In a recent facebook thread (sparked by this post at Patheos), commenters have been talking about intellect and Mormonism. That conversation helped crystallize some thoughts that have been percolating in my mind for a while, about how the LDS community has a complicated and sometimes conflicted discourse about the importance of intelligence, intellect, and education — and some of the interesting ways in which that tension plays out.
On the one hand, there is a significant strand of LDS thought that puts extremely high value on intelligence. The paradigmatic statement here, of course, is that “the glory of God is intelligence.” There’s a whole lot more like it. D&C 93 is a paean to intelligence; D&C 130 arguably even more so; and there’s a lot of additional support in places like D&C 88. These are more than just the traditional Christian view on education (which has sometimes been supportive), they are uniquely LDS angles.
(I’d argue that the LDS retelling of the Garden of Eden — as a particular and uniquely Mormon kind of fortunate fall — also puts knowledge in a central place.)
Beyond that, there’s a lot of LDS history that emphasizes the importance of learning. You get the School of the Prophets and other examples of Joseph Smith striking out very early to set up intensive educational instruction among the Saints. You see early and significant investment in education in LDS settlements in Utah.
And today, there’s a huge investment of time, money, and energy in education. LDS high school kids are strongly encouraged to attend an extra hour of school per day, where they learn about the 12 Tribes of Israel and such. We’re encouraged to take extra, non-credit (except at BYU) college classes. We’re encouraged to treat education seriously. I haven’t checked the stats, but I am positive that LDS kids in the U.S. spend significantly more time in educational settings than non-LDS peers. (I’m not sure about non-U.S. kids. However, the existence of the PEF illustrates the community and institutional commitment outside of the U.S.)
Worship services also strongly emphasize the importance of learning. In sheer amount of time spent, LDS Sunday worship is dominated by learning activities rather than other kinds of worship.
And certain kinds of skills training are also heavily prized by the community. In particular, music training is highly valued (with some important exceptions), language training is highly valued, public speaking is universally taught, and peer leadership practice is almost universal. In addition, a lot of other skills (like sewing) are often valued, or valued in particular contexts.
The result is that if you randomly pulled 100 LDS kids and 100 control-group kids, you would almost certainly have a significantly higher percent of LDS kids who can play music, speak another language, and speak publicly. This is huge. You can’t throw a stick at BYU without hitting someone who speaks Spanish, plays the piano, or both.
At the same time, there are important limits to the LDS dedication to education, learning, and knowledge. And I think in part _because_ the focus on education is so strong and intense in so many other contexts, these limits (and the sometimes very harsh way in which they are articulated) can seem particularly jarring.
Because, in contrast to the learning focus within the tradition, there are some factors cutting the other way.
First, there is a significant streak of anti-intellectual rhetoric that surfaces from time to time in LDS thought.
We see it most prominently in Elder Packer’s talk, “The Mantle is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect.” Not surprisingly, the idea was pivotal in the September Six. It also shows up in force in Elder Packer’s Talk to the All-Church Coordinating Council. And there’s some direct support for the idea (and a whole lot of implied support) in 14 Fundamentals of Following the Prophet.
There’s also uniquely LDS scriptural support for this idea: 2nd Nephi 9 is the favorite scripture here, about the learned who think they are wise.
Second, there are important ways in which LDS cultural norms punish over-focus on education.
For one, the emphasis on marrying young and having children young severely limits people’s ability to get an education that goes beyond college. It’s certainly possible, but it’s a real challenge for young people who are following the LDS script.
Second, there is a huge drop-off in community support for education past the college level. For women, it may be actively discouraged. Even if not actively discouraged, it may be strongly channeled in certain ways. (She should become a teacher or a nurse, and not seek a career of her own, but maybe have an education as a backup “in case something happens”).
The structure of LDS leadership can reinforce this idea. We don’t choose bishops or Sunday School teachers based on their education. In fact, it may be a disadvantage. You can literally have a Ph.D in religion whose bishop will not let them teach Sunday School. (This is someone I know.)
There’s a cultural ideal that is sometimes articulated, that people who _haven’t_ received a formal education are more intuitively close to God or to the Spirit. (It’s like a version of the “noble savage” idea.)
And there’s often significant push-back from institutional and lay leaders about the danger of learning forbidden knowledge. People have had church leaders take them to task for reading Bushman, for Heaven’s sake.
You see some of the tension play out in Bushman’s book, _On the Road with Joseph Smith_. It’s also evident in a lot of other discussions.
And so, we get a paradox. We get a set of people with a very high educational floor. There are very few uneducated people in the community, and there is significant pressure not to be uneducated. At the same time, for such a high floor, there’s also a curiously low ceiling. While the education level of an average 20-year-old LDS kid is likely to be much higher than a non-LDS peer, I would suspect that, within the group of college grads, the rate of LDS grad students is at best break-even, and quite possibly significantly less than the population at large.
And while the community will totally honor and use the experiences of hyper-educated high schoolers, we have not consistently figured out a place for people who go beyond that level to really specialize in an academic field.
What does this all mean? I think it illustrates both one of the great strengths of the community, as well as one of its key weaknesses.
Which brings us back to piano. The LDS community has a _ton_ of competent pianists. And given the percent of competent pianists, we have a surprisingly low number of real, professional level musicians. We’re very well-equipped to sing hymns, but surprisingly unprepared to put together Bach concerts. And it’s quite possible that we never really notice the gap — until the time that someone suggests putting together a Bach concert.