Although I can understand the rationale laid out here, and thoroughly enjoyed the discussion, I found it somewhat surprising that the speakers (in appealing to some religious motivation as to the value of education) seemed to neglect the principal religious motivation for education that Latter-day Saints ought to give, which is simply learning. Not learning for the sake of what you can do with the learning, but for the sake of learning itself.
This “eternal” aspect of learning was mentioned a couple of times, to be fair, but I would argue that even in the times it was mentioned it tended to be framed more in terms of treating learning as a means rather than an end unto itself. Take the reference Elder Christofferson made to D&C 130:17-19:
“Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection. And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come.”
In the context of the discussion and his talk, he seemed to be saying that we ought to be studying things like maths because God has to use maths, and hey–if you want to be like God someday, you’d better buckle down with that calculus textbook. I’ve never understood this view; it seems to ignore the eternity we’ve already existed and that we will continue to exist. Who cares about making sure you know some equations when you’re about to have nothing but time on your hands? You’ll have as long as you want to learn about how to find the hypotenuse of a triangle. Likely, of course, we’ve already learned all the academic subjects we think about on Earth–you’ve got to find some way of filling in trillions and trillions of years of existence before coming here. It makes me hope I’ve mastered calculus by this point and that I’ll get that knowledge back after the veil is removed.
The only way this verse makes sense to me is if the “principles of intelligence” referenced are referring to spiritual truths or truths we learn about ourselves. Things like: we can do hard things, trust in God, and obey him. We’re in the practicum portion of eternal learning; all the abstract scientific principles have surely been mastered by now. And if not, we have eternity to do it. From this more eternal perspective, it’s rather absurd to think that there is much value in learning about comparatively trivial things like maths or science; that’s not what we are here for. We’re here to learn about ourselves and our divine nature because this is the only chance we get to experience making choices in an environment where we are separated from our previous experience. There is no point wasting mortality trying to learn scientific principles because we think that will somehow help with shortening the learning curve to godhood. We’re learning for the sake of learning itself, because that is what divine beings do. The appropriate quotes from the Doctrine and Covenants here come from 93:36 and 88:40: “the glory of God is intelligence, or in other words, light and truth” and “intelligence cleaveth unto intelligence, wisdom receiveth wisdom, truth embraceth truth, virtue loveth virtue; light cleaveth unto light.” We want to learn not because of what we’ll do with that learning, but because we long to cleave unto the glory of God, which is pure intelligence itself.
I also wonder about the inherent logic behind this idea that the primary value of receiving an education is to help others. If you follow that logic, it suggests that if there were a better way to help others besides being educated, you wouldn’t need to bother being educated. I think education would be valuable even if it had no material benefit to others, suggesting that there is an implicit value to education that is beyond merely helping humanity. And if you believed the primary purpose of education was to help others (like they suggest in this devotional), wouldn’t that constrain your choice of major?
For example, If BYU followed this advice to its logical conclusion, they wouldn’t offer any humanities majors (not useful enough in a practical sense to humanity) or any of the majors that are designed to make money (accounting, business, and law). Surely you’d see a lot more Apostles who were social workers, medical doctors, fire fighters, construction workers, plumbers, and police officers than the current makeup of Apostles (lots of business people) if they actually believed that the purpose of education is to maximize your utility to society?
Just because I don’t think the humanities are the best way to be useful to others compared to more technical majors (like computer science for example) doesn’t mean I think we should abandon their study. Yes, one could argue that the humanities are helpful to others in some abstract way, but you have to think of it comparatively. If the point of education is to be useful to others, you have to show me that studying medieval bookbinding is as useful to humanity as computer science. I don’t think it is, and therefore this devotional would suggest we should study computer science not bookbinding, as that gives more scope to helping humanity. For the record, I think it would be a tragedy to abandon study of the humanities, but that is the logical fallout of this devotional if we were to accept the value of education they propose.
A counter-argument to the point I made about money-making majors is that the wealthy have more opportunity to be useful, and perhaps you could justify those majors that way, but only if that is the primary reason you signed up for them. I bet if you polled the students in those majors (or even the professors) that’s not what they would say was the primary reason they chose that major.
Coincidently enough, a few days after listening to this devotional, I happened to read this passage from Book VII of Plato’s Republic, that touches on this debate about learning being a means or an end. We’ll pick up in the part of the dialogue between Socrates and Glaucos where Socrates is using the example of studying geometry as an example of a discipline that people think only in terms of its technical, Earthly application rather than because of the eternal truth it represents:
“The question relates rather to the greater and more advanced part of geometry–whether that tends in any degree to make more easy the vision of the idea of good; and thither, as I was saying, all things tend which compel the soul to turn her gaze towards that place, where is the full perfection of being, which she ought, by all means, to behold.
True, he said.
Then if geometry compels us to view being, it concerns us; if becoming only, it does not concern us?
Yes, that is what we assert.
Yet anybody who has the least acquaintance with geometry will not deny that such a conception of the science is in flat contradiction to the ordinary language of geometricians.
They have in view practice only, and are always speaking, in a narrow and ridiculous manner, of squaring and extending and applying and the like–they confuse the necessities of geometry with those of daily life; whereas knowledge is the real object of the whole science.
Certainly, he said.
Then must not a further admission be made?
That the knowledge at which geometry aims is knowledge of the eternal…
That, he replied, may be readily allowed, and is true.
Then, my noble friend, geometry will draw the soul towards truth.”
From the devotional, we would think that someone ought to study geometry because it gives one the technical skills (the “squaring and extending and applying and the like”) necessary to help one’s fellowman (and to a lesser extent to provide for one’s family and because it’s stuff we’ll have to learn in eternity). From this exchange, however, I would think Plato would say that may be part of it, but the greater rationale for studying geometry is because it represents “knowledge of the eternal” which is useful to learn not because of what that knowledge can do (a means) but because knowledge is an end in of itself. Knowledge is the good. Or in other words, the good life is contemplating eternal truth and learning about it, not because of what we can do with it but because what it is.
I’ll end by throwing in a couple of caveats to what I’ve just written. I realize that this rather lofty view of the purpose of education I have mentioned here is an admittedly privileged one. Most people around the world cannot afford to study simply for the sake of learning itself; they are constrained by their financial circumstances to maximize their earning potential. I recognize that. Furthermore, the advice given in this devotional is probably meant as more of a practical kind and less of a theological kind. If that is the case, my critiques are unfair. Whether unfair or not, I found myself profiting immensely from this excellent devotional, despite (or perhaps because of) my disagreement. It’s always worthwhile to consider the underlying assumptions behind why we want to learn (or at least why we tell ourselves we want to learn).