“Brigham Young University,” Ensign, May 1971, 38
The foundation for the educational philosophy of Brigham Young University was established nearly a century ago when, in 1875, President Brigham Young called Dr. Karl G. Maeser to go to Provo to assume the principalship of the newly organized Brigham Young Academy.
Brother Maeser, who was a convert German schoolmaster and disciplined in the precision of his homeland, asked President Young for his instructions.
“I have only these,” President Young said. “You should not teach even the alphabet or the multiplication tables without the Spirit of God. That is all. God bless you. Good-bye.”
The charge was so simple that it almost puzzled Dr. Maeser, but he could have found no firmer foundation upon which to build the school. Beginning with twenty-nine students, he became the spiritual architect of what now has become the world-important Brigham Young University, which, with twenty-five thousand students, is the largest private university in the United States. And that spirit, so firmly structured at that time—giving the students spiritual training as well as the finest academic education possible—has continued as paramount policy at Brigham Young University down to the present.
Of course, it is obvious to any objective observer that academic excellence must be the heart of any great university. Only the highest standards of scholarship are acceptable at an institution aspiring to be a center of learning. This is true at BYU as elsewhere. But scholarship and learning at BYU mean not only the expanding of man’s horizons of knowledge in terms of acquiring the secular facts and data, but also in the sense of obtaining the inspiration and the ennobling influence of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This combination of the secular and the spiritual comprises the only valid path for man to traverse on his journey to true wisdom and salvation, and it is the only reason for the perpetuation and development of Brigham Young University.
The success of any institution of higher education and the value of its contribution to society as a whole rest primarily upon its faculty. At Brigham Young University, faculty members are chosen, as in other great universities, for academic scholarship and competence, degrees and distinctions, achievement and recognition in research and creative endeavors; but a difference is that they are chosen at BYU primarily for worth as outstanding teachers and also for a spirit of service, loyalty, and adherence to the principles of the gospel. The most objective experiment and most carefully documented facts take on an added dimension when they are presented by a man or woman who is a worthy recipient of divine inspiration. Our concern is for the whole student—his spiritual as well as his academic development, and the way he lives as much as what he studies.
I have often told the BYU faculty, “If you have come here only to teach Greek or nuclear physics, and you do not give your students an assurance that they are God’s children, that they have a divine purpose for being here, and that they are to be engaged in a life of service, you will have failed as a teacher and we will have failed as an institution.”
It is for these reasons that BYU is somewhat unique today in the unsettled academic environment of America. It is a major university where riots, rebellion, and strikes are unheard of; where standards of dress and grooming are maintained; where smoking and drinking are grounds for suspension; where ROTC units are on the increase; where students stand at attention while the American flag is raised and lowered and the national anthem is played; where devotional assemblies draw capacity audiences.
As I look back upon the last twenty years of my administration at BYU, I consider one of the most important developments the establishment of the wards and stakes of the Church on campus. There are now ninety-eight wards and ten stakes staffed largely by students, and the campus is as busy on Sundays with church meetings as on weekdays with classes. Another unique aspect of student life is that over seventy-five hundred of the twenty-five thousand students (nearly a third) have filled two-year missions for the Church.
This religious activity, this ecclesiastical experience, this spiritual development all have exerted an influence toward the elevation and refinement of character and conduct on BYU campus. Moreover, most of the students come from fine homes where gospel principles are thankfully accepted. All have agreed to be examples of Christian conduct at a time when many students appear unwilling to accept any restraints. Their spiritual maturity makes it possible for them to accept discipline without sacrificing individuality. Their response to law is that of reasonable men and women who know that a better world must be created and not merely demanded. With these values, it is unlikely our students would set about to damage or destroy the university that is so much a part of them.
My comments would not be complete without my testimony as to the divinity of this institution. I first came to BYU not as a student, but as a young soldier during World War I, in the uniform of my country. Nearly all of the male members of the student body had enlisted in the service of their country. I am happy that I was nurtured in the patriotic sentiment of that time, rather than in the unpatriotic and sometimes treasonable climate found today.
During my relatively short time here as a soldier, a dread influenza epidemic spread across the country. More American citizens died in that epidemic than American soldiers died on the battlefields of Europe. In Utah County alone, hundreds of citizens lost their lives. I was the second person in our infantry company to be stricken by this frightening disease. Before the epidemic was over most of our company had also been stricken. Nearly all of us, however, were members who held the Melchizedek Priesthood, and in between times of our individual illnesses we would go around and lay our hands upon each other and beseech the blessings of heaven.
And, while school was not in session, I became so attached to the ideals of this institution that I then promised my Heavenly Father that if he would restore me to normal health, if ever I could be of service to this institution I would respond. Little did I realize that some thirty-three years later I would be invited to return here as its president, and I hope you can imagine my feelings when I returned, to find that my office was in the same room where as a soldier I had been raised from my bed of affliction.
I hope I have kept the commitment I made then to the Lord, for in the language of the revelation given to Joseph Smith, I deeply believe that our church is the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth with which he, the Lord, is well pleased. And I believe that this university is a part of that church and has the same divine mission. It was established under the direction of Brigham Young, the president of the Church, and is now directed by a board of trustees presided over by President Joseph Fielding Smith.
Karl G. Maeser once said that its influence would extend to every hearthstone of the Church, and I am convinced his prediction is being fulfilled.