Religious Education’s New Curriculum: A Tale of Two Authorities

The Church has decided to revamp the curriculum for the Church Educational System, which includes Institute programs and (more relevant for this post) BYU’s schools of Religious Education. Whereas the previous curriculum required four courses—two courses on the Book of Mormon, one course on the Doctrine and Covenants, and one course on the New Testament; the new curriculum will require four courses with the following titles: Jesus Christ and the Everlasting Gospel, Teachings and Doctrines of the Book of Mormon, Foundations of the Restoration, and The Eternal Family.

The letter from RelEd’s administration spells out a timeline for putting these new courses together, and mentions several “institutional options,” which are meant to introduce some flexibility in implementing the new curriculum across different institutions. In the case of BYU, current course offerings can replace parts of the new requirements. For instance, the current offering of two Book of Mormon courses can replace the Teachings and Doctrines of the Book of Mormon course.

When first proposed, this new curriculum (called the “cornerstone” curriculum; hereafter “CC”) was met with almost unanimous opposition among RelEd faculty. Among reasons for opposing the CC was that it will exacerbate problems with students understanding the scriptures by discouraging a contextualized approach to reading scripture. Julie Smith lays out a number of similar concerns here. After “institutional options” were added, however, a majority of the faculty voted to support the CC.

Interestingly, once the CC made its way to the Board (with the “support” of the faculty), these institutional options came into question. The letter explains, “We learned that they [i.e., the Board] also approved the institutional options, but with less enthusiasm.” It goes on to say that “approved ‘institutional options’ should be ‘limited and transitional.’” In other words, the very piece of the curriculum that moved the faculty from strongly rejecting the curriculum to moderately supporting it was weakened as the curriculum was approved.

The letter then states, “Clearly, this decision of the Board will not please everyone. But we are confident that we will now put aside any differences of opinion and roll up our sleeves and go to work. One of the things that makes BYU a unique university in all the world is a Board of Trustees comprised of prophets, seers, revelators and inspired leaders of the Church. We need to trust that inspiration and honor their sacred responsibility.”

In this post, I would like to draw attention to a few implications of this shift in curriculum. I will briefly mention two implications before focusing on a third—the authority (or lack thereof) of RelEd faculty in teaching religion.

1) Despite fears otherwise, the CC will not change the way religion is currently taught at BYU (Provo); at least not in the short-term. The RelEd faculty are more than capable of including the best of the things they are currently teaching under the new rubric. Nowhere (that I’ve seen) does the CC limit the diversity of approaches currently offered. The classes taught now as requirements will also be available as electives, and I imagine other electives will remain the same. Further, given BYU’s push to hire faculty with legitimate training in the study of religion (see my analysis of the Bott affair here), the faculty will continue to increase the academic rigor of their classes.

2) The greater problem will be with the Institutes, where instructors are less qualified to understand the texts they are teaching. They will now be more than ever encouraged to proof-text and provide superficial answers to questions, which in the long run will not equip most young people to confront the public sphere where religion is discussed.

3) Expert authority at BYU is valued far less than representational authority. It is no surprise that the Brethren, with representational authority (i.e., priesthood), have the final say in matters relating to RelEd. In this sense, the representational authority of the priesthood has power over the expert authority of the faculty. What is a surprise, however, is the size of the gap between the two.

When people are recognized as authorities on a particular topic, they are usually trusted in performing their craft. Experts in engineering are not likely to insist that Japanese language teachers start with Romanizing the language instead of directly introducing students to hiragana and katakana. The case of teaching religion at BYU is obviously different, however it ends up being different to such a degree that the RelEd faculty have virtually no say in designing their own curriculum.

Where this really hits home, though, is that a less contextualized approach to reading scripture undermines the authority of the expert. Experts in the study of religion are recognized for their acquisition of knowledge with regard to a particular topic or tradition. We would expect, for instance, an expert in early Christianity to have a firm knowledge of the New Testament as well as the cultures and historical processes that produced it and other related texts. In teaching a course on the New Testament, one of the outcomes might be to gain “the ability to comprehend, analyze, and interpret” the New Testament (ironically, I borrowed this phrase from RelEd’s current learning outcomes). However, a class entitled Jesus Christ and the Everlasting Gospel does not necessarily require the same kind of knowledge. The experts on Jesus Christ and the everlasting gospel are not the experts of early Christianity. The former, of course, are the Brethren, and the instructor for such a class is tasked, not with presenting a text that we happen to hold sacred, but with organizing quotes from the Brethren to reaffirm their authority. In short, expert authority is not needed in the classroom, nor is it to be regarded as truly authoritative. This erosion of expert authority, in my opinion, is one of the major frustrations that the RelEd faculty have with the CC.

This new curriculum, and perhaps more importantly, the way in which it is being implemented at BYU is a clear statement that the instruction of “religion” is the prerogative of those with representational authority, and that expert authority is welcome as long as it serves the interests of representational authority.

This situation leads me to believe that despite claims otherwise, RelEd is not really interested in attracting faithful scholars of religion to their faculty. Or, perhaps said more accurately, RelEd cannot be interested in attracting faithful scholars of religion. They need, of course, people with PhDs in order to maintain accreditation. However, scholarship, and the authority that comes from being a scholar will always have to take the back seat… no wait, will always have to ride in the back of bus at BYU.

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