain makes your shirt wet. A parent learns the likes and dislikes of a child. This learning is good and crucial, but true education and learning must reach beyond simple observation and memory.

Language is important in formulating and communicating ideas.  But if learning is limited to naming it may amount to little more than trivia.

*Higher Tools
Discipline, desire, hard work, etc. are possessed by any educated person should possess.

In short, there must be an inner drive to reach past the boundaries of current knowledge. Butler emphasizes "there should be purpose and a sense of responsibility to the learning." The more one learns, the wider is his or her view that he or she has much more to learn. Increased education actually ought to lead to increased humility rather than smugness or a feeling that "we need no more, for we have enough!"[4]

In closing, Butler emphasizes that by becoming educated (be it at school or on our own) we can become better instruments in the hands of God. We can use our knowledge to appreciate things more, to serve and share with others, and to increase our happiness in life. Or by our ignorance we can become a stumbling block.[5]

So please ask yourself: Do I actively seek more knowledge? How many books have I read in the past year? If I am a college student, have I confined my reading to the assigned texts or do I go beyond them? Have I read something with which I disagree within the past few weeks? Do I read the Sunday School lesson each week before going to Church? When is the last time I read the Book of Mormon? When I have a question during a class do I ask the teacher, or out of fear for looking dumb (or for other reasons, which may be wise) do I keep my hand down? Do I have the initiative to discover an answer if one is not readily available? Am I a passive or an active learner? Am I prideful? Do I view others with contempt because I feel I am smarter than them? What areas of my knowledge can I improve?  If I felt to sing the song of the love of continual learning, can I do so now?

This is brief and scattered, but I hope to emphasize that personal responsibility and drive are imperative. Seek and we shall find, knock it and it shall be open to us. Sometimes I view the gospel as a gigantic mansion house with room after room of things to discover. Some people have been in rooms I have not seen yet and I like to ask them what they've discovered there. I try to poke my head in a lot of rooms, and if one looks particularly interesting (or even sometime particularly uninteresting, but I need to stretch my mind) I might walk in and sit down and see what I can discover.

How does knowledge affect salvation? How does the growing access to information, especially through the Internet, affect the gospel cause? What can the Church do better in disseminating knowledge? Has the Church succeeded in the past? What are the roles of each member of the body of Christ (students and the different instructors) regarding education? How did the Bushman seminar compare to previous apologetic efforts? What was different? My intent is to address these issues and more through next week.


Indeed it becomes difficult to differentiate between the two (history and living the gospel), given that Latter-day Saints and Christianity in general include historical accounts in religious conviction. Still, for Sunday school purposes I believe that rather than rigorous historical criticism, Church manuals focus more on the application of principles than on various historical opinions. For more on this subject, see David B. Honey and Daniel C. Peterson, "Advocacy and Inquiry in the Writing of Latter-day Saint History," BYU Studies 31:2 (1991), 1-41 [.pdf]. See also, Dallin H. Oaks, “Focus and Priorities,” Ensign, May 2001, 82; “Good, Better, Best,Ensign, Nov 2007, 104–8.

Intelligence receives high billing in the Church; seeking knowledge is a fundamental aspect of the gospel; "seek[ing] learning, even by study and also by faith" (D&C 88:118) is canonized. We are promised that the Spirit can give utterance in the hour of need, especially when one has continually treasured up in the mind the words of life (D&C 84:85). Scripture also connects righteousness with the acquisition of knowledge; charity and virtue can help the doctrine "distil upon [the] soul as the dews from heaven" (D&C 121:45) implying that knowing and becoming are interconnected, and a function of our own works with the grace of Jesus Christ. How much does the knowledge we acquire lend into our faith, hope, charity and love, with an eye single to the glory of God? Why would one who gains more knowledge have greater advantage in the life to come (D&C 130:18-19)? What type of knowledge gives this edge?

Butler, "Everybody Is Ignorant, Only On Different Subjects," BYU Studies 17:3, p. 275-290 [.pdf].

See 2 Nephi 28:29. The more I have learned about history and archeology the more I am aware of the possible shortcomings of both of those pursuits, as well as the potential fruits they can still yield, for example.

Muslim philosopher Abu-Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali (1058-1111) wrote: "The harm inflicted on religion by those who defend it in a way not proper to it is greater than [the harm caused by] those who attack it in the proper way to it. As it has been said: 'A rational foe is better than an ignorant friend'" (al-Ghazali, The Incoherance of the Philosophers: A Parallel English-Arabic Text Translated, Introduced, and Annotated by Michael E. Marmura, p. 6).

The picture "Antiphonary" is from a Latin piece of music from Italy (1250-1299 AD). It depicts Joseph (son of Jacob) dreaming of the sun, moon and stars. Library of Philadelphia, shelfmark: Lewis E M 26:20-29


Bryce Haymond said...

Your comments are, once again, timely and well-put. I often ask myself the same questions to check whether I'm getting lazy. Thank you for the encouragement to educate ourselves, because, of course, that is the only way we learn.

LifeOnaPlate said...

Thanks, Bryce.

Michael said...

Great post! Anyone who quotes al-Ghazali in a footnote deserves high praise in my opinion.

Sione said...

If this post was intended for me, it has entirely fayled. This has been a difficult obstacle for me to overcome, both in terms of temporal and spiritual education.

Luckily the Spirit often quickens the mind and I find myself filled to overflowing. Luckily, I usually awake and find to my dismay that it was only my coffee cup.

Couldn't help it. ;)


I'll text you my phn# tomorrow.

Sione said...

Dammit to hell I should really start to proof read!!! I'm taking an English composition class somewhere in the Fall. Stoopid English as a second language speak Tongan can't re edit published posts nonsense.


LifeOnaPlate said...

Thanks, Sione.

BHodges said...

I wanted to add some stuff I just discovered on another blog for my future reference.

On M* a responder named D. Bell said:

I believe the Church itself is presented with the same dilemma. Many members, including me, have wished the Church would be more open about the more challenging aspects of its history and doctrine. Presenting a sanitized, correlated version makes it look like we have something to hide; it also provides many members with a false sense of security that will inevitably be demolished upon their first encounter with the truth. This isn’t to say that one can’t recover from such an encounter; many do. But many don’t.

At the same time, I’m not sure how the Church could or should go about this. Its job is to promote faith and build testimony; I’m not sure that teaching members about its warts to prepare them for facing critics is the best way to accomplish that. Why scare off those who are new to the Gospel? Many rightly point out that correlation has to take into account the varied backgrounds of the members of a global church: the David O. McKay manual has to work for the man with the 3rd-grade education as well as the woman with a PhD in History.
I never really resolved this dilemma as a missionary, and I’m not sure how the Church can resolve it either. Any thoughts or ideas?

Emphasis mine.

The discussion is here:

BHodges said...

Adam Greenwood added:

The LEAST IMPORTANT effect of the ‘Saturday School of the Prophets’ would be the actual discussion on Saturday between the teacher and the class.

The real importance would be that it would make just baptized members and adolescents aware that (1) there is more to Mormonism than they know, (2)that it’s not hidden, (3) that there are answers out there, even if they’re judged ‘not ready’ for them yet, and (4) identifying someone to talk to (the teacher, who I would see functioning much as a ward apologist) if they have questions that can’t wait until later.

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