Welcome to the fifth email in a series looking at Marden J. Clark’s collection Liberating Form: Mormon Essays on Religion and Literature. In this email, we’ll cover “The Mormon Commitment to Education.”
As always, the in-depth treatment of this week’s essay, including discussion questions, is at the end of the email and the discussion post for it can found on AMV.
Snapshot: Clark expands upon the notions of creativity and human freedom explored in the previous essay and claims that not only is education—and higher education in the liberal arts and sciences, in particular—not damaging to testimonies, but also that Mormons should be committed fully to it, including things like the scientific method and academic freedom and rigorous research and real, actual learning rather than getting a degree just so you have a piece of paper that you hope will unlock job opportunities.
Best Line(s): “But surely a testimony, like education and freedom and creativity, is self-creative, is inwardly dynamic and alive, is something to be invested like talents. No hot-house plant, it needs exposure to wind and rain and cold to give it toughness, resilience, endurance. It too responds to opposition in all things. It is not meant for a static life—if such a thing were possible” (67)
Why: Because if you can accept this premise, if you can come to not see testimonies as fragile, then all the objections to education and all the value that comes from education which Clark outlines in the essay make a lot of sense. Alas, that does not seem to be the predominant view of education in U.S. Mormonism. Or the U.S. generally, for that matter.
Mormon Lit Recommendation: Clark presents a classically liberal (in the best sense of that term) and rather genteel defense of education in this essay, bolstering that vision with his understanding of the Mormon worldview. For a rhetorically fascinating, more bracing view of higher education, and the pinpointing of a trend that has not only continued, but also gained steam in the intervening decades, check out this speech Hugh Nibley gave at BYU in 1983: “Leaders and Managers.”
Other Recommendation: I haven’t read most of the classic campus novels, although Stoner is languishing in my ebooks pile, and I keep meaning to get around to Jane Smiley’s Moo. However, I have read and can recommend Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher. It’s biting and hilarious and also, somehow, touching. Here’s the marketing copy: “Jason Fitger is a beleaguered professor of creative writing and literature at Payne University, a small and not very distinguished liberal arts college in the midwest. His department is facing draconian cuts and squalid quarters, while one floor above them the Economics Department is getting lavishly remodeled offices. His once-promising writing career is in the doldrums, as is his romantic life, in part as the result of his unwise use of his private affairs for his novels. His star (he thinks) student can’t catch a break with his brilliant (he thinks) work Accountant in a Bordello, based on Melville’s Bartleby. In short, his life is a tale of woe, and the vehicle this droll and inventive novel uses to tell that tale is a series of hilarious letters of recommendation that Fitger is endlessly called upon by his students and colleagues to produce, each one of which is a small masterpiece of high dudgeon, low spirits, and passive-aggressive strategies.”
William Update: Two major updates this week.
Update 1 = I finished the first draft of a novella last Saturday that I’ve been writing since late December 2021. It came in at just more than 20,000 words. It’s title (unless I change it) is “The Unseating of Dr. Smoot.” It’s about a Mormon female academic who travels to Utah to present at BYU and do a not-quite-a-job interview at UVU. She also meets up with her niece who attends BYU, her best friend from college, and her widower dad. It’s about academia, Mormonism, art, literature, relationships, food, and the Great Plains vs. the Great Basin. I will be self-publishing it.
Update 2 = we’re now far along in the process that I feel comfortable sharing that BCC Press will be publishing a collection of my strange Mormon stories later this year. There are 18 stories. Nine have previously been published, although several of the Mormon Lit Blitz stories have been expanded and revised. Nine stories are original to the collection and are even weirder and more experimental than the ones you’re familiar with.
I will have more updates on both projects in the weeks ahead.
Clark tends to prefer a slow build up in his essays, but for our deep dive, we’re going to start at the end and work our way backwards.
As a BYU professor, Clark often heard concerns, I’m sure, that college professors are destroying young people’s testimonies (of the truth claims of the LDS Church). Clark maintains that that’s impossible. That just like no one can give you a testimony, no one but you can destroy it.
“Others can challenge it,” he writes. “I can lose it through inaction or lack of concern, I can throw it away. I can refuse it. But nobody out there can destroy it. Not if it comes from whence we say it comes and is what we say it is” (67).
In fact he go so far as to claim that “the real crime, the one we stand in greater danger of, would be to leave our students’ testimonies intact and untouched, to present them with an education neatly wrapped and insulated from their testimony—or to permit ourselves to keep our testimony isolated and insulated” (67).
These statements go counter to the prevailing attitudes of U.S. Mormons, including, at times, LDS Church leadership, towards higher education at the time (1970s/’80s’) all the way through to the present day. It’s a mistake, though, to chalk that up purely to something intrinsic to Mormonism. Indeed, if we have learned anything in the years since our (last?**) liberal Mormon thinkers like Eugene England and Marden J. Clark stopped publishing, it’s that Mormons follow the prevailing political winds. That is, the Mormon attitudes towards higher education in the U.S. have tended to mimic the main attitudes found among the general population. Higher education is the pathway to a career and prosperity. Higher education is the last bastion of progressive thought and values. Higher education is full of communists and feminists and erodes students conservative (and religious) values. Higher education is out of touch with reality. Higher education has sold out to neoliberalism.
There is an extent to which of all of these claims have some truth to them.
