Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Misadventures of Mormon Academia

This isn't about FARMS, Dialogue, Brigham Young University, or any other Mormon specific educational organizations. It is about the rash of Universities that are taking up Mormon studies and holding a few classes. The verdict is still out how successful the studies will be, but the promise is covered in a few shadows.

The first major hurdle is finding a purpose behind the University studies. There is a saying that the purpose of a University education is for the education itself. Most who stand by that conclusion either are full-time educators and humanities students. Those who seek a practical education find University education as a means to an end of making a living. Mormon studies falls specifically in the category of impractical knowledge for knowledge sake. I suppose it falls into the category of Feminist and Black History studies. They are nice for political and self-awareness reasons, but few can get a job by graduating in the subjects.

An example of the lack of usefulness for Mormon studies is Michael D. Quinn who had two strikes against him. His books were highly praised, but were filled with controversial conclusions that cost him broad readership from the audience that cared. Frankly, he would have done better with them if he would have thrown out all sense of scholarship and become purely anti-Mormon. His second problem had a relationship to the first, as he had nowhere else to go with his studies. Having been made a darling with a very minor demographic, he could do no more than write his books. There were no Mormon seminaries that could get him a job as a preacher. There were no Universities that had a need for a Mormon studies professor other than the one that was run by the LDS Church that he had upset.

All the truly successful Mormon writers and academics had other wider interests. Some of the more critical academics who focused on Mormonism were amateurs who held other jobs. Another set were professors who taught other subjects, such as Richard Bushman who was a professor of early American history. Those most invested in Mormonism taught at Mormon institutions, but what they wrote was often more devotional than academic. This has become increasingly the normal expectation. It is hard to know if this is because of Brigham Young University, an unfortunate unintended trend, or the questionable Deseret Books editorial board.

Enter the new fashion of Mormon Studies and Chairs in a few academic circles beyond Mormon central. There is an excitement in the air among some Mormons and particularly those who have been following writings on the subject. As one narrative puts it:

The formation of Mormon Studies Chairs at Utah State University and Claremont Graduate School with similar programs in the works at other institutions of higher learning suggests an affirmative answer to this query [of a place for academic Mormon studies]. I think it is obvious that our intellectual predecessors have worked long and hard to make this possible, and consequently we should be grateful. The formation of chairs, along with other movements in the media and politics, mark a new era in the scholarly study of Mormonism, as universities “scramble” to create classes in Mormonism.


At first glance this makes sense with the list of developments. What has not been reported is that once Romney left the spotlight so did Mormonism in the media. What used to be daily stories of Mormons, Romney as a Mormon, and sometimes Mormon history and theology has disappeared. What remains is the usual suspects of the Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News. Mormons have by and large fallen off the map again. Then again, that is typical of the news on most subjects. If it isn't immediate (or in the East or California) then it isn't news. The vultures have eaten the hanging flesh and gone to other kills.

Mormon studies haven’t even been able to get off the ground for more than a passing interest. It is great that Universities have taken up some classes, but those who are participating put the positive development into question. It is more like creating a pre-school for a few unruly children who want to finger paint:

Are the Chairs important developments? Absolutely. And Richard L. Bushman and Philip L. Barlow — who were chosen as the first chairs — are both top-notch scholars who produce excellent work both inside and outside of Mormon studies.

The problem is that they are both active, believing members of the LDS church and they both would be welcomed with open arms at BYU — which is where all of the other professors of Mormons Studies, with the exception of a couple professors at Graceland University — are employed. As long as Mormon Studies professorships require an LDS temple recommend, it’s not really at the Academic Table. Sure, everyone’s having Thanksgiving in the same room, but a special kiddie table has been set up for the Mormons.


Mormon studies will not arrive until there are top-notch non-Mormon professors and chairs included in the discussions. Believe it or not the worry isn't that non-Mormons would teach anti-Mormonism, but that they wouldn't understand the texts or history beyond the narrow stereotypes. The Mormons involved with the academic movement might be imperfectly yoked to the religion, but as participants probably better understand Mormon culture. Perhaps by teaching from the inside a few non-Mormons will gain a more rigorous understanding of the often misunderstood religion and peoples. That is a start, but depends on if the adventure can get off the ground.

Perhaps a stept would be teaching from books and articles on Mormonism written by non-Mormon academics. There are a few really good treatments from this group, rare as the choices. They could be used both to compare the responses by Mormons and also as a start to widen the dialogue and viewpoints. That is a list that will be discussed next time.

