My post begins with a pointed question: Are higher education and the scriptural ideal of Zion at odds? The question had never occurred to me until a few years ago while living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The singles’ ward I was attending at the time, Longfellow Park, was filled people with higher degrees. Many were then enrolled in graduate programs. Kristine could tell us the names of all the many the colleges and universities in the immediate areaâ€”there must be six or eight, maybe more. These schools were like giant magnets drawing LDS young people from all over the country. A large number were attending Harvard. Probably 98% of the ward had been to some college, and a high percentage either had graduate degrees or were intent on obtaining them.
Enter into Longfellow Park my hometeaching companion, an amiable twenty-five-year-old convert of three years whom I will call Alex. Unfortunately, Alexâ€™s was also a life going nowhere. A high school drop out, he was working part-time at McDonalds (â€œIâ€™m lovinâ€™ itâ€?) and part-time as a grocery store bagger. Alex said he wasnâ€™t interested in college. He didnâ€™t have the money for trade school. He was caught in a downward cycle of one defeat after another and wasnâ€™t sure how to escape. His father, who couldnâ€™t be counted on, had taken off when Alex was a child, leaving Alex and his mother in a small house in nearby Watertown, where they had lived together for many years.
At church, Alex got no attention whatsoever. In the frenzied mingle in the foyer after sacrament meeting, no one seemed to notice him. He was on the outside looking in, and he often complained to me about not fitting in with this bookish crowd. â€œWhy donâ€™t they talk to me?â€? he asked over and over. I would tell him conversation was a two-way street, that he had to make the effort, that once they got to know him things would be different. All this was in vain. When Alex finally broke through to conversation, the members would quickly turn back to people more like them, leaving Alex standing there looking on. Burgers and Foucault were worlds apart.
As I observed these painful scenes week after week in the chapel foyer, I started seeing the Book of Mormon being played out before my very eyes. â€œAnd the people began to be distinguished by ranks, according to their riches and their chances for learningâ€? (3 Ne. 6:12). There were â€œitesâ€? all over the place (4 Ne. 1:17), including my own extra-church socializing, which never involved Alex. For reasons unknown to me now I didn’t work hard at including him in social functions. By the time I left Cambridge, Alex had stopped coming to meetings on the claim that ward members made him â€œuncomfortable.â€?
I wondered then, and wonder still, how Zion, given our natural inclination to associate with people like ourselves, can ever be formed on the ground. Is Zion chimera?
Since moving from Cambridge, I have seen a similar social division in wards and social events. When educated Mormons socialize, we often invite only educated and accomplished people to the party–in other words, people like ourselves. We call these people â€œinteresting people.â€? We interesting people huddle together in the hallways of our wards, we have each other over for dinner, we babysit each othersâ€™ children, we schmooze and fawn and try and out-clever each other. We ask potentially interesting people what they â€œdoâ€? as a way of measuring whether they belong in our orbit of interesting people. In this rarified air, the uninteresting people, the Alexes of the world, are left off the invitation list.
I am as guilty as the rest; and I canâ€™t fault people for finding friends for whom they have a special affinity. But what is the cost? Are we killing the Zion dream softly? I am both allured to and repulsed by this behavior and wonder in my quiet, radical moments whether higher education isnâ€™t yet another measure of social segregation keeping people from coming together in peace and love.