But none of them are necessarily Mormon.
All of which is to say, this is also part of the story of Mormonism of the past four decades. Granted our attitudes, values, and rhetoric have always had intersection with that of the larger United States. But, for a variety of reasons (which I won’t go into here b/c otherwise this will end up being 10,000 words long), it seems to me that the mixture has become less derived from Mormon and more due to the influence of party politics since Clark’s time. And I’m not just referring to the last 5 or 6 years here.
And this leads me to Clark’s next point (remember we’re going backwards in this essay): he doesn’t believe in a dichotomy between the intellectual and the spiritual. His argument against the dichotomy is his own experience. Which is probably not convincing any of his skeptics, whatever the source of their skepticism.
And yet, there sure is a lot in Mormonism, especially early Mormonism, that supports the argument against this dichotomy. The problem is that we (speaking here about active LDS, but also to a certain extent all people who have a belief in a higher power or some other metaphysical hope) don’t seem to take our beliefs seriously. And we don’t seem to trust young people to navigate their transition to adulthood.
Which leads to the next point: Clark claims that “the ideal of academic freedom ought to be at least as important at the Church university as elsewhere,” although he is willing to concede that it ought to operate “within the limits of good taste and basic loyalty to both Church and University” (65).
He not only thinks that, but also that we shouldn’t be afraid of dissent. And this is because of the Mormon commitment to freedom (see also the previous essay) as this thing that’s “dynamic and self-expanding” (64).
And, indeed, the Mormon commitment to education grows out of the Mormon commitment to freedom: “We fully accept the fact of free will—and glory in it. Even so, I think we belittle it when we think of it only as our right. Even tying it to responsibility hardly suggests the inherent concept. For capacity has also to do with awareness, awareness of the possible alternatives and of their implications. And awareness is directly related to education” (63).
Such belittling has been and continues to be widespread along both of those tracks:
And to be sure, Clark does not shy away from the fact that freedom of scholarship and expression hasn’t been afforded Mormon intellectuals by the BYU and the Church, and that those who have exercised it (including, as he mentions, Jaunita Brooks and Maurine Whipple) have been shunned.
But he thinks things should be otherwise. He worries that we (and specifically BYU as an institution) aren’t supportive enough of research and creative activity; that we are needlessly shrinking from involvement in secular education; that we deploy scriptures condemning the wise or the wisdom of men with way too broad of an interpretation; that we focus too much on education as only career preparation; that we are, in short, too instrumental and anti-intellectual in our approach to education.
And here, we get to the crux of Clark’s defense of a Mormon commitment to education: he believes that Mormons believe that we are on a quest “to know and event to create the highest possible Good” and since that is the case, education is “the most fundamental means of carrying on the quest—or if not the most fundamental, then second only to ‘the first principles and ordinances’ and perhaps to Work” (53, ital. original).
For we believe “the glory of God is intelligence” and “Man is saved no faster than he gets knowledge” (53).
I don’t know that Clark’s essay is going to convince the anti-intellectuals or skeptics out there. And while there has been some thawing of sorts and recognition by both the LDS Church and BYU that members, including and especially, young people can’t be sheltered from knowledge, the gestures made to reinforce this thawing of sorts have been, while worthwhile, slight and instrumental.
Many of us Mormon seem to still believe in this quest (or have moved to other quests, but generally ones that still seek a greater good). But one of the problems with quests is that it’s tempting to focus too much on the most obvious gains. Of what will lead to progress.
Clark begins his essay by talking about the chapters in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings that describe the Entmoot. Ents are ancient tree-like sentient creatures. When presented with a major danger to both them and all of the known world, they decide that matters are grave enough that they should have a big meeting—a moot. As Clark describes it: “The Ents are not a hasty people, but the danger is grave and imminent, hence the Moot takes only three days, two to absorb and consider the facts, not even to decide the Ents shall journey to Isengard to aid in the fight against Saruman” (51). Clark then frames his thoughts on education and Mormonism as the result of his own private moot and relates the quest in Tolkien’s novel to the Mormon one.
But going backwards in this essay has me seeing this literary allusion in a new light. The thing with the Ents is that while it looks like dithering to us hasty humans, Ents take a while to consider and decide because they know the freedom to make decisions comes with consequences. Decisions lead to change and so we must have the confidence to gather and consider the facts, but also act once we come to a decision.
In other words, so much of our discussion about education is broken and stupid and treats it like we treat everything these days: as this thing that everyone has opinions about but very few treat seriously. We sense that it’s important, or can be important, and so stir up furor in relation to it, but if we really were committed to it, that is, to education, we’d take the time to become educated about it. And the fact that we don’t are even unable and unwilling to take the time to learn more about the topic drags us deeper into situations that make it even more difficult to gain the education we need.
And so, I think, for all his old fashioned-ness and idealism and reliance on personal feelings and experiences, Clark ultimately is right: how we conceive of things like human freedom, education, and testimony matters.
But so also is the reverse, which is why reading this essay backwards works: how we talk about things like testimony, education, and human freedom so often suggests we don’t really believe or trust or understand our (Mormon) conceptions of and commitment to them.
The next email features a companion essay to this one, and then after that, we really get into some fun Mormon literature stuff. See you in two weeks!
**Shout out to Kristine Haglund’s book on Eugene England.
Thanks for reading!
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