“Education and the Church,” Ensign, May 1971, 34
Like a golden thread running through a piece of tapestry, formal education has been woven into the fabric of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from almost the time the Church was organized in 1830.
The first Church school was established in Kirtland, Ohio, in 1833—The School of the Prophets. In Nauvoo a charter for a city university was granted in 1840 by the Illinois Legislature. The University of Deseret was started in the desolate Salt Lake Valley in 1850, just three years after the Saints arrived. These are just three examples of formal schools created by the Church during its first quarter century.
The educational system of the Church today stands on the threshold of reaching out to Latter-day Saints in virtually every part of the world. Although religious education will be at the forefront of the system’s worldwide thrust, there are very real possibilities that secular education may also be developed by the Church in scattered areas of the world.
Religious education for Latter-day Saint youth takes the form of seminaries (elementary and secondary) and institutes (college). The Church’s secular education program includes elementary schools, high schools, a business college, a junior college, a four-year college, and a university. Religious instruction is also a part of the curriculum at each of these schools.
The past two decades have brought tremendous growth in student numbers and in facilities, but the Church’s modern commitment to education was probably crystallized less than a year ago with the reestablishment of the office of Church Commissioner of Education. That administrative move brought all the Church educational efforts under a central head and has already given additional focus and direction to the various programs.
Neal A. Maxwell serves as Commissioner of Church Education. He is assisted by three associate commissioners: Joe J. Christensen, seminaries and institutes; Kenneth H. Beesley, colleges and schools; and Dee F. Anderson, finance and business. In this administrative structure, the president of Brigham Young University answers directly to the commissioner.
In order to understand the philosophy being developed in the Church’s educational system, it may be helpful to see the scope and physical dimensions of the program. During this school year (1970–71) the Church is operating fifty-eight elementary and middle schools and seven secondary schools in Mexico, Chile, New Zealand, Tonga, Tahiti, Western Samoa, Fiji, and American Samoa.
There were 13,220 students enrolled in these schools. The projected enrollment for next year is over 17,000 students, with two new schools operating in Peru and Bolivia.
In the area of higher education the Church has four institutions: Brigham Young University at Provo, Utah, with 25,000 students; Church College of Hawaii at Laie, with 1,300 students; Ricks College (a junior college) at Rexburg, Idaho, with 5,100 students, and LDS Business College in Salt Lake City, with nearly 800 students.
The greatest impact in Church education, at least in terms of numbers, comes from the seminary and institute programs, where 176,000 students are enrolled. Just ten years ago, 1960–61, there were 67,671 students.
There seem to be three major concerns of the Church in providing educational opportunities for its members. Without suggesting any order of importance, one of those concerns is for an adequate public school education for every child in the Church. Commissioner Maxwell says that literacy is a gospel need, and without basic education, an individual is handicapped in his gospel progression.
Fortunately most members of the Church reside in areas where the public schools provide the fundamentals of an education. However, where there are concentrations of Latter-day Saints in areas with inadequate public schools or where special circumstances may work against some youngster’s getting proper training, the Church is prepared to consider providing elementary schools and in some instances secondary schools.
A second major concern is for the post-high-school training of Latter-day Saint youth. The Church has made a great commitment in this area, particularly with the growth of Brigham Young University into one of the world’s major universities. At the same time there has been a realization that there is no possible way to provide college training for every member of the Church.
“We have over 200,000 members of the Church in colleges and universities around the world now, and in our existing facilities we are providing for only about 32,000 students,” according to Commissioner Maxwell. He adds that this age group is also the one that is growing fastest in the Church.
“We can’t build a Church college in every area where there are members of the Church. It’s just impossible. This is one of the reasons the First Presidency in January 1970 encouraged us to move as rapidly and as rationally as we could in building up the seminary and institute program. This will give religious education and support to our high school and college students around the world.”
That point leads to the third major concern: formal religious education. The policy here, as indicated by the presiding authorities of the Church, will be to expand the seminary and institute programs so as to “follow the presence of Church members, whenever possible, in order to give support to our homes, our missions, and our stakes.”
Without discounting the growth and excitement in the other areas of education, the seminaries and institutes represent the major effort in affecting the lives of Church members worldwide.
Associate Commissioner Christensen, who is responsible for the seminary and institute programs, sits out on the edge of his chair as he talks about the new home-study program for seminary students, or the growth of seminaries among the Indians, or the spread of institutes of religion to 300 college campuses.
