The Standard Packet, the Book of Mormon, and Critical Thinking at BYU

Perhaps due to the authoritarian structure of the Church, students at BYU (more than elsewhere?) come to college expecting Pure Truth to be bestowed by The Authorities (i.e. professors) on those less enlightened (i.e. students), instead of learning how to engage data and arguments. I’ve often distributed a collection of readings and articles to students in my Institute and BYU classes. These help introduce and reorient students towards a broader perspective of LDS intellectual engagement, approaches, and critical thinking. Essentially, this is accomplished through stories, historical/doctrinal/cultural engagement, scholarly engagement and explicit guidelines.

My “standard packet” has varied a bit from time to time, so here’s a fuller list than anyone has previously received.

  • Carlfred Broderick, “The Core of My Faith“- Broderick reflects on his parents, upbringing and schooling, and various issues he dealt with along the way. He’s an inspiring model, I think.
  • Bruce Hafen, “Dealing With Uncertainty“- Hafen lays out three degrees of faith, and acknowledges messiness while providing one of my favorite “thou shalts.
  • John Welch, “Becoming a Gospel Scholar”   (I got permission to run this at Patheos, but here’s a PDF copy.)
  • Two short pieces from, Universal Intellectual Standards and A Checklist for Reasoning (combined in one PDF)
  • James B. Allen, “Line Upon Line“- On doctrinal understanding and policy shifting and changing in the Church.
  • Robert Millet “What is Our Doctrine?” Less for doctrinal bright lines and more for acknowledging the messiness of history and doctrine.
  • President J. Reuben Clark, “When are Church Leaders Words Entitled to the Claim of Scripture?” This talk, published in the Church News and included in the lesson manual for Melchizedek priesthood quorums in 1969 was a response to Elder  Joseph Fielding Smith’s unauthorized publication of Man, His Origin and Destiny. A brief account of that and Clark’s fascinating, nuanced, and sometimes contradictory approach to things of the mind can be found in an excerpt of his bio.
  • Orson Scott Card, “Walking the Tightrope“- on criticism and influence in the Church.
  • Approaching Mormon Doctrine

Some of these, I’ll admit, are not the deepest, fullest or best explorations of these ideas and principles, but when you get them as a freshman, they’re a good intro. One student, 5 years later,  expressed the opinion that it was these articles that helped  most in her transition to a non-Church school with spiritual challenges. Really, that’s my goal in teaching, rephrased as “preparing minds to be faithful.”

I taught two Book of Mormon classes at BYU, once with return missionaries and once with freshmen. Both times, I did the same exercise. For the class period that covers Mulek, I assigned two readings by respectable authors, which make completely opposite conclusions.

Orson Scott Card’s “Artifact or Artifice?” examines the Book of Mormon from the perspective of a fiction writer. In an aside on Mulek, (scroll down to “Speculation on Zarahemla”) Card plays on ancient patterns of history-writing to argue that Mulek never existed, but exemplifies typical attempts of rulers to rewrite ancestry to legitimate one’s claim to power. Mulek was Zarahemla’s fictional ancestor, created to trump Mosiah’s kingship claims.

Jeffrey Chadwick, a respectable LDS scholar and archaeologist, asks if the seal of Mulek has been found in this article (pdf copy). Josiah may have indeed had a son name Malkiyahu (Mulek may be a form of Malkiyahu, but is problematic), and we how have copies of seals with his name on them.

So, I asked the class: Mulek, real guy and we have his seal, or traditional lineage manipulation by royalty? I got several kinds of responses.

“… Well who’s right?” Asked one student, representing the study-to-the-test-absorb-Truth-from-the-Professor type.

“I don’t know. They both make plausible arguments. What do you think?”

Several people were just confused. How could a teacher give readings with two different answers?

A few made arguments in favor of one or the other. I had a conversation with an older student from Australia afterwards, who greatly appreciated the exercise.

I wrapped with a short spiel enumerating the purpose. “You will all be confronted by issues which don’t seem to have clearcut answers. At times, these may be doctrinal, political, or personal, and you won’t be able to decide on the basis of the position or authority of the answerer or their moral character. You need to learn how to weigh arguments, analyze, and make up your own mind on things. It is as much a spiritual survival skill as a life skill.” And then I probably cited Hafen’s statement, linked above.

This worked much better with the RMs than with the Freshmen, where it was like pulling teeth. I’m not sure how many read it, but the only response I got was “those were good readings.” I tried several ways to engage them, but finally decided that perhaps freshmen at 8am are not generally capable of critical thought, and moved on to more productive topics.




