Last week I got to do the “Teachings of Our Times” lesson in Elders’ Quorum. These are the lessons that take a recent set of conference talks as the text. This months lesson included Elder Jeffery R. Holland’s recent sermon “A Prayer for the Children.” We used the talk and the lesson as a springboard for a good discussion on the Gospel and theories of education.
This is the talk where Elder Holland taught:
- Parents simply cannot flirt with skepticism or cynicism, then be surprised when their children expand that flirtation into full-blown romance. If in matters of faith and belief children are at risk of being swept downstream by this intellectual current or that cultural rapid, we as their parents must be more certain than ever to hold to anchored, unmistakable moorings clearly recognizable to those of our own household. It won’t help anyone if we go over the edge with them, explaining through the roar of the falls all the way down that we really did know the Church was true and that the keys of the priesthood really were lodged there but we just didn’t want to stifle anyone’s freedom to think otherwise.
The gist of Elder Holland’s counsel seems to be that we ought to immerse our children in a simple and clear Gospel message. At the time, I recall that a fair number of Mormon intellectuals of my acquaintance were upset by Elder Holland’s remarks, which they saw as an attempt to blackmail them into conformity with guilt about their children. (Interestingly, none of the people that I recall expressing this sentiment had children.) Elder Holland’s emphasis on rearing children provided a spring board for another discussion that turned out to be pretty interesting. I take it that he was expanding on the idea of raising one’s children in righteousness. Deuteronomy 6:4-7 says:
- Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD and thou shalt love the LORD they God with all thine hear, and with all they soul and with all they might and these words, which I command thee this day, shall in thine heart; and thou shalt teach them diligently unto they children, and shalt talk of them when tho sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.
The implication is clearly that we are to surround our children with the Gospel so that they grow up to be a certain kind of person. I contrasted this idea with a passage from Bruce Ackerman’s book Social Justice in the Liberal State. Ackerman writes:
- Children are born radically incomplete. Barring genetic handicap, each can function in a bewildering variety of human cultures. The particular use a child makes of his cultural freedom, however, depends on us. If we talk English, the infant will learn English; if Greek, Greek. Our models of behavior provide the starting points for the child’s evolving patterns of conduct.
These facts are a source of perplexity for liberal and authoritarian alike. Only they respond to the childish mixture of freedom and dependence in different ways. The authoritarian exploits the child’s cultural dependence to limit his cultural freedom. Infancy is a time to plant the seed in good moral ground; childhood is a time for the weeding and pruning needed to transform good young saplings into extra-fine timber. By maturity, a well-educated person can only look with contempt upon the stunted and deviant growths that, unaccountably, inhabit so much of the forest.
Such horitculturaal imagery has no place in a liberal theory of education. We have no right to look upon future citizens as if we were master gardeners who can tell the difference between a pernicious weed and a beautiful flower. A system of liberal education provides children with a sense of the very different lives that could be theirs – so that, as they approach maturity, they have the cultural materials available to build lives equal to their evolving conceptions of the good.
It seems pretty clear to me that Professor Ackerman is taking aim here at the kind of educational philosophy embodied in the counsel of Deuteronomy and Elder Holland. So I asked my class what we were to make of these competing views of education (broadly concieved)? Do we simply chuck Elder Holland in favor of Professor Ackerman? Do we dismiss outright the idea of liberal education? Do we have some way of reconciling these competing visions?
The Elders’ Quorum of the Little Rock Ward provided a good discussion.