Experiments with seminary home-study lessons have been conducted in the Midwest and New England areas of the United States and were so successful that similar programs will be carried to Great Britain and Europe, Latin America, and the Far East. This suggests that eventually Latter-day Saint high-school-age youth throughout the world will have access to formal weekday religious training.
The home-study program provides lesson materials for each individual, a weekly meeting with an instructor called from the ward or branch, and a monthly meeting on a district, stake, or regional level. This last meeting, conducted by a full-time supervisor employed by the seminary organization, is designed to motivate the youngsters and give them social contact with other seminary students. Further, the ward and branch teachers, who are volunteers, are given instruction and help.
The traditional seminary approach is known as released-time. It is confined mostly to Utah and Idaho schools where students may leave school one period a day to attend classes at the seminary building nearby. A newer approach, the early morning seminary, has grown rapidly throughout the United States and usually involves at least fifteen LDS youth who may come together in a ward chapel five days a week prior to school. Wherever there are sufficient members (at least fifteen), this kind of program can be requested by local Church leaders.
As a Latter-day Saint turns his attention to the problem of a post-high-school education, he faces some difficult choices. First of all, he must be concerned with the type of training that will best suit his interests and needs. Church leaders, including those in education, encourage both parents and youth to recognize that college or university training is not necessarily the best or the only way to prepare for life. The article on page 45 of this issue of the Ensign discusses some of those alternatives.
In an effort to help resolve this dilemma, the LDS Educational and Career Advisement Center has been established at BYU to furnish information and advice for those seeking direction in their post-high-school training. Further, a central admissions program for all Church colleges will operate within the advisement center.
But for the young adult who looks toward college, the question of where as well as how becomes critical. The Church has advised, without insisting, that where possible the first two years of college be taken at campuses near home. As suggested earlier, the Church’s colleges do not have room for all those who would like to attend.
“Our goal,” says Associate Commissioner Beesley, who is in charge of colleges and schools, “is to provide our young people with the best possible information and make the Church colleges available to those who have the greatest need.”
To illustrate, Brigham Young University cannot accommodate more than 25,000 students, which means that freshman classes will be limited to approximately 4,000 students. The admissions process must direct elsewhere the several thousand individuals who would like to attend BYU. That process involves a review of the person’s character and loyalty to the Church (if he is a Latter-day Saint), a review of academic achievement, and a careful, personal look at the intangibles that would suggest why it might be very important for a particular student to attend BYU.
Although the academic standards eliminate many applicants, those standards are not intended to be so high as to create an intellectual elite. The fact remains, though, that more people qualify academically for admission to BYU than can be accepted. And this is why the Church is making a great effort to provide institute programs wherever there is any concentration of Latter-day Saint college students.
As Commissioner Maxwell views this particular problem, “The injunction from the Savior was not to take them out of the world, but to keep them from evil. The hope of the gospel is to help people cope with the world, and it may be that for some students a secular education out in the world with the influence of a strong institute program will be a sound way to prepare for coping with the world.
“The total Church educational program,” he points out, “will expand according to established guidelines in order to meet the real needs of the Church membership.”
He sees a greater reliance upon a core of basic doctrines in the religious education program and more constancy in concepts, but at the same time the program will be internationalized to meet the cultural needs of peoples throughout the world.
In fact, Commissioner Maxwell sees Church education as one of the significant tools in the development and training of local Church leaders throughout the world. “We need to identify leaders early and then open up ways for them to secure an advanced education, whether it is in their own country or at one of the Church colleges.”
Among the goals envisioned for the educational system by Commissioner Maxwell and his associates is a higher degree of interchange among faculty. “Great benefits could come to our students if a highly qualified and inspired teacher in one program in one part of the world could be moved for a given period of time to another location in another program to build up and strengthen students there,” Commissioner Maxwell adds.
Describing the system and reviewing the philosophy of Church education leaves untold the story of the Maori boy who succeeds mainly because the Church school in New Zealand allows him to find his potential a few years later in life than the time allowed him by the public schools. There is nothing in the above paragraphs that would portray just how much being able to read means to a Mexican youth who has attended a Church school.
Statistics about a school system do not reveal that the lives of an Indian family in Arizona were dramatically changed because a high school seminary teacher reached out to a nonmember lad. And there is nothing here that indicates the number of times college students have had wavering faith buoyed up by an understanding institute instructor.
These kinds of things, really, are the essence of Church education—better lives and stronger testimonies.