23 comments for “The Standard Packet, the Book of Mormon, and Critical Thinking at BYU

  1. Vin
    January 20, 2012 at 5:57 pm

    Looks like a great list. Thanks!

  2. January 20, 2012 at 6:08 pm

    The entire Mulek matter picks up more interest when you realize that the kingmen who claim a contrary right to run the country, and who push it at every transition of power, have a name “king” men that is similar to “Mulek” men …

    But there is a lot more in that small sub-part (and I often favor Card’s approach) as well as the sub-parts of everything else you’ve listed.

    It is a good thing to do.

  3. Jonathan Green
    January 20, 2012 at 7:10 pm

    Ben, I suspect that students expecting the one right answer is universal, rather than a particular Mormon foible. I’ve had to deal with similar concerns from students everywhere I’ve taught, and in subjects far from religion. It’s easy for students to interpret “people say things differently in different places” as “it doesn’t matter how you say it,” for example. I try to show students the messy reality that underlies the neat textbook presentation, and some methods that might help them solve problems that go beyond the textbook.

    But you’re right that BYU students in religion courses are going to need a particular approach. Thanks for laying out how you do it, and for the links.

  4. clark
    January 20, 2012 at 7:22 pm

    Perhaps due to the authoritarian structure of the Church, students at BYU (more than elsewhere?) come to college expecting Pure Truth to be bestowed by the Authorities (i.e. professors) on those lower down (i.e. students), instead of learning how to engage data and arguments.

    I don’t think it’s really a Mormon thing. More a freshman thing. I think it’s much more a result of the way High School and Junior High are taught in the US and Canada. People expect to just memorize. It’s very difficult to get freshmen to break that habit. (The fact many GE classes at BYU are fill in the blank or multiple choice quizzes doesn’t help) It’s really hard when teaching physics where you can’t get away with mere memorization or the second favorite technique of telling the professor what you think they want to hear.

  5. clark
    January 20, 2012 at 7:25 pm

    BTW – this also isn’t really just an American thing. The famous nobel prize winner Richard Feynman has a justly well regarded critique of this on education in Brazil. (One should note the dates for this – Brazilian education may well have changed although I think the principles apply to far too many Americans as well)

  6. Jason U
    January 20, 2012 at 7:44 pm

    Thanks for posting the packet. I am familiar with much of the reading , but not all. I am interested in the Hafen article on uncertainty – I look forward to engaging some of this material.

    Thanks again!

  7. Greg
    January 20, 2012 at 7:45 pm

    All education needs some of it. You need a baseline of facts and processes to even begin to engage the conversation in any field, and that baseline grows ever more vast.

    One simply cannot take the time to expose and explore the “reason” behind a great deal of the basics of what we know in biology, physics, etc., at least initially. So, early education must be, to a degree, an info dump. Some of the simplest or most straightforward “facts” in biology (for example), which can be diagrammed in 5 minutes, are the results of years of experimentation and very clever work by some of the brightest minds of their time. [I took a genetics class once that taught me nothing knew about the facts, but was taught from the perspective of “how did we figure all this stuff out, anyway”? How did we figure out the genetic code? You can print it on half a page, but getting there….]

    But, this need goes too far, partly because in some ways it is easier for students and teachers. And, people keep away from controversy because someone is going to be upset and litigious (look how hard people push to avoid contentious issues in high school like evolutionary biology, for example).

  8. Julie M. Smith
    January 20, 2012 at 8:39 pm

    This is excellent. Thank you.

  9. January 21, 2012 at 6:53 am

    I think the general CES position on this sort of thing would be: It’s our job to teach the gospel of Jesus Christ, not critical thinking. That might be the right approach for seminary (high school students), but for college-age students a different approach is needed, and the packet materials are a great start.

  10. Ray
    January 21, 2012 at 8:00 am

    Even though it may be more universal than just “a BYU thing,” my experience has been that it is more of a thing at BYU than most anywhere else. When you attend a church school, have to meet not just academic but religious requirements to get in, and you know that all LDS instructors there must have temple recommends and many hold leadership positions in the church, the assumption of truth is sort of built in. There is a presumption of safety in attending BYU. Many LDS parents won’t send their kids anywhere else for that very reason.

  11. Brad
    January 21, 2012 at 9:00 am

    To maintain one’s faith one must be comfortable with a certain degree of ambiguity. I like your approach. Although I must say that the freshman may just not have the minds developed well enough to critically engage written material. Freshman at most universities are very impressionable. They often tend to accept as fact whatever is written in a scholarly article or book.

  12. danithew
    January 21, 2012 at 10:23 am

    Looks like a list of solid articles. I spent a little bit of time to download or copy and paste the articles so I can read through them.

