05 July 2006

A University in Zion

Growing up in Utah is a very different experience than growing up elsewhere, but not always the sort of experience out of staters might expect. I'm thinking in particular of the in-state attitude toward BYU. Maybe it was just the circle of people I ran with (a lot of smart-alec IB snobs), but BYU was surrounded by a negative aura. It was the school you went to if you were a) a goody-goody, hyper-orthodox Mormon whose parents and grandparents met at BYU, b) not smart enough to get into a good university (Harvard, etc.) , and/or c) not strong enough in your testimony to handle the opposition of going to a worldly school after growing up in Mormon-land. (Nevermind that none of these are necessarily true--that's why they are stereotypes.)

My own decision to attend BYU didn't have any particular rhyme or reason to it. The scholarship deal here was good, a couple of my friends were going there (Joni!!), and it was farther away from home than the U of U which meant I could justify living away from home. Going to BYU just sort of happened. But I'll admit I had my reservations about this school. I was actually sort of nervous about the effects of going to a school "controlled" by the Church. Would classes be like Sunday school? Or worse, seminary? No offense, but having my brain numbed by rhetorical questions and restatements once a week is enough. I had always been disappointed with the repetition of the same things every four years, and hoped that BYU might actually bring the ability to move past that, but worried that it might not.

After a few years here, I'm mostly won over by the idea of BYU. There are a ton of things I love about BYU, particularly the opportunity to discuss how the gospel fits into all subjects. I don't just mean being able to learn evolution without having to fight about whether it eliminates the possibility of God. I love that when we talked about relativity in my Physics class, the teacher could bring up scriptures about the connection between light and God; that I can do a final project for my pre-1500 civilization class on how Christ is the archetypical hero; that in my modernism class we can discuss feminism and gender as it relates to the gospel.

Aside from being able to discuss and think about gospel connections publicly, there are some more subtle benefits of the BYU spiritual/educational combination. As I mentioned, I volunteered as a Y Group leader this year, and I've had an opportunity to attend all of the motivational BYU-is-so-great events I didn't go to as a freshman. On my BYU-is-great kick, I also picked up Learning in the Light of Truth, a collection of talks by former BYU President Merrill J. Bateman. Here's one quote he gives from President Kimball that I think summarizes some of these subtle benefits of BYU:

This university shares with other universities the hope and the labor involved in rolling back the frontiers of knowledge, but we also know that, through divine revelation, there are yet "many great and important things" (AoF 1:9) to be given to mankind which will have an intellectual and spiritual impact far beyond what mere men can imagine. Thus, at this university among faculty, students, and administration, there is, and there must be, an excitement and an expectation about the very nature and future of knowledge. That underlies the uniqueness of BYU. (37)
In other words, at BYU we know that we are not alone in our process of learning. We have the assistance of the Spirit in understanding new material and doing our coursework. We can and should expect our research to be guided by the Spirit into the correct course. We should have less anxiety about the direction of our studies and careers. There is no worry that we could be studying something completely false or pointless because we have the testimony of the Spirit to confirm truth to us or point us in another direction. This benefit is worth more than anything to me. Of course, we could be so guided at other universities as individuals, but I think the effect is magnified here by having a campus full of people who all use it.

Most of the things that bug me about BYU are the side-effects of the benefits. I'm still intensely disappointed in the Religion department, which from my experience has been like seminary or Sunday school with an occasional extra dash of false doctrine. Maybe this is just because I haven't taken any higher level classes yet, but it seems to me that it is hard for teachers to find a way to teach these classes: you can't grade on testimony, and most are too humble to attempt to grade on doctrine, so you end up grading on only participation and memorization, which aren't very helpful. My initial feeling is that this problem could be helped by teaching classes on specific ideas and doctrines, rather than a body of scripture covering all of them. (I understand at one point we used to do this . . . this requires more research to fully sketch out.)

And then there are the social problems. No, I don't just mean dating. I mean the sometimes intolerant attitudes that arise at BYU, this division into orthodox, right-wing Mormons and left-wing "New" Mormons. But I've already written my opinions on that.

So conclusion: no, BYU is not a Zion university. Not yet anyway. But it is a university in Zion, for which I am very grateful.

1 comment:

Not Too Pensive said...

Personally, I think it should be referred to as the "Lord's Construction Site". Somehow seems more appropriate than University at the moment...