The Trouble with BYU’s Religious Education (Part I)

The Trouble with BYU’s Religious Education (Part I) March 7, 2012

This post isn’t meant to discuss the specifics of Randy Bott’s circumstances. Instead, I’d like to write about how the Bott situation signals two long-standing methodological problems for Religious Education as a whole. I believe this contributes to an ongoing discussion within Religious Education, but since I’m not privy to that discussion, I’d like to raise the issues here.

I’ll begin by spelling out the problems, and in future posts I’ll discuss the possible short-term response to these problems and my desired long-term response. I should note at the outset that my caricature of RE is not representative of every professor in RE; I do believe, though, that it is representative of the dominant paradigm within RE.*

Religious Education values pedagogy over content. RE professors are hands-down some of the best instructors I’ve seen. RE prides itself on having the highest ratings on student evaluations in the University; and Bott, as many know, was the 2008 professor of the year on RateMyProfessor (calculated solely by student feedback). Many of the professors in RE are trained as instructors rather than historians, philosophers, theologians, etc. In other words, their graduate schooling was in education and not history, religious studies, or philosophy. Bott, if I recall correctly, wrote his dissertation on effective ways of presenting information. The current problem with Bott is largely a result of allowing an expert on ‘x’ to present himself as an expert on ‘y’ (an instructor, in this case, presented as a theologian, in the broad sense of the term). Bott’s field is not theology (or even Mormon history), it’s education. Putting experts in pedagogy in a religion department and allowing them to provide an account of issues such as blacks and the priesthood is much like a father giving the keys of his car to his young… oh, wait, poor choice of metaphor. Okay, it’s like putting a mathematician (who happens to read Shakespeare) in an English department and asking him or her to comment on Shakespeare’s portrayal of women in Hamlet; there, that’s much better.

It isn’t that the mathematician will necessarily give a bad account of the issue (one of the best religion professors I had at BYU was a professor of music, and it was obvious that his training in music shaped the way he read the texts); rather, the mathematician can only draw on his training in responding to the issue. His training may lead to an insightful answer to the question (and may then become a larger part of the interpretation of Hamlet), but more often than not the answer will not be as good as the answer provided by someone trained in Shakespearean literature. This is because the mathematician does not have the same kind of background—he does not know the historical context of Shakespeare, the tradition of interpreting Hamlet, or methods involved in the study of women. This isn’t to say that the mathematician is incapable of acquiring this training; but we shouldn’t expect someone trained as a mathematician to speak as an expert on Shakespeare unless experts on Shakespeare have attested to his or her abilities.

One reason that this problem has persisted as long as it has is because pedagogy can sometimes gloss over inappropriate content. A reason that students attend class is to gain knowledge they currently lack. Students are, for the most part, unable to judge the accuracy of the information provided in many classes. While it’s not easy to confirm new information, it is much easier to gauge the degree to which one enjoyed a particular class; and enjoyment is often related to how the information is presented rather than the content of the information itself. Having seen Randy Bott lecture a few times, I can attest to the fact that his presentations were some of the most enjoyable I’ve seen.

The second problem is the social status of Religious Education professors. They are, for many Latter-day Saints, de facto authorities of Mormon thought. Until 2010, the mission of RE was “to build the kingdom of God by teaching and preserving the doctrine of the gospel of Jesus Christ” (for the new mission see here). “Preserving” the doctrine presupposes that they know the doctrine; and “kingdom building” aligns their goals with the goals of the institution of the Church. In a system without professionally trained theologians, they essentially fill a void. In some regards it’s a win-win situation for the Church and RE. The Church has resources to draw on for determining doctrine and creating curriculum, and at the same time can maintain its claims of having no paid clergy. RE profs are looked at as the guardians (or “preservers”) of the faith and are given minor celebrity status in the Mormon community.

While RE professors are de facto authorities of Mormon thought, they are often de jure authorities of wards, stakes, or missions. In this sense they are intellectual authorities as well as ecclesiastical authorities.

They are not challenged by others the same way that most academics are because they do not publish in venues where their work is critiqued and evaluated by their peers. Instead they publish in LDS venues where “quality” is not determined by trained professionals in a discipline. Additionally, our (LDS) community is not one where challenging authority is welcome; as such, it rarely occurs.

These two problems create the real possibility of an excellent instructor teaching outdated or ill-reasoned content that is not subject to question. It seems to me that these are the reasons that allowed for Randy Bott to teach what he did, where he did; and for him to be regarded by the media and our community as someone qualified to speak on the issues he chose to speak on.

 

*There are competing paradigms, and there have always been professors in RE that do not have these problems. The growing number of professors trained in religious studies (broadly conceived) suggests that what I’m calling the dominant paradigm is on the wane.


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