Constructive Thoughts on the Curriculum Shift

As I’ve stopped hyperventilating over the leak of this forthcoming change, I’ve had some thoughts. I have a general rule when I’m in Gospel Doctrine that I try not to say anything unless it’s constructive (or the teacher says something really flagrantly crazy/wrong, which is rare in my experience.)

Let me open with this positiveness, then. BYU’s RelEd has some fantastic people, some new hires, and good things happening. I’ll single out the Advanced Book of Mormon class. The two Fall 2014 sections are not the first time this class has been taught. The two “regular” Book of Mormon classes are prerequisites, the syllabi I’ve seen look very good, and the profs are top-notch.  BYU still includes this aspirational statement (which I’ve cited before) about the nature of teaching in RelEd.
Teaching in Religious Education is to be substantive and inspirational. Students should become familiar with the text studied in each course taken and learn the implications of the text for daily living. They should feel free to raise honest questions, with confidence that they will be treated with respect and dignity and that their questions will be discussed intelligently in the context of faith. Where answers have not been clearly revealed, forthright acknowledgment of that fact should attend, and teachers should not present their own interpretations of such matters as the positions of the Church. Students should see exemplified in their instructors an open, appropriately tentative, tolerant approach to “gray” areas of the gospel. At the same time they should see in their instructors certitude and unwavering commitment to those things that have been clearly revealed and do represent the position of the Church. Teachers should be models of the fact that one can be well trained in a discipline, intellectually vigorous, honest, critical, and articulate, and at the same time be knowledgeable and fully committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ, His Church and Kingdom, and His appointed servants.
Two aspects of the new classes are problematic.
First, the nature of these classes as topic-based instead of sequential study through scripture. Julie has already laid out several valid concerns, which I won’t rehash too much. These could be done well, depending on the professor and expectations/boundaries laid out by the department. The danger that many of us reasonably fear, based upon experience with the Church’s manuals and such, is that the class would largely take a monolithic presentist view, and then strongly imply that This Position is the revealed and only one that has ever been taught, worlds without end,  is therefore found in all the scriptures, and then engages in a disconnected proof-text method to show that. Over 100 years ago, BH Roberts wrote,
In the past, a too exclusive adherence to merely “text methods” of work has been followed. That is to say, there has been a selection of separate and disconnected texts marshalled together in support of a  given subject without sufficient care being taken to know the context and  historical association of the scriptural utterances, often attended with  great danger of forming misconceptions of such texts, resulting in wrong deductions and conclusions.”- Seventy’s Course in Theology (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1907–1912), 1:i.)
Another danger is the potential of reifying current views that are not actually revelatory and may be reversed or discarded. Of course, even actual revelation can be reversed or superseded, e.g. circumcision or polygamy. But there’s a real danger of teaching a tradition as revealed when it’s not. From that perspective it is both safer and more honest to teach a diachronic overview of something as well as the current view(s) espoused by current Apostles and Prophets. Along with doctrine, students need to be taught critical thinking skills and develop a broad base of scriptural literacy. That is much more easily acquired in a good quality sequential reading course. Yes, many BYU students have not had good experiences in those courses, but they are the unlucky ones who (unwittingly) ended up with the storytellers, the myth makers, etc. While we teach dogma well, we do not teach scripture-study well nor create realistic expectations or skills to deal with friction, uncertainty, contradiction, change, etc. After a mission, BYU, etc., we think we know much more than we really do. All of which brings me to the second problem.
Second, and more troublesome to me, is that these new required classes displace the old scriptural courses, changing demands on professors and hiring requirements, as well as basic scriptural literacy. The scripture classes will remain as electives for most students, and some will still be requirements for Ancient Near Eastern Studies majors (who choose a Hebrew Bible or Greek NT emphasis). 10,000 freshmen will no longer be signing up for Book of Mormon 121. The standard Scripture classes could even improve, since students who take them are now going to be self-selecting. I had to “weed out” students who wouldn’t appreciate the kind of class I was going to teach, in order to avoid a clash of expectations and potentially negative student reviews. It’s possible, then, that this shift of religion classes will allow a much higher quality class for the few students who decide to take it.
Now, this curriculum change is a fait accompli, it’s going to happen, and there’s really nothing any of us can do about it directly or indirectly. (Cue melodrama.) However, as Top’s letter makes clear, the content and structure of these courses is almost entirely yet to be determined.  These could be fantastic, thought-provoking, challenging, faith-building courses. I’d like to call for practical non-snarky suggestions. Here are some of mine.
  1. Generally, more emphasis on analyzing and thinking, less on factual intake (though some of this is always necessary.) More acknowledgement of different strains of LDS thought, even at the highest levels. Students need to be challenged and exposed to other thoughts, not just dogmatized.
  2. Incorporate the text and references from the new Gospel Topics statements. Particularly in the Foundations of the Restoration, these would be great to read and discuss, because they acknowledge what we do and don’t know, as well as sources. They would help get at the many productive tensions inherent in the Restoration around revelation, authority, canon, interpretation, etc. A diachronic, historical perspective is invaluable. This is a class I’d actually enjoy teaching. The opportunity to spend several days on the First Vision, for example, would provide a great opportunity to engage differing accounts, the nature of history and historiography, the importance of context and the cultural embeddedness of revelation (e.g. try Bushman’s “Visionary World of Joseph Smith”), and how time changes perspective (i.e. address the rampant presentism in the Church. Try James Allen’s article on the First Vision here)
  3. In the family class, one could explore how revelation and tradition intermingle by talking about what we do and don’t know about Mother in Heaven. There’s been plenty published on this by respectable names that could be used in a BYU class, like Paulsen, Kevin Barney (maybe), Dan Peterson, etc. How will it deal both with historical challenges to the conception of the family (polygamy) and current/future (gay marriage)?
  4. The thematic Book of Mormon class could engage in careful literary readings of what I called Power Chapters on my mission, those that seem to have minimal narrative and maximal doctrine, the dense ones. Grant Hardy’s recent book could be useful. Oh wait, this is actually what the Advanced Book of Mormon class is doing right now.
What are productive questions, sources, and approaches that could realistically (or aspiration ally) be used in these classes? How would you teach both the necessary doctrine AND spiritual/intellectual skillset needed for a faithful disciple of Christ?