No matter what at this point, Mormon studies are in danger of dying before getting off the ground.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

While it is nice there are Mormon Studies programs it is of little use to everyday Mormons. We are commanded to learn and study on our own - we follow a lifetime of teaching and learning in our faith through Primary, Sunday School, etc.

The danger is, of course, a few members will adhere to the academics over the prophets.

Jettboy said...

That has always been the danger, and in some ways the warning of the First Vision. They teach the precepts of men and deny the Power of God. Like I argued, as nice as Mormon studies are, they lack a reason for existance. That can be said about a lot of modern academic subjects.

Christopher said...

A couple of points that you might want to consider:

Re: An example of the lack of usefulness for Mormon studies is Michael D. Quinn who had two strikes against him. His books were highly praised, but were filled with controversial conclusions that cost him broad readership from the audience that cared.

Quinn's name is D. Michael Quinn, not Michael D. Quinn. And actually, Quinn's books weren't "highly praised" by many people. They're recognized as sound and thorough research, but have also been criticized for not being thesis-driven. And the controversial conclusions didn't cost him broad readership among academia. Rather, his decision to publish with Signature Books cost him that broad readership. His one book published by a University Press (Same Sex Dynamics) was highly praised.

Re: What has not been reported is that once Romney left the spotlight so did Mormonism in the media. What used to be daily stories of Mormons, Romney as a Mormon, and sometimes Mormon history and theology has disappeared.

What you don't report is that the new push for Mormon Studies chairs and programs started long before Mr. Romney ever declared his presidency. Sure, Romney's religion gave these programs added notoriety, but his poor showing as a presidential candidate doesn't mean the end of academic interest in Mormonism. That logic seems terribly flawed.

Re: Mormon studies haven’t even been able to get off the ground for more than a passing interest.

What is this conclusion based on? As one actively engaged in Mormon studies, I see much more than a passing interest.

Re: Mormon studies will not arrive until there are top-notch non-Mormon professors and chairs included in the discussions.

There are top-notch non-Mormon scholars involved in the discussions. Just because they are not the actual chairs doesn't mean they're not involved.

Re: Believe it or not the worry isn't that non-Mormons would teach anti-Mormonism, but that they wouldn't understand the texts or history beyond the narrow stereotypes. The Mormons involved with the academic movement might be imperfectly yoked to the religion, but as participants probably better understand Mormon culture. Perhaps by teaching from the inside a few non-Mormons will gain a more rigorous understanding of the often misunderstood religion and peoples. That is a start, but depends on if the adventure can get off the ground.

You really misunderstand the whole push behind Mormon studies. It's already "off the ground." The establishment of the chairs and the interest it has generated prove as much. And the goal isn't simply to get non-Mormons to better understand Mormonism. Nor is it to simply give Mormon intellectuals another playground. Rather, the goal is to examine Mormonism and its important in larger frameworks, and to take the rather insular Mormon scholarship to date to a new level and engagement with the larger academic community.

Re: Perhaps a stept would be teaching from books and articles on Mormonism written by non-Mormon academics.

Again, this is already being done.

Re: Like I argued, as nice as Mormon studies are, they lack a reason for existance.

The postmodern world we live in creates room and provides a reason for the existence of Mormon studies. In addition, the interest it has generated provides another quality reason for its existence.

I appreciate your analysis Jettboy, but I'm afriad you don't quite understand the underpinnings of and the reasons for the creation of Mormon studies chairs at secular universities. Just because it doesn't matter to you or the first commenter doesn't invalidate its existence. That's awfully presumptuous of you.

Jettboy said...

Christopher, first I would like to thank you for discussing my points rather than attacking me. There were already two posts I had to delete because of their rudeness.

Yea, I really did mess up with D. Michael Quinn's name. Although I try, I am not as invested in the perfection of blogs as I am in more professional writings. I do think your statement about his academic readership might be true, but that isn't the readership I was talking about. Rather, I believe those who would be most interested in his works, Mormons, were turned off by his conclusions. Also, the Salt Lake Tribune at the time these chairs started up stated that he was not picked because of his contraversial writings.

Although you are arguably correct that the media and the academic departments aren't related, they have often been by Mormons and the media. Perhaps this is the case of the media believing itself a bigger player in academic world than the reality. Still, I don't completely agree with your timeline.

