I did not want to go to BYU. In fact, I was really bitter about going there. I had my sights set on institutions farther to the east with more gothic architecture. I grew up in Salt Lake City, and I was convinced that attending BYU would condemn me forever to a life as a parochial rube with a second-class education and a lifetime of collegial regrets. However, at the end of the day towering debt looked scary, I missed the deadline for ROTC, and BYU offered me money. So off to Provo I went.
To my surprise, I thoroughly enjoyed BYU. I took fascinating and demanding classes from smart, well-trained professors. The quality of the departments at BYU is uneven, but I had the good fortune to study in two very solid departments (philosophy and political science) as well as taking lots of classes in two others (economics and Asian languages). The student culture was, it goes without saying, bizarre, but pleasantly so. To be sure, there were odd-ball Mormon nuts given to truly strange forms of sanctimoniousness. But there were more than enough smart, interesting, and irreverent students to keep me occupied. There was not a large supply of leftists, but those that we did have were such fun, interesting, and tortured souls that they made up for in quality what they lacked in quantity.
Most of all, I enjoyed the intellectual life of the Y. In one of his less inspired moments, D. Michael Quinn referred to BYU as “an Auschwitz of the mind.” My experience convinced me that Quinn’s claim is a bit of tasteless hyperbole. To be sure, during my time there, BYU suffered through some high-profile disputes regarding professors and tenure. I don’t know all of the details of these particular debacles, but I know enough to know that things were not handled as well as they could have been. My day to day intellectual life at BYU, however, was wonderful. I spent many hours reading difficult and interesting books. I would talk with my professors, assist with their research, and enjoy long conversations with lots of young, very smart Mormons.
And ultimately it was the Mormoness of the intellectual life at BYU that I found exciting. I suffered through a couple of ham-fisted attempts by professors to integrate the gospel into their classes, and I had a couple of conversations where a know-nothing tried to dress up his ignorance in the trappings of piety. However, on the whole what I found was a group of very well informed, very thoughtful Mormons, who had some very interesting things to say about the relationship between Mormonism and the life of the mind. When in due course, I arrived at my ivy-covered dream in law school, I found that I missed BYU. I was fine with the non-Mormon culture of law school. I found that my education had — with one or two notable exceptions — prepared me exceedingly well for what I encountered. I enjoyed the intense intellectual pressure of law school. I even enjoyed observing the new sea of left-wing ideology in which I found myself swimming. Nevertheless, I found the intellectual life constricted in a certain sense. My professors, by and large, were ignorant of religion in general and Mormonism in particular. I no longer had a deep reservoir of well-informed interlocutors with whom to sketch out future vistas of Mormon thought. In the end, of course, I found Mormon intellectual life even in Cambridge, and I hugely enjoyed the small scale, personal interaction with young and intensely smart Mormon graduate students.
I know more than my share of BYU-haters, and I think some of them have valid complaints. I know people who went to BYU in search of Mormon intellectual life and felt intensely marginalized by the tunnel-singing denizens of their student wards. I never really empathized. In part this is just from a general lack of empathy on my part. On a deeper level, however, I think it came from the fact that in the end, BYU doesn’t belong to the know-nothings, regardless of their numbers. It isn’t their school. It is mine.