15 comments for “Constructive Thoughts on the Curriculum Shift

  1. I agree that if we are looking on the bright side that this change might free up elective courses to be richer, but I’m not sure that this outweighs what it looks like this change will do to BYU.

    But let’s look beyond BYU. This four course core, if I am reading things correctly, is going to replace the current scripture based Seminary curriculum. Please correct me if I am wrong. Now I think that Seminary is a catastrophe currently, but this change seems to assume that the problem is insufficient indoctrination. I would suggest that this is not the case. There is plenty of indoctrination. But the courses fail to convey the value of religion. So later when a person has an issue with the doctrine it becomes easy to discard the religion. Not just discarding Mormonism, but religion in general.

    Indoctrination is brittle. The value of religion should be much deeper than its ability to indoctrinate.

    It seems to me that a more academic approach to the scriptures could teach how religion has been of enormous worth to cultures over time and how it is of value to our culture and us individually. Explicitly challenge presentism and show the richness and complexity of religion in general and the LDS faith in particular.

    Now perhaps I’ve jumped to conclusions, but if my kids are going to be subjected to a year in seminary of The Family: A Proclamation to the World, I’ll pull them out. How’s that for a successful change?

  2. John, I hadn’t gotten the impression that this would be replacing the seminary curriculum. In fact, as the church has just produced a new manual for D&C/Church History (which, ironically, appears to be atturned to some of the context we’re worried about losing in the new BYU/CES curriculum, here:, I’d be surprised if this were on the immediate horizon. What’s interesting is the way the new gospel topics essays and Joseph Smith Papers exist alongside this topical drive.

    Ben, I think you’re right that these courses could be fantastic. I suspect that just like under the previous regime, much of course quality will be driven by the instructor rather than the curriculum. That said, I do share your concerns about how this might affect hiring.