My conclusion is in the players. Now, if you were a non-Mormon who was arguing the case I would be much more willing to reconsider. As it is, the only chairs and even professors are themselves Mormons. Even the news reports are putting up that question mark. Please point me to these non-Mormon scholars. No one seems to be able to find them.

Maybe, to be fair, the problem has been what has been talked about and what is actually happening. As is, what you have said is not matching with what has been reported.

"The postmodern world we live in creates room and provides a reason for the existence of Mormon studies. In addition, the interest it has generated provides another quality reason for its existence."

Here I think we have just run across competing philosophies of education. I find modern education to be lacking in purpose and not just Mormon studies. It has become too self-important, impractical to the individual, narrow and specialized, and lacking a unified goal beyond grades and a piece of paper.

stan said...

"I suppose it falls into the category of Feminist and Black History studies. They are nice for political and self-awareness reasons, but few can get a job by graduating in the subjects."

Is memory just a nicety? Is value measured only in paychecks? Remember, we have a past loaded with racism and misogyny (which obviously hasn't passed). How can we move beyond it if we are only concerned with designing better ipods or doing something else with a value measurable in $. Martin Luther who? Rosa who? S/He's not gonna get me a pay check, so why should I care? I'm sorry Jettboy, but I think your views are severely flawed and you're awfully casual and dismissive about issues that are very meaningful and very sensitive to many people.

Jordan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jordan said...

Jettboy

Are you asking about non-Mormon scholars studying Mormonism? Or, are you more specifically wondering about non-Mormon scholars teaching about Mormonism? I assume you know who Jan Shipps is for example. Further, Douglas Davies is a non-Mormon scholar in England who studies Mormonism and teaches at Durham University.

Jettboy said...

Yes, I am aware of them and think Davies should be a must read. What I am talking about is the current non-Mormon participation in this current flurry of University backed Mormon studies. Jan Shipps and Davies are anomolies and haven't, to my knowledge, taught classes on the subject.

"How can we move beyond it if we are only concerned with designing better ipods or doing something else with a value measurable in $."

To paraphrase Joseph Smith, you can't teach spiritual principals if you don't fill stomachs. I think, by and large, Universities have cloistered themselves away from the real world. It isn't they don't have value, but that I think th values they have are too much misplaced.

As for how we can change, we are humans and will find a way. On the other hand, I believe that "moving beyond" in the context we are talking about is a deception. We have changed in the United States, but it isn't because of the Universities. Rather, it is because people have stood up in public and let their voice heard. Not that I agree with all the voices and think some progress is actually a regression.

Christopher said...

Jettboy, if you're only looking at non-Mormon scholars who are teaching classes on Mormonism, then of course your view of Mormon studies' future will be pessimistic. (I should note, though, that Laurie Maffly-Kipp (UNC) teaches a course on "Mormonism and the American Experience" and Charles W. Nuckolls (University of Alabama) teaches "Anthropology of Mormonism").

Keep in mind also that although a Mormon is teaching the course at HDS this semester, it was the school's idea, not Melissa Proctor's.

Many, many professors interested in Mormon studies incorporate the subject into their courses on U.S. history, religious studies, and religious history. Others have written, or are writing, on the subject, and still others are eager to mentor grad students' dissertations on Mormon topics.

A brief rundown of scholars that fit at least one of those areas (and most fit more than one):

Jan Shipps, Douglas Davies, Sally Gordon, Charles Cohen, John Turner, George Marsden, Catherine Albanese, Laurie Maffly-Kipp, Charles Nuckols, Stephen Stein, Thomas Simpson, Ann Taves, John Brooke, Nathan Hatch, Jon Butler, Harold Bloom, William Deverell, Todd Kerstetter, and Kathryn Lofton.

In addition, the fine historians who run the Religion in American History blog regularly blog on Mormon topics and I have good reason to believe that they include Mormonism to their classes as well.

Hopefully I've helped you "find" these scholars you were clearly not looking hard enough for.

Ben said...

To paraphrase Joseph Smith, you can't teach spiritual principals if you don't fill stomachs.

And ipods do this how? I see no relevance between this and the discussion at hand. If you are at all familiar with the academic historical field, most of it is devoted to the topics stan pointed out. Mormonism can fit in very nicely with the others. That statement appears rather ignorant.