    Thank you very much for putting this together.

  13. January 21, 2012 at 12:05 pm

    First, thanks. Lack of critical thinking among students is pretty widespread, across geography and subjects, and our assessment policies don’t do much to help. When asked “right answer” questions, of course we’re going to expect them. See also Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows” for a view on changing strategies for thinking, with learning coming more to be the collection of bits of information, ever so easy with internet links and search functions, and even less emphasis on appreciation and construction of well structured and supported argument.

    One of my memorable experiences at BYU a couple of generations ago was studying the New Testament with Robert Patch. He asked essay questions and marked them himself. He warned us about his questions demanding some deep thought and research, and lo, one of them was superb: “What about John?” I don’t think I ever enjoyed an exam so much! It changed the way I thought about any subject I studied thereafter.

  14. Ben S.
    January 21, 2012 at 12:56 pm

    Thanks for the comments, all.

    Greg, excellent counterpoint. It’s more difficult to apply to Religion classes, or something in which a text/texts are the focus of study.

    My wife has commented on the lack of critical thinking among students at the various universities she’s attended or taught at. I may well have an exaggerated sense of it.

  15. Kristine
    January 21, 2012 at 9:38 pm

    As you can imagine, I’d like to see that article of OSC’s retired, as it responds to what was, I think, an anomalous moment in the history of the Church’s relationship with its intellectuals, and a particularly unfortunate moment in the history of independent Mormon publications. We’ve done better, on all sides, both before and since that time, and it would be nice if your packet also left some room for exploring the (very slightly) wilder corners of the realm of Mormon scholarship.

    (discount appropriately for self-interest :))

  16. Kevin Christensen
    January 21, 2012 at 10:42 pm

    While I agree that the packet of readings is good and useful, I also doubt that that BYU students are other than typical, and I don’t blame their condition on BYU. My exhibit number 1 is the Perry Scheme for Cognitive and Ethical Growth. I was introduced to it by Veda Hale on the Mormon Literature list around 10 years ago. She’d done an analysis of Levi Peterson’s Canyon’s Grace based on it. According to Wikipedia, “studied the cognitive development of students during their college years. He was a professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and founder and longtime director of the Bureau of Study Counsel. While at Harvard, he developed his theory of the intellectual and cognitive development of college-age students through a 15-year study during the 1950s and 1960s.”

    Here is Veda’s summary of first three stages (of nine), and the border for stage four:

    POSITION 1 – Basic Duality. (Garden of Eden Position: All will be well.)
    The person perceives meaning divided into two realms-Good/Bad, Right/wrong, We/They, Success/Failure, etc. They believe that knowledge and goodness are quantitative, that there are absolute answers for every problem and authorities know them and will teach them to those who will work hard and memorize them. Agency is “Out there”. The person is so embedded here that there is no place from which to observe themselves, yet they have a dim sense of there being a boundary to Otherness somewhere that gives their Eden-like world view boundary.
    Transition 1-2 – Dualism modified. (Snake whispers.) The person starts to be aware of others and of differing opinions, even among authorities. This started the feeling of uncertainty. But they decide it is part of the authority’s job to pose problems. It takes hard work to deny the legitimacy of diversity and to keep the belief in the simplicity of truth.

    (It should be kept in mind that in any of the transition states it is easy for the person to become depressed. It takes time for the “guts to catch up with leaps of mind.” When a sense of loss is accorded the honor of acknowledgement, movement is more rapid and the risk of getting stuck in apathy, alienation, or depression is reduced. When one steps into new perceptions he is unlikely to take another until he comes to terms with the losses attendant on the first.)

    POSITION 2 – Multiplicity Prelegitimate. (Resisting snake)

    Now the person moves to accept that there is diversity, but they still think there are TRUE authorities who are right, that the others are confused by complexities or are just frauds. They think they are with the true authorities and are right while all others are wrong. They accept that their good authorities present problems so they can learn to reach right answers independently.

    TRANSITION: 2-3 – Dualism modified

    Now the person admits that good authorities can admit to not knowing all the answers yet, but they will teach what they know now and teach the rest when they have it. They accept that disciplines are divided into the definite and the vague, but that in the end even science fails. Though they have given up dividing meaning into just two realms, they still feel knowledge and goodness are quantitative and that agency is “out there”.

    POSITION 3 – Multiplicity Legitimate but Subordinate. (Snake’s logic considered)

    The person still feels that the nature of things naturally produces differing opinions, but it’s as it should be, because the Authorities will figure it all out and hand on their conclusions eventually.


    There are seven ways a person can go.

