(Anti-)Intellectualism in the Church

(Anti-)Intellectualism in the Church September 6, 2007

A very good friend of mine, MantiHigh, wrote me recently to suggest that I include in some future post a discussion of some issues of (anti-)intellectualism arising in recent General Conference talks. I thought s/he spelled out things nicely, and in a different way than is usually done (I’m sure the commenters will let me know if I’m wrong.) In any case, with MantiHigh’s permission, I copy the following for your discussion:

Anti-intellectualism in the Church is a favorite concern of mine given my experience and observations. Maybe I’m hypersensitive to this, but I think the data are pretty clearly supportive of an ongoing, long-term undercurrent of suspicion towards intellectuals. (Just try bringing up your favorite intellectual topic in Sunday School or PEC sometime.)

Given my fears, I was really surprised to find something interesting in Pres Hinckley’s talk in Priesthood Session of Apr 07 GC.


Pres Hinckley told the story about “I am clean” where Joseph F. Smith dreams when he is in Hawaii, (see the talk here).

The thing that really stunned me was his closing paragraphs. President Hinckley says:

“Now, my dear brethren, may the Lord bless you. To you boys I say, get on with your education. When you marry, yours will be the obligation to provide for your family. The world of opportunity lies ahead of you, and education is the key that will unlock that door. It will be the door of the mansion of which Joseph F. Smith dreamed when he was a boy sleeping on a mountain in Hawaii.”

Here he seems to say that education is hugely, vitally important. That education is what lets us in to the future Kingdom: allowing us to shake hands with Joseph Smith in person, Brigham Young, etc., etc.

I don’t know that I have ever seen a Prophet equate education — and arguably “worldly” or “secular” education, which he clearly means here — with such important symbols.

How does this fit into my concern about anti-intellectualism? Well, I don’t read the above quote as suggesting that getting a PhD is The Best Thing. After all, he is speaking about all sorts of education. Technical / vocational schools are a rumored favorite of the Perpetual Education Fund, for example. And President Hinckley is relentlessly practical, and even (especially?) after all my years of schooling I can see that ya gotta get a job at some point. But education – secular education – so strongly endorsed is arguably the best possible counter to anti-intellectualism.

After all, intellectuals *do not* deserve any prime place in the kingdom, but thought, reason, learning, and study do. When coupled with statements such as he made at the General Young Women’s mtg in 2004, “Among other things, I must remind you that you must get all of the education that you possibly can,” (May 04 Ensign) it’s difficult to wish for a stronger statement of support for what the best intellectualism has to offer. I can’t think of any GA since the Brown days being so openly supportive of the need to nourish the mind. Yes, he says it for practical reasons rather than for theoretical reasons. But the outcome is the same. (As we intellectuals would have argued all along, right?) Exposure to education by the broad Church population can only mean more exposure to thought, reason, learning, and study, and that in turn is the best long-term antidote to anti- intellectualism. Or maybe the Bloggernacle has better advice?

There is a separate thread that could point out how shocking President Hinckley’s advice to women to also get all the education they can is to some of us, but that’s for another day…


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