As for other professors teaching classes on Mormonism, you can throw Stephen Prothero, author of American Jesus among other important books, who teaches a class on Mormonism at Boston University.

Ben said...

As for how we can change, we are humans and will find a way.

I dont know about you, but to me this seems to usually happens when we learn about those who have gone before so that we can "stand on the shoulders of giants." History plays a far, far greater role in the present than you give credit for.

Jettboy said...

I want to thank all those who have contributed. There are still things I very much disagree with, particularly the purpose of education. Yet, I am glad that things are better from insider's points of view. You don't get that impression from news reports and even discussions such as I linked and quoted.

stan said...

Jettboy. You say that this isn't about FARMS, BYU, etc., but I think they are implicated--the majority of academic study is. Your uber-utilitarian stance on education seems to obviate the value of nearly any form of higher education at all, other than perhaps the engineering department and certain aspects of physics and the science (so long as it is not too theoretical--and I'd point out, as an aside, that's Einstein's theories were highly theoretical yet GPS doesn't really work without them; sometimes the abstract and theoretical can impact real situations; that's what philosophical Pragmatism is all about). Certainly the Humanities is out the door--what stomachs have ever been filled on Homer?
Perhaps I'm being ungenerous in my interpretation here--I admit the ipod bit was a bit of a strawman.
But I'm having a hard time seeing a place for art, literature, theology, etc. in your way of seeing things. Do you see any value in these endeavors? What do you see as the purpose (if there is one) of so-called higher education--that which takes place in Universities? And how is Mormon studies really any different (more or less important) than any other sort of purely academic study? If you really think that vocational training is the only education of any value, come out and say it. If that's not what you believe, perhaps you should think through some of the implications of the statements you've made, because that's where they seem to lead, unless I'm simply misreading you.

Jettboy said...

"If you really think that vocational training is the only education of any value, come out and say it."

Ok, I'll say it. I think that vocational training is the only education of any practical value and therefore should be the focus of education. Modern American education (I can't say for other countries) is nearly a failure.

This is because the goals are messed up. It seems those outside the sphere of the educational levels know this, where those inside don't pay attention. Many college professors say that a high school education doesn't prepare students for higher education. They often have to "re-teach" the students basic knowledge skills. That is because high school doesn't have the goal of preparing students for college, or a career if they choose not to go to college. Self-taught has become better a better way to prepare for life than the education.

Once a person reaches the University it depends on what someone decides to study. As you said, there are some areas like "the engineering department and certain aspects of physics and the science" that do prepare students for life outside the University walls. Most of the rest are a great preperation for those who want to go to more school and end up teaching just like the professors. Other than that, there are minor opportunities for a minority to get work exposure and experience. That is, again, a complaint by those who hire people. They have to "re-train" those who should have learned in school. The problem is that schools don't have the goal to prepare students for the real-world job market.

Again, it isn't that such opportunities aren't available. It is that they are side issues and "programs" not intimately tied to educational purposes. Such emphasis should be turned on its head.

And, to relate it to the discussion, Mormon studies are good for PR and self-discovery, but not practical. What Mormons really want (I believe) is a traditional Christian seminary. What some of the non-Mormons who study Mormonism want I don't know other than a personal curiosity.

stan said...

A trad Christian seminary for what? to train a lay seminary? Bishops should be trained (and paid) professionals? (that is, after all, the main purpose of Christian seminaries.) Isn't that going a bit against the whole democratic urge of a lay clergy that has made Mormonism so successful? Isn't that exactly what Mormons tout from the pulpit--the virtue of grassroots leadership? Or does it take something like Mormon Studies to come to such a realization?

stan said...

oops! I meant "lay clergy" in that second sentence.

Jettboy said...

Stan, it is hard to pull off on the Internet, but I was facetious with the comment. For me your questions strike at the heart of my views on Mormon studies.

Dennis said...

Jettboy,

I disagree with your assessment of the purpose of education (I pretty much agree with Stan here).

However, I do worry about Mormon Studies being too insular (a worry that you seem to express). One thing that I worry about is for Mormon Studies to become an in-group crowd that talks about Mormons, as opposed to a way of engaging theology, science, history, etc. For example, I think that Mormon scholars have been remiss in not fighting, philosophically and theologically, against the new atheism that has cropped up in the past decade (Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, etc.). Mormonism has a lot to offer in this regard, but if it is to do so, we can't simply talk ABOUT Mormons, we need to talk about how Mormonism can inform society.