Maybe it is time to turn correlation over to the market. As it happens, materials in support of church curriculum are frequently less than what one might hope for. (This is not necessarily a huge problem, given that the main text is the Scriptures, which are endlessly fascinating and full of enough weird stuff to keep anyone happy.) Generally speaking, this fact gets blamed on a couple of causes. One is that the iron hand of correlation brutally suppresses any and all interesting thought from appearing in Church manuals. The second, somewhat less melodramatic criticism is that materials are trying to be all things to all people, which has a certain dumbing down effect.
The real problem, however, is that we are dealing with a monopoly, and monopolies, over time, have a tendency to produce less than stellar products. So my suggestion is that we simply get rid of the monopoly. Let’s create a competitive market in Sunday School curriculums. “Impossible!” I hear you saying, “The Church must maintain control over what gets taught in its own Sunday Schools.” Fair enough, but there is no reason to suppose that we must accept a binary distinction between having a Church monopoly on the production of Sunday School materials, and having no Church control at all. We could set up an intermediate system that would look like this:
1. The Church could continue its current cycling through the Standard Works as the subject matter of instruction, insisting — as it does now — that the primary text is whatever book of scripture we are studying that year.
2. Private parties would then be free to develop books that could be used as supplemental materials for Sunday School classes.
3. These texts could then be submitted to the Church for review by a correlation committee, which could then sign off on them or reject them as doctrinally erroneous.
4. Individual units would then be charged with purchasing materials out of their budgets. They could choose whatever materials local church authorities — i.e. bishops, Sunday school presidents, and Sunday school teachers — thought would work best for their congregation, but their choices would be limited to materials that had been signed off on by correlation.
This system would create a market in manuals in which authors would be forced to compete to create quality materials, while at the same time allowing the Church to maintain basic doctrinal control. There are some other cool possibilities with such an approach other than the general increase in quality that competition would likely bring. First, we might start getting a bit more regional variation. For example, South American saints could use materials that were authored by fellow South Americans writing with the particular experiences and needs of their fellow South Americans in mind. You could also get a bit more in terms of varying levels of sophistication. Local teachers and leaders have a pretty good sense of where their congregation is at in terms of background knowledge, etc. It doesn’t necessarily make a great deal of sense for a congregation made up mainly of new members or young adults to use precisely the same materials as a congregation made up mainly of life long members and retirees.
There are, of course, problems with this proposal. It would place burdens on the ability of correlation to review all of the documents submitted. I suspect that in part you would get a market response to this. For example, BYU professors could hire themselves out as correlation consultants, spotting potential trouble spots for authors prior to submitting their documents for review. Second, one might try a devolution of the correlation function. There is an analogy here to the Catholic Church, where a local diocese (or perhaps an arch-diocese) has the authority to review work and issue a “nihil obstat,” declaring that the work is without doctrinal or moral error. Hence, one might submit the process of correlation to the stake or regional area. Consistency could still be maintained by allowing rejected works to appeal to some more central correlation committee, and having central authorities conduct periodic audits of materials approved by local authorities to insure consistency.
I suspect that there would also be a worry that Church members would give too much credence to materials that had passed through this process, treating them as in effect official statements by the Church. This could be avoided, I think, by very clearly articulating two standards. First, materials that pass the approval process are not official church doctrine, they are just being declared free of major doctrinal or moral error and are suitable as aids to instruction. Second, one could reemphasize that local leaders have the final obligation to see to it that teaching in their branches, wards, and stakes focuses in on Church doctrine. This is actually the system we have now. Armed with simply the scriptures and a Church produced manual, it is possible for Gospel Doctrine teachers to stray far, far a field, and we count on bishops, etc. to police the ultimate boundaries of acceptable teaching. By and large, I think that they do a fairly good job, and there is no reason to suppose that they wouldn’t continue to do a good job under the new system.
A final problem is the new market might be too successful. Given the opportunity, members might too often elect for elaborate materials that ultimately draw attention away from the scriptures. There are two ways of dealing with this problem. First, the Church could simply refuse to approve materials beyond a certain length. Second, local leaders could police instruction to insure that it remains ultimately focused on the scriptures rather than the manual. Again, this is already a task that we trust local leaders to do, and by and large they do a pretty good job.
Other thoughts, problems, and solutions?