“A Conversation about the Church Educational System,” Ensign, May 1987, 103–4
The Ensign spoke recently with J. Elliot Cameron, commissioner of Church education, to learn more about the Church’s worldwide role in both secular and religious education.
Ensign: How does the Church decide where to establish schools, and when to discontinue them?
Brother Cameron: In the past, whenever there were young people who didn’t have the opportunity to receive a basic education at the elementary or secondary school level, the Church has looked carefully at the possibility of establishing a school where there were a sufficient number of potential students to justify the action. Each of these schools has remained in operation as long as it has been supported by the parents and by the local Church members and until the local government has provided a school that offers the same educational opportunities. At that time, the Church removes itself from the secular school business in that community.
A few years ago we closed all the Church elementary schools in Mexico and South America. They were closed because the local governments were providing the basic educational programs and our schools were no longer necessary.
We’re continually evaluating the programs. Wherever we have eliminated the secular schools, we have always continued with a religious education program in the seminaries and institutes.
At the present time we operate seven elementary schools, thirteen middle schools, and nine secondary schools. These schools are currently located in Mexico, Kiribati, New Zealand, Tonga, and Western Samoa.
Ensign: The Church has an excellent seminary and institute program that does great good. Are there any changes projected for these two programs?
Brother Cameron: No. The primary function of seminaries and institutes is to build testimonies and establish a basic foundation in gospel principles for young people in their formative ages.
Ensign: What is happening with the seminary and institute program outside of the U.S.?
Brother Cameron: We now have seminaries and institutes located in seventy-two different nations and territories throughout the world. These programs are essentially religious instruction. The young people are usually instructed in one of three different ways. Where released time is available through the public education sector, we teach seminary on a released time basis. If released time is not available, we have an early morning program where the students attend seminary before their regular classes begin. We also have a home study program that allows a young person to study within his or her home environment. On one day each week or one day each month, depending on how far they have to travel, the home study students in a particular area meet together for a Saturday morning or afternoon class.
Ensign: What can you tell us about the goals and successes of the home study program abroad?
Brother Cameron: This last year about 59,000 young people were enrolled worldwide. We’ve heard many testimonies about the value of this program in their lives, particularly as it requires them to exercise personal initiative.
Ensign: We understand that the home study program has been dropped in England in favor of the early morning seminaries.
Brother Cameron: Yes. The priesthood leaders in each area ascertain the kind of instruction that will be available for their people. We have a stake board of education in every area where we have seminary and institute classes. Where daily instruction can be conducted, the positive impact on young people is much more effective.
Ensign: The Church has encouraged LDS youths to attend institute at nearby colleges or universities. How is this being accepted?
Brother Cameron: This last year, institutes of religion served in excess of 1,400 colleges and universities. We enrolled in institute of religion classes in excess of 135,000 students. Those are students who are not attending BYU, BYU—Hawaii, Ricks, or LDS Business College.
The institute of religion allows many young people to remain close to their families and at the same time receive a basic foundation and training in preparation for a mission.
Ensign: What things are considered in accepting a student to be enrolled at BYU? What priorities are considered?
Brother Cameron: The things that are considered are, first, worthiness and activity in the Church along with the grade point average of the student involved and that student’s performance on the American College Test. Recognizing that BYU cannot accommodate everybody who would like to attend, each year a determination is made of the number of freshmen who will be allowed to enroll and of the number of transfer students the school will accept.
Ensign: How do BYU and the other Church colleges compare academically with similar colleges?
Brother Cameron: Every college must go through an accreditation process to determine whether or not the school is doing what it says it is doing. All of our schools are fully accredited. This means their credits are accepted at similar colleges throughout the country.
Ensign: Some people ask the reasons the Church continues to operate BYU when there are many other colleges and universities members could attend.
Brother Cameron: BYU has been carefully evaluated by the Brethren now for more than a hundred years. When the school was founded in 1875, it was established as a personal school by Brigham Young. It was not operated as a part of the Church educational system until after the death of Brigham Young. Since that time, there have been numerous evaluations made as to whether or not BYU was essential to the Church and to the teaching of gospel principles and secular education. The decision has been made to maintain BYU as a place where young people of the Church can come together to take part in secular education within the gospel context and to prepare themselves to be successful in the world.
Ensign: Are there any plans to institute additional types of professional programs at BYU?
Brother Cameron: At the present time we’re looking to strengthen the programs that are already there. However, we are planning some changes. For example, at the moment there are very few outstanding or effective doctoral programs available in mathematics. The Church board of education has just recently approved a Ph.D. program in mathematics.
In the last few years we’ve eliminated sixty-two professional programs and added four. The programs we’ve added include a Ph.D. in music composition, and master’s programs in business management, engineering management, and social work. The university now offers a total of 220 undergraduate and 183 graduate degrees.