    Finally: I can’t find anything about the advanced BoM courses at BYU. Are they listed as special studies courses? Can you link to a syllabus or two? I’d love to see what’s on it.

  3. Abu- It’s in the normal listing of courses of RelEd, but there’s little info there except the title and course number. I’m not sure I’m at liberty to share the syllabi I’ve received. I know it was taught back in 2012 as well, different prof.

    Also, I think you’re right that this extends to Institute, but not Seminary.

  4. Good thoughts, Ben. Thanks for this.

    Dave, “dogmatize” has been a verb for over 400 years.

  5. Abu and Ben,

    I guess I need a refresher on what “all CES entities” means. I would be shocked if core curriculum changes for the college level only. Regardless, if this applies only to institutes this is still a huge change for a large number of students and my concerns still apply, as do my concerns with the current seminary program.

  6. John, I should have been more precise. You’re right: Seminary + Institute + BYUs = CES. This curriculum is an Institute + BYU issue, but does not appear to affect Seminary. I don’t mean to downplay your concerns (I share them!), I just want to make sure they’re focused on the right entities.

  7. I think that the letter is unclear. It does not explicitly mention seminary, but does not explicitly exclude it. I read it as eventually extending to all of CES.

  8. We’re into the third news cycle and not a peep from BYU or CES or Public Affairs on this. You’d think they would want to be out in front of things, especially given how much concern people are expressing publicly. It’s a little odd how much anxiety the leak has caused. Like we don’t really trust the Church Education System to come up with an adequate new curriculum or execute the new teaching mandate.

  9. It strikes me that this is something that can be good to the extent that it a) strengthens actual testimonies of Christ, b) strengthens actual testimonies of the Book of Mormon, c) prepares students to handle problems in Church history, and d) contributes positively to Mormon family life.

    But the new curriculum will make it even more important that the caliber of our teaching improve in the courses that do focus on actual scripture study, to wit–senior primary classes, adult gospel doctrine classes, and possibly the seminaries. Family scripture study is also going to become absolutely crucial. I hope we, as a Church, are ready to step it up.

    Another semi-random thought: Unless the Second Coming happens in the next couple of years, at some point the Church will get the CES back in the business of teaching the Old Testament as a core requirement. What an interesting opportunity that will be–to re-design the Church’s core Old Testament curriculum from the ground up, in a process that is not dominated by a CES that’s been teaching strict Old Testament literalism continuously for the last fifty years . . .

  10. I really don’t see how this is supposed to apply to Seminaries as well. The Seminary curriculum has always been different from the required portion of the BYU/Institute curriculum. For example, the previous BYU/Institute curriculum never required the OT. Seminary always has. The four required classes always only covered a semester’s worth of time. I can see no way that they attempt to take these four new classes intended to be a semester long class in college and somehow try to stretch each into a year long course. Especially since they’ve already made a major, already under way effort to revamp the existing Seminary curriculum.

  11. The Church is obviously struggling to find its way in the new open (Internet) world. Those who have a say over curriculum and teaching apparently have a certain philosophy about what might work to indoctrinate students and keep them faithful in this new landmine-strewn terrain. Personally, I’m not too enthused about the new curriculum (and watch out, this is just the first shoe; the other one will drop soon). But I’ve been around long enough to know that the pendulum swings both ways. It’s been swinging in Mormonism for a long time. When this approach to curriculum and teaching methods proves inadequate, the pendulum will swing back. Be patient. Perhaps more and more students will start searching the resources that are available and get a better gospel education simply because the Church curriculum doesn’t provide it. Who knows?

  12. Good luck with “having more emphasis on analyzing and thinking.” The church continues to champion Joe Simpilton and his unquestioning wife Mary. President Monson idolized some simple faith members in one of his conference talks a few weeks ago. They don’t want people to think too much in an era where the internet and information destroy their message.

  13. Robert, the Lord and his Prophet honor people who are humble and faithful, regardless of their level of education. I would not infer from President Monson’s talk that the church no longer wants people to think.

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