We wish Rod Smith and Southern Virginia the best of luck in finding their niche. He will say more about it but Southern Virginia’s original niche just didn’t work out. They wanted to be the elite LDS little liberal arts college. They failed. The reasons for the failure are numerous. A few of them are that BYU itself is moving into the elite niche, at least as far as the LDS market is concerned, especially with its Honors Program. That program may well become the sort of elite school within a school that has developed at a few other institutions. In any case, Mormon kids who want to go to elite universities can just go to them, and they do.
Southern Virginia also had marketing problems. The founders should have gone for a New England location if possible (Message: we want to be elite) or else Kirtland or Nauvoo or Missouri Zion (Message: we’re good Mormons) though I understand that the difficulties of creating a new college are magnitudes more than the difficulties of taking over one. And they should have given the school an LDS-sounding name—Restoration College, Smith and Young, Adam Michael, Zion University, something. (Ooh, great idea: name the college after a prominent polygamist and then name each school after a wife. Man! Why didn’t they talk to me?).
The real puzzle—I mean this seriously and not just as a sufferer of Anglo-Catholic Fiction Disorder—the real puzzle is why LDS investors and educators haven’t looked more seriously at creating a prep school. Prep schools have a long history of religious ties. The need for intellectual and religious formation are also acute at that age, more even then at college.
The school would be in Utah, of course, or perhaps Southern Idaho. Deseret, you know, the Heimat (if that’s the word I mean), though Nauvoo or Missouri or Kirtland would also be possible. These latter locations would add cachet but limit the number of day students, some number of which are usually financially necessary. We’d call it an Academy, after our tradition, something appropriately saintish like Smith and Young Academy or Restoration Academy. We might even want to start by purchasing or renting an old academy building to give the place the veneer of age. Age is important for marketing and because one wants one’s students conscious of their past.
The benefits are that the best and the brightest would be able to go to elite colleges without going in grave danger to their faith. Currently we send our kids to BYU to keep them safe there during the dangerous years and then send them out to graduate schools and law schools once they can hold their own. An LDS prep school advances the process a step. And since high schools aren’t all they could be, even the best of them, some parents will send their children to prep schools. I imagine that the challenge to their faith and faithful living can be acute. An LDS prep school gives these children a chance.
Those are the sedate and sober reasons for an LDS prep school. High school education stinks, parents want to give their children a good shot at very good schools, so why not send them to an LDS prep school where their faith will, if challenged, be challenged faithfully and which will prepare these youth for the aweful spectacle most colleges present of brazen modernity, flushed and arrogant, thinking itself the victor in every intellectual field. Why not indeed? These are sensible and sedate reasons for an LDS prep school.
The more sweeping reasons are also two. First, one hopes that at an academy the students could learn not to keep their faith apart from their studies. Here on this site are many who are trying to understand law and politics and philosophy and, gosh, economics and art and music and psychology through the lens of the faith. Its difficult. You learn to apply the faith to your personal life at mother’s knee, but then off to school where you’re inducted into a field of learning that seems massive and complete and intimidating and by the time you’ve begun to master it you can’t hardly disentangle yourself from its assumptions and questions except by the crudest hacking. I suggest that a prep school that attracted some of the best young minds and good teachers could go a long way towards, first, providing the desire and the experience of integrating faith and secular learning and, second, giving the students enough of an integration already that when they go off to college they don’t have to put off thinking about LDS questions until they’ve already been indoctrinated into their chosen field.
Or, if they go off to BYU, say, they’re already advanced enough in the discussion that professors don’t have to keep any gospel-and-xxx discussions at the most basic levels, which in turn challenges the professors to advance their own thinking along those lines. And finally the Academy would produce networks. Everybody hates ‘em but I love ‘em. Learning rolls forth like a stone the fastest when the rollers are aware of each other and can draw on each other’s work and experience. A big burst of, not Mormon studies but Gentile studies, of Athens surveyed through the Jerusalem telescope, that’s the first pipe dream for an academy.
The second is like unto it. Mormons don’t know how to be elites and they need to learn. This is all impressionistic but I think we Saints are all too likely to find ourselves rich or powerful or wise and try to pretend that we’re just regular folks still. Not so. God gives us great gifts to do great things. Or else we’re businessmen or educators or generals and we’ve worked so hard to get where we are that we haven’t had time to do anything more than imitate the businessmen or educators or generals we’re with. That’s not a bad place to start but it’s a bad place to end. Far better if we Saints go into those arenas with some idea already of what we hope to be, with networks of likeminded strivers that can mutually model, and with ties to older pioneers in these fields. An academy is peculiarly situated to creating and maintaining an elite ideology suitable for Mormons, so the efforts of one generation aren’t lost to the next.
The biggest objection I see is that prep schools are boarding schools and boarders are youths who don’t live at home. If home and family is the end and the beginning of Saintishness, can a school that breaks up the home really make Saints? This is a weighty objection, one I am by no means easy about in my mind. If it’s true that adolescents are done with their parents for a while and need to learn from peers and other adults, then that helps make the case for an academy, but I’m not convinced its true. Ideally, much of what I want the academy to do would be done by parents. They would give their children important responsibilities and help induct them into adult tasks. But very few careers allow that these days. Small business is about it. The academy is a second best, but perhaps the best that can be had. Likewise, some parents are just too busy to be involved parents and aren’t going to change. For them, too, an academy might be the best second-best that can be found.
And now for the details. Two parallel institutions that hold dances and things would be preferable, I think, to a coed school. The schoolmasters and mistresses would ideally be young married people, their families resident to the school, so the students have accessible model of marriage and parenting. Idealistic grad students frustrated with grad school would make ideal candidates, or young professionals really more interested in teaching than in researching. I’ve met several disillusioned CES teachers who were going back to law school who would have been perfect for this kind of role. As magnet schools and voucher programs become more widespread, we’ll have a wider pool of entrepreneurial and energetic groundbreakers suitable for the sort of institution we’re envisioning. A summer program could also identify good prospective teachers.
A summer program would also be a good way to advertise the school. I’m envisioning something like a six-week program of intense discussion and study, an EFY for kids who don’t like EFY. We could benefit a wider pool that way and perhaps even attract some teachers who would not want to teach full time because they already have jobs, academics and professionals and what not. Starting out something like some summer programs would also be a good way to test the waters for an academy instead of creating it full-blown.
Another way of easing into it would be to piggyback onto an already existing institution. Since private prep schools stand in loco parentis, their values and aims are not likely to be so disparate that an LDS school-within-a-school couldn’t be created.
I’ve done the hard part, I’ve thought of the idea. Go and make it so.
Does BYU’s Honors Program already do some kind of summer program for high schoolers? If not, why not?
Credit where Credit is Due
Most of this post came out of a long discussion with Mike DeGruccio and Ben Huff. One can separate their contributions from mine by separating the wheat from the chaff, respectively.