    It’s all fascinating, and I personally much prefer it to Fowler’s Stages of Faith on grounds that it focuses on how a person processes information, rather than the conclusions a person comes to. And since Perry was studying Harvard students, it helps me resist the tendency to blame BYU or CES for students who demonstrate typical developmental stages.


    Kevin Christensen
    Bethel Park, PA

  17. Raymond Takashi Swenson
    January 22, 2012 at 2:10 am

    I have read Feynman’s description of the “thoughtless” way students stuided physics in Brazil. It us exactly the way Spanish university education was described to me by Spanish students from Barcelona whom I taught during two summers at UC Berkeley.

    US law schools attack the problem of the unthinking student by forcing students to make arguments for both sides in any legal dispute, so it is clear that there is no ultimate truth in that realm.

  18. January 22, 2012 at 9:18 am

    If I recall correctly, the “seal of Mulek” is from an unprovenanced source, right? We really, really shouldn’t make any sort of big deal out of it.

  19. Raymond Takashi Swenson
    January 22, 2012 at 10:55 am

    My recollection is that it is NOT from any Mormon source, and the notion that anyone else would care about it enough to forge it does not make sense. Frankly Card’s speculation does not appeal to me. If the people of Zarahemla have their own dynastic tradition, why should they feel any need to tie into the cultural traditions of Mosiah’s refugees, and then just concede leadership to him? It would have taken them a while to learn Mosiah’s language, especially if theirs had no common source, so it would have taken a while for them to learn enough about the history of Jerusalem three hundred years before to be able to fabricate a plausible connection into that history. Again, the only plausible purpose for such a story would have been to bolster the leadership of Zarahemla against the claims of Mosiah, but it didn’t happen. Card’s speculation provokes thought, but ends up just reinforcing the understanding of Mormon. Once you grant that one transoceanic colonization could happen, the second and third are no big deal. Indeed, a crossing involving royal resources and the much shorter route across the Atlantic using the same trade winds ridden by Columbus is much more plausible than the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean circumnavigation Lehi had to complete.

  20. Raymond Takashi Swenson
    January 22, 2012 at 11:01 am

    For that matter, if Zarahemla just needed to give his people a mythic origin, he had the impressive Jaredite record stone to point to. He could have claimed descent from its makers, and a more ancient claim on the land than immigration would provide. Indeed, Nibley speculated that there were Jaredite survivors there, indicated by the occurrence of Jaredite names in the post-Zarahemla history of the combined nation.

  21. Assistant to the Assistant to the President
    January 23, 2012 at 8:57 am

    I miss being an 18-year old freshman at BYU. Nothing else will ever be like it. The world was so simple. Mormons were right, we had it all figured out.

    Then, a year later, I thought my mission president was an absolute authority. If he said something, it was right. I doubt I’ll ever look up to anyone again like that.

  22. Ben S.
    January 23, 2012 at 12:19 pm

    John C: I believe that seal is unprovenanced, yes, though it didn’t come from an LDS source. The only use I have for it is in the exercise.

    Kristine: Noted (and tried to, in the heading at the link.) Baby steps.

    RTS: On law school and forcing examination of both sides, Hafen has this to say.

    “As a teacher in the BYU Law School, I noticed how common it was among first-year law students to experience great frustration as they discovered how much our legal system is characterized not by hard, fast rules, but by legal principles that often appear to contradict each other. I think, for example, of one new student who approached me after class expressing the confusion he was encountering in his study of the law. He said he had what he called “a low tolerance for ambiguity” and had been wondering if part of his problem was that he had only weeks before returned from a mission, where everything was crisp and clear, where even the words he was to speak were provided for him. To feel successful, all he had to do was follow the step-by-step plan given him for each day and each task on his mission. Law school was making him feel totally at sea as he groped for simple guidelines that would tell him what to do. His circumstance was only another example of what I have previously tried to describe as typical of college and university students in the early years of their experience. However, by the time our law students reached their third year of study, it was not at all uncommon for them to develop such a high tolerance for ambiguity that they were skeptical about everything, including some dimensions of their religious faith. Where formerly they felt they had all the answers, but just did not know what the questions were, they now seemed to have all the questions but few of the answers.

    I found myself wanting to tell our third-year law students that those who take too much delight in their finely honed tools of skepticism and dispassionate analysis will limit their effectiveness, in the church and elsewhere, because they can become contentious, standoffish, arrogant, and unwilling to commit themselves.”

    I’m trying to develop stronger faith in the core of the Gospel, while also increasing “tolerance for ambiguity.” I often misremember the title of Hafen’s article as “Dealing with ambiguity” than “Dealing with Unvertainty.”

  23. January 23, 2012 at 3:26 pm

    excellent Ben

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