Michelle Stone’s “Celestial Education” philosophy is seriously misguided and theologically dangerous.
As far as I can tell, Stone does not have much of an Internet presence, but her video (you can see it here) has been making the rounds–showing up in Facebook comments and being mentioned on homeschooling message boards.
I have the following objections to the pedagogy that she presents:
(1) It is based on many historical inaccuracies: the Pilgrims  did not read Shakespeare (00:02:46; they were virulently opposed to the theater), all 19th century school books were not based on the Bible (00:05:57; Euclid was used to teach geometry until the 20th century, to take just one example), John Dewey was not responsible for the Dewey Decimal system (00:11:21; she’s thinking of Melvil Dewey), John Dewey was not a proponent of secular humanism (00:12:09; he signed a statement in support of religious humanism). These might seem to be minor issues and I can easily imagine making some verbal gaffes if speaking off-the-cuff, particularly in the middle of a 2 hour and 41 minute (!) presentation.
However, she makes more serious errors as well. For example, she argues that many early 20th century education reforms were enacted under the guise of increasing literacy, but were really a Trojan horse meant to destroy the power of religion and families. She says, “literacy has never been a real problem in America, until now” (00:10:13). This is not accurate; in 1870, 20% of the population was illiterate, including 80% of African Americans. In 1979, 0.6% of all adults and 1.6% of African Americans were illiterate. (I realize 1979 was a generation ago, but it is the most recent data I could find that was both historical and included minority group members; I encourage you to look at the source for that data here.)
She also, in the context of talking about “the disobedience of our great-grandfathers,” mentions Brown v. Board of education (00:22:20) as an example. It is possible that she thinks that Brown was the case that ended school prayer (listen to that segment yourself and see what you think); the case that actually ended school prayer was Engel v. Vitale. If she said Brown when she meant Engel, that’s a factual slip. If she meant that Brown was an example of disobedience to God’s principles, well, I don’t think I can be charitable or reasonable in responding to someone who thinks that being obedient to God requires racial segregation of public schools, so I won’t say any more about that.
(2) Her premise is that tax-funded public schools are contrary to God’s will (see, e.g. 00:04:20, 00:06:34, 00:08:15 and many others); she says that “clearly government education is not God’s system” (00:09:06) and “we know that the prophets and the scriptures, God’s laws and teachers, are opposed to public education” (00:12:36) and that “the system is the devil’s” (00:25:58). She uses quotations from 19th century LDS leaders to support this position and claims that public school was only allowed in Utah “so we could have statehood.” She comes perilously close to saying that several generations of Saints have been cursed because of a decision by earlier prophets to allow public schools so that Utah could become a state. A few responses to this:
(a) The context of 19th century denunciations of allowing LDS children to be taught “by the Gentiles” was not an eternal principle, but rather involved the practice of anti-LDS Christian missionaries who came to Utah to set up schools to convert LDS children to their version of Christianity. It is no surprise, then, that people like John Taylor said that LDS children should only be taught by LDS teachers. But this is not the context today.
(b) Today, modern prophets have not spoken out against public schools. To the contrary, President Hinckley has said, “as a people we have supported public education” and “I am pleased to note that there is a public awakening to the need to prioritize our educational resources and programs” (source here). President Monson has said, “the Church has always had a vital interest in public education” (source here). And despite the voluminous counsel regarding education in recent years, there has not been counsel to avoid public schools; in the closest thing to counsel on the topic (source here), it is explained that the church has no official position on homeschooling, that the church closes church K-12 schools when local governments are able to provide adequate schools, that there is a First Presidency statement that encourages members to support their public schools, and that “the Church has not withdrawn its traditional support for a strong public school system.”
(c) At this point, Stone might seem to fit the definition of someone who prefers the words of a dead prophet to the words of a living one, but it is actually much worse than that. She states that some people will say that “we need to just listen to what the prophet is saying now, that doesn’t apply to us. It is an interesting thing that happens in the Church: when the prophet speaks, and the Saints disobey, the prophets don’t keep speaking on that topic. It’s called the lower law” (00:22:47). In other words, the reason that the Brethren stopped criticizing the public schools was not that the public schools were OK, but because the Saints were not listening, and so now the Saints must live with the lower law of public schools, although those who want to live a higher law will avoid public schools. In other words, the words of 19th century prophets reflect the higher law and current prophets reflect the lower law. (One wonders what she thinks about, say, polygamy.) This is one of the most dangerous theological positions that a Latter-day Saint can take on any topic. This is so incredibly dangerous because it allows you to disregard everything prophets are saying in modern times and select what you like from former times and claim that you are living a higher law. She states that we are losing blessing by not being obedient to the higher teachings of the prophets if we are using public schools because although “our prophets no longer talk about tax-funded schools, it is not because God has changed his mind. It is just because we are living the lower law.”
