Teaching is like sentencing. After all, we all know that sitting though Sunday School can seem at times like cruel and unusual punishment. Also, in both areas, we see the same sorts of arguments in play, about the appropriate balance between predictability and flexibility.
Throughout much of United States history, judges have had significant discretion in sentencing. Legislatures historically established maximum and sometimes minimum sentences, but judges enjoyed great discretion within those parameters. A statute might say, “up to 20 years for armed robbery.” If that was the only constraint — and that kind of statutory structure was very common — then the judge in the case would have free reign to give a sentence of 20 years, ten years, one year, or even no jail time at all.
During the 1960s, this practice came under attack. Researchers at NYU and at the Vera Institute produced studies showing that broad sentencing discretion tended to result in all sorts of problematic results — in particular, that minority defendants were likely to receive far longer sentences than whites who committed the same crimes. In 1972, Marvin Frankel, a very influential and well-respected district judge in New York, published an important book called Criminal Sentencing: Law Without Order, where he vigorously criticized the extent of judicial discretion in sentencing, and called for more uniform sentences.
Congress eventually responded, passing legislation that put into place the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. The Sentencing Guidelines create a matrix which you apply mechanically, like an actuarial table, to find an appropriate sentence range. You look at the points assigned to a particular crime — five, or ten, or twelve, or whatever — and at the offender’s past criminal history, and at any aggravating factors. Five points for the crime, add two more points for an aggravating factor, move to column two because of prior history, add three, subtract four, carry the one, and presto — an approved sentencing range of 18 to 24 months. No higher, no lower.
Almost immediately, judges and commenters criticized the guidelines. Why? They didn’t allow sufficient flexibility. Is it really the case that everyone with a certain amount of drugs found on them, at a certain time, and with a certain criminal history, deserves an 18 to 24 month sentence? What about a defendant’s prior history of good deeds? What if a defendant is very old and ill, or is mentally handicapped, or is acting under duress, or has agreed to help prosecutors bust the drug kingpin he worked for? Judges pushed hard for more discretion, to give appropriately tailored sentences in individual cases.
And so a complicated system of “departures” from the guidelines emerged, ultimately approved by the Supreme Court in the Koon case. Judges were free to depart in special cases that were outside of the “heartland” that the guidelines contemplated.
Even that compromised eventually failed. In a series of recent decisions, the Supreme Court has invalidated the practice of madatory Sentencing Guidelines as violating defendants’ rights to jury trial. Today, the Guidelines are no longer binding rules, but rather really are Guidelines. Time will tell how long the current configuration lasts, before the pendulum swings again, in one direction or another.
The problem is that there is no consensus on how to balance the underlying principles. It is both very important that sentencing be sufficiently predictable so as not to be arbitrary (Judge Frankel’s critique of the pre-Guidelines world) and also very important that sentencing not be unfair in individual cases. The values of predictability and flexibility are in tension with each other. Both are important, and there are very valid criticisms of a regime that goes too far in either direction. And different people give different weight to each side of the spectrum. Some people are most concerned with predictability; others with flexibility; and others balance the two virtues, through various compromise or mixed approaches. This inability to agree on underlying principles results in the shifting sentencing regimes.
The same broad questions come up in the teaching context. To what extent should teachers use only the manual? My recent thread on teaching brought out comments on all sides of the issue. Some commenters argued strongly in favor of a sola scriptura (or, following Kevin Barney’s suggestion, solus libellus) approach. Others argue strongly for more flexibility.
Of course, there are potential problems with either approach. Open things up to too much flexibility, and you potentially create the kind of chaos Judge Frankel detested. Lessons would be all over the map, the equivalent of sentencing without any kind of order.
On the other hand, too strong of a solus libellus approach creates its own concerns. As Ardis mentions in her comments, she’s slated to teach one upcoming lesson with no application to the particular group (in this case, a lesson mostly about high jumping techniques, to a group of octogenarian Relief Society sisters). Is there no room for customizing the message to the class?
What’s the proper balance?
I tend to think that a combination of predictability and flexibility is best. In general, I’m an advocate of following the general lesson plans and guidelines in most cases. On the other hand, I also believe in incorporating material from outside the manual, in at least some lessons, to encourage discussion and interest. And every now and then, we end up ditching the manual entirely. Immediately after last General Conference, for instance, we had an impromptu loose-flowing discussion about Conference — which talks people liked best, what messages they remembered, what they personally enjoyed about Conference.
On a more extreme note, I was teaching Elders Quorum in New York during 2001. Right after 9/11, we ended up having a couple of impromptu off-list lessons in a row. Very shaken quorum members needed a place to talk about their experiences and thoughts on 9/11. And so, rather than just going through the scheduled lessons, we spent a few weeks talking about 9/11. Quorum members discussed their fears and thoughts and questions, and had a chance to draw strength from others, during a difficult time. And we talked through some bigger, related questions — like why God allows evil to happen. The lessons were very informal — I tried to let quorum members guide the discussion, to what they needed to talk about. I don’t know that it was a perfect approach. But it seemed to be helpful to quorum members, during a difficult time.
So that’s my own preferred approach, in general. I use the basic materials, by default. I try to bring in supplemental information where it will help. And I retain the flexibility to occasionally, as best for the class, move the discussion to different topics entirely. I’m not saying that my own approach is perfect, but it seems like a good balance, from my own vantage point.
What do others think? How do you best navigate the tension between flexibility and predictability in your own teaching?