Church Education as Consequentialism

Church Education as Consequentialism March 13, 2008

For a long time I’ve felt a disconnect between the concept of “education” employed by programs such as the Church Educational System, and “education” in the context school learning (be it post-high or not). I think I recently have been able to put more of a finger on why I’ve felt this way. Before going further I should probably admit that this may reflect more of my own attitudes and experience with “education” both within and without the church, than an “objective” description of the situation, but I believe it will resonant with some. I’m also going to (over?) generalize, but hey, it’s a blog post and I’m happy to modify or defend my argument as needed

Church “education” (as defined on has the goal of “teaching” the gospel by both “precept” and “example” as well as “providing a spiritual and social climate” for interaction, and preparing members for “effective Church service”. What I take this to mean is that teaching by precept (i.e., book learning, or increasing factual knowledge) is first of all only one aspect of “education”, and secondly is not necessarily more (or less) important than any other aspect of education. Also, education is measured not only by one’s accumulation of knowledge, but by how well one follows the exemplars who teach the gospel, the frequency of “positive” intereactions one has in the church (which I understand as “spiritual experiences”), and active participation in the Church.

Aiming to increase “precept” cannot be done at the expense of the other goals (similar to the way in which a positive social environment cannot come at the expense of precept). This is to say that if learning leads to less positive experiences, worse exemplars, or decreased activity in the Church, it is not proper “education”.

Is this an appropriate description of the scenario? If so it seems to me that “precept” in this context is understood in consequentialist terms. In other words the learning of factual knowledge is valued according to the consequences it brings about in relation to the other goals. It is a means to an end, and not an end-in-itself; where “end” refers to stronger activity in the Church. To put it plainly, what is important is membership and activity in the Church, even more so than having a sophisticated understanding of our history (but at the same time we don’t want people to be ignorant of that history).

Now, this may seem common sensical to most, but I find it in deep conflict with the way I tend to perceive “education” in other contexts–meaning for the most part as an end-in-itself (although I realize that this may not the dominant view. Furthermore it is true that much of any kind of education is geared toward “successful” participation in an institution–the purpose of a business school is to produce successful business people, after-all. I should also note that, “You want to major in what? What in the world are you ever going to do with a degree in ____[insert anything from the humanities here]?” are common questions I’ve faced).

I don’t intend to critique a consequentialist view of Church education (should we expect something different?). I do, however, want to point out some of the implications of this position, especially to those who most likely share my non-consequentialist view of education. The implications of this line of thinking is that any call for more “precept” (be it in terms of “meat”, “nuance”, exploration into “grey” areas, new kinds of SS classes, etc.) will be immediately dismissed unless it can argue along consequentialist lines–How will learning about MMM (for instance) lead to more “spiritual experiences” or activity in the Church? How will “scholarship” be useful to the Church? Are people leaving the Church because we’re not teaching enough “precept”? If people are leaving because of it, what should be done is to teach enough about it such that people stop leaving.

This raises all kinds of interesting (but tangential) questions in terms of  the role of “objectively” presenting the facts in a consequentialist paradigm, the tension between “education” as pursued by the Religious Education dept and other departments at BYU,  and how much room this leaves for “scholars”. But I guess my general question at this juncture is what do you make of this description? Is it accurate? And what are the implications? It would also be interesting if anyone wants to take a more critical stance on this position. For instance, is it possible to assert that if the Church is “true”, “education” pursued as an end-in-itself will in the long run validate this claim?

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