(d) I wonder if she has really thought through the consequences of living in a society without public schools. At one point (1:57:40), she addresses the objection to the elimination of tax-funded public schools that some people wouldn’t educate their children if there were no such schools. She has two answers to this objection; one is that literacy rates were better before public education (see above for a rebuttal). Her second response is to quote Thomas Jefferson as saying, “It is better to tolerate the rare instance of a parent refusing to let his child be educated, than to shock the common feelings and ideas by the forcible transportation and education of the infant against the will of the father.” But she does not read the rest of Jefferson’s statement: “What is proposed… is to remove the objection of expense, by offering education gratis.” In other words, free public education! Even the most cursory study of Jefferson’s life shows that he was intimately involved in the advancement of taxpayer-support public schools.
(3) She also has many strange theological beliefs:
(a) She intimates that, had there been compulsory attendance laws at the time, Joseph Smith would not have had the First Vision (00:04:35). I find it odd that she thinks that the Lord’s plan to restore the gospel could have been stymied by a handful of legislators making young Joseph go to school for half the day, for half the year.
(b) She implies that Church attendance, family scripture study and family prayer are not “enough” (00:34:42) and that “celestial education” is required of the Saints. (I would assume that current prophets and apostles would tell us what is “enough” for our families.) She says that gospel education is “insufficient” if the child is taught in a secular school: “even if they come through spiritually unscathed, intact, it is still insufficient” (02:06:38). The implication is that the 95% or so of Church members and leaders who were educated in public schools and choose to (or, have no choice but to) educate their children in public schools are lacking, despite whatever commitment to the gospel and its practices (temple attendance, serving in callings, scripture study, etc.) they observe. This is flat-out wrong. It also implies that current church leaders are failing in their duty to lead the Saints since they are not teaching the “necessary” principles of “celestial” education.
(c) She argues at length (01:10:07 and following) that children under eight should be with their mothers full time (including school time). She says that if they aren’t, they are throwing away a gift (1:10:07) and that the mother is to act as the Holy Ghost for that child (1:12:30). At 1:16:27, she describe the common scene of mothers crying when their first child goes to the first day of kindergarten and a more experienced mother telling them that it gets easier with every child. She says that this crying is a prompting of the Holy Ghost that the child is to be with the mother and that the reason it gets easier with each child is that the Spirit is quieter as it is ignored. (One wonders what she would make of parents crying at the MTC–is the Spirit testifying that their children shouldn’t go on missions?)
(d) It is hard to follow her train of thought at points, but she seems to be saying that people who are enslaved end up enslaved because they chose to be wicked and that freedom is a reward for the righteous (1:56:47).
(4) Her educational theory is amorphous, but what I could glean of it seems wrongheaded:
(a) She says, “if we introduce contention into our homes by requiring them to finish their homework or whatever it is, the Spirit flees.” (1:30:33). I actually wasn’t sure whether to put this one under bad theology or bad pedagogy; it is probably a little of both. In any case, her premise is that parents should not ever force children to do academic work. Not only is this against the law for home schoolers in most states, but it is contrary to the pattern of the gospel. L. Tom Perry said this in conference: ‘”I used to think some days as I ran home from school that I was through learning for the day, but this illusion was quickly destroyed when I saw my mother standing at the door waiting for me. When we were young, we each had a desk in the kitchen where we could continue to be taught by her as she performed household duties and prepared supper. She was a natural teacher and far more demanding of us than our teachers at school and church. The scope of Mother’s teaching included both secular and spiritual lessons. She made sure none of us were falling behind in our schoolwork, which she would often supplement” (source here). Sometimes kids need to be reproved with sharpness (D & C 121:43); this is not the same as inviting contention and/or causing the Spirit to flee.
(b) In terms of educational approach and not theological approach, my biggest complaint with her presentation is that it leaves the novice homeschooler with absolutely no idea of what to do on Monday morning (except to pray, but I’m guessing they already knew that). She is short on nuts and bolts, except that you should seek the Spirit. The one concrete example (1:32:10) of an assignment that she gives in nearly three hours of talking is this: have your child write everything that they know about a topic. Then have them pray about the topic and then write everything they know about the topic. She seems to have missed the “by study” part in D & C 88:118.
(c) Another one of the very few specifics that she mentions is an objection to having math requirements, because that would have kept C. S. Lewis out of Oxford. She mentions that a celestial study of math involves the study of “God’s favorite numbers” (2:30:45). I really don’t know how she would translate statements like “now remember all truth is spiritual. We don’t need to separate out and be fearful that our kids won’t know math” (1:05:07) into the nuts and bolts of actually homeschooling a child, but I suspect that the results would not be good. They would not be legal in most states, where homeschoolers are required to teach basic subjects. Particularly when combined with the idea that the parent must not “force” academic material on the child, I see the potential for a lot of students to, well, not reach their own potential. Although she dismisses the idea at a few points, it is worth remembering that the current counsel to LDS youth is that they get all the education they can (not all the education they want) and that they be prepared to financially support a family.
(d) She is deeply suspicious of all experts. But part of D & C 88:118 is learning “by study,” and that implies studying experts. She states that when it comes to school boards, psychologists, and education and child development experts, “almost to a man, I don’t know of any of these educational experts that share my beliefs, that have my same light and knowledge.” That is quite an insult to the many members of the Church and other good people in the world who serve in these capacities.
(5) There are, to be fair, a few good ideas hiding in here. (But they in no way justify 2 hours and 41 minutes of your life in order to find them.) I share them in the spirit of being fair:
(a) I like that instead of thinking of teens as selfish, we think of them as people who only have stewardship for themselves (1:37:02).
(b) I like her idea that we shouldn’t be capitalists or socialists but “consecrationists” (1:54:27) (Although I thought her swipe at socialists was unnecessary.)
(c) She also points to the dangerous lessons schools can inadvertently teach, such as materialism (00:45:06). (Of course, homeschooling is no guarantee against this and it is not inevitable in the schools, either.)
(d) She says that schools can foster competitiveness (scholarships, sports, GPA, etc.) and that she wants her neighbors’ kids to do as well as her own (02:35:35).
If you make it to 1:12:10 where she says “ninety percent of the brain is formed by the age of eight . . . or maybe the age of two. Anyway . . .” or 1:45:51 where she criticizes “that French guy–I can’t think of his name” (1:45:51) who taught a “lie” that was “a big deal” and “a satanic deception” by placing humans in the animal kingdom, you might be wondering why I would bother responding to a presentation of this quality with a lengthy and detailed post. it is because her video has been making the rounds of LDS homeschoolers.
It is harsh but true to note that new LDS homeschoolers tend to be uncertain and insecure. They may be the only one they know–the only one in the ward, the only one in the family–to homeschool. They see communities full of evangelical Protestant homeschoolers and they want that kind of support and direction, but they know they can’t quite use the evangelical version. They want “the Mormon version.” So a presentation like this seems appealing, particularly with the numerous scripture and GA quotations sprinkled throughout. Its authoritative posture seems to provide certainty and security. But the problem is, as one colleague of mine described it, “she may have taken a perfectly good idea (seeking inspiration for your child’s education) and surrounded it with a giant tangle of dangerous nonsense.” The idea of seeking inspiration will resonate (as it should!) but the bizarre spin that she puts on it (avoiding experts, not requiring anything of children, not relying on “study” but just “faith,” opposing public education) should be avoided. I wrote this post with the goal of sharing the dangers of her way of thinking.
Finally, I want to note that I am a big supporter of home education and I am deeply committed to homeschooling my own kids. But I don’t think that we need to disparage the public schools, invent a theological requirement for homeschooling, or assume that the Brethren aren’t guiding us correctly in order to support homeschooling.
 She also says that the Pilgrims came to avoid religious persecution (00:02:22). We might let this go since it is part of the national myth that we teach all of the elementary-age students at Thanksgiving, but it is worth noting that the Pilgrims went to Holland to avoid religious persecution and they had all of the religious freedom there that they wanted. What they were concerned about was their children assimilating into the larger culture, and hence the move to the new world. They came to the New World not to escape persecution, but to escape assimilation.
 I think she was talking about Linnaeus since he is generally credited with developing the modern taxonomic system, but he was Swedish, so I’m not sure.