Intellectual life is a social endeavor, involving both a community of participants and institutions that support their activities. In this post I discuss some of the key elements of the ecosystem that is needed for a flourishing intellectual culture. In my view, these key elements include scholars, conferences, publishers and publications, academic positions, and graduate programs. At the moment, while Mormon Studies has some version of each of these elements, they are all quite limited and in many cases rather rudimentary. Yet in standard ecological fashion, each of these elements symbiotically depends on the others, and I’ll discuss why. It is an interesting question, then, how to get from our current situation of a few scattered sparks to one of established intellectual vitality.
Perhaps the primary components of an intellectual culture are people who think, and thoughts. While thinkers are not necessarily associated with a school, I will call them scholars. While our thoughts may simply take place in our heads, to form part of the culture, they must be expressed and shared. At an informal level, they may be expressed and shared among friends, in informal discussion groups, on blogs, or, say, in Sunday School discussions. In a robust intellectual culture, however, thoughts must take a more robust form, as presentations and publications. Hence an intellectual culture needs conferences and similar fora for presentations, and it needs publishers who are interested in publishing Mormon Studies and capable of both recognizing good work and giving it a proper editorial support.
Conferences and publications are not only important for the dissemination of ideas; they are also vital for the development both of ideas and of scholars. Good ideas are to a great extent a communal effort. Any particular idea may come primarily from one person, but she will be responding to the thoughts of others, and to their feedback on her ideas, which helps her to clarify and deepen them, and to distinguish the parts worth keeping from mere errors and wanderings. This exchange of feedback among scholars is called peer review and is vital to intellectual improvement. Thus good ideas and scholars depend for their existence on other good ideas and scholars, and on interaction with them through conferences and publications.
Journals play an especially important role in the development of ideas, both by providing formal peer review prior to publication, and then by allowing work to be circulated in “bite-sized” articles, which often prompt a more involved form of peer review through responses in a similar format, allowing ideas to be refined and reinforced before they appear in the more ponderous form of a book.
Here and there, scholars may do excellent work on Mormonism, without extensive interaction with other scholars of Mormonism. To some extent scholars of Mormonism can draw upon a larger intellectual culture and apply the skills and training they have gained, as well as the peer review they receive there, to their work on Mormonism. Cases like these will always represent something of a lucky break, however, and even at that they will be limited in what they can achieve. Without feedback from scholars of similar ability and a comparably deep knowledge of Mormonism, important aspects of their work will lack the benefit of proper peer review, both to stimulate their best work and to judge how good the product is. I have been amazed at times to see how the most basic errors regarding Mormonism can make it through the editorial process at a press that lacks expertise on Mormonism. I have also been amazed to see how unreflective quite intelligent people can be on issues where they have not engaged with their intellectual equals.
Conferences and publications, in turn, of course require the participation of scholars to exist and to flourish. The number and quality of scholars limits the number and quality of conferences, and publishers rely on scholars to review publications as part of the editorial process.
To produce presentations and publications in any quantity, scholars further require support for their work. Volunteers and hobbyists can be important contributors, but when a community is composed entirely or primarily of volunteers and hobbyists, it is difficult for it to achieve a high standard of quality. A robust intellectual community needs people whose intellectual activity is part of their job, and the mainstays here are generally college and university professors. More specifically, a community needs professors whose job is Mormon Studies, or else their work in Mormon Studies will remain more or less of a side project, like those of the volunteers and hobbyists. Once upon a time, scholarship and science were largely advanced by independently wealthy gentlemen, but much of what has enabled the depth and thoroughness of contemporary scholarship is its institutionalization in universities and to some extent in associated research centers. At present, while there are a decent number of academics involved in Mormon Studies to some degree, there are very few for whom Mormon Studies is part of their job description.
So far, then, a robust Mormon intellectual culture needs scholars, conferences, publishers, and academic positions oriented toward Mormon Studies.
Normally, however, an academic position in a subject will only exist when there is such a subject, or more specifically, an established tradition of scholarly inquiry into that subject. Hence to a large degree the existence of positions in Mormon Studies presupposes the existence of a robust intellectual culture already. This is important because employers need to be able to evaluate employees, and the standard way to evaluate scholarship is through peer reviewed presentations and publications. Also, in order to justify creating a position, they need to be confident of finding appropriate scholars to fill it as the years go by. This requires that there be a sufficient number of scholars, and a flow of new entrants into the field from one decade to the next, with reasonably reliable quantity and quality.
These scholars do not drop out of the sky. To have a robust community of scholars requires a robust program of training, for which the standard is a graduate program. Here the chicken-and-egg logic becomes especially sticky. On the one hand, a robust community of scholars requires a program that produces such scholars. On the other hand, to have a graduate program in the first place, one must have scholars to teach in it. One must also have a body of literature on which to base the curriculum, and the primary ingredients here are peer-reviewed publications. Finally, for a graduate program in Mormon Studies to make sense, there must be a reasonable number of academic positions in Mormon Studies, so that its graduates will be able to find relevant employment.
A robust intellectual community, then, requires scholars, conferences, publishers and publications, academic positions, and graduate programs, and all of these depend on each other for their health, if not for their very existence.
So, how are we doing? On the one hand, there have been some very exciting developments in recent years, some excellent events and publications, a few new positions in Mormon Studies, and some very impressive scholars. In comparison to where Mormon Studies has been, things look very good.
In comparison with any established academic field, however, things are very sparse indeed. I’ll make a few somewhat glib and irresponsible observations on this, with an invitation to readers to enlighten me where I go astray. Right now, we have a few scholars, most of whom have become scholars of Mormonism through a somewhat circuitous path, and certainly not through a formal program in Mormon Studies. They have produced some fine publications, but have largely had to blaze their own trail in doing so, and it is hard to know how much in these publications is contestable, since there are so few scholars in a position to contest. We have a few conferences, some of which are fairly vibrant, but most of which are institutionally somewhat tenuous, and have either a fairly brief track record or a checkered one.
History is of course something of an exception. The Mormon History Association has a long-running conference and journal and a substantial body of regular participants, including a number of well-trained and accomplished scholars. However, while there were a number of academic positions in Mormon history at BYU until recently, the Smith Institute was dissolved a few years ago, and I am not sure how Mormon history is faring in the History Department. Perhaps someone can fill us in. Anyway, the center of gravity for Mormon History seems to have dramatically shifted north, to the Church Historical Department. Recent developments there are very positive, but the new direction there still seems a bit new, and the Church Historical Department is a different beast from a standard academic institution.
BYU’s School of Religious Education is big and well-established and has regular events such as the Sperry Symposium, but its primary mission is devotional, and so academic work in the usual sense is somewhat marginal and sporadic there, relying largely on the heroism of a few individuals, as in most other sectors of Mormon Studies. Further, there is a pronounced tendency for those Religious Ed faculty with a more scholarly bent to jump ship, like Reid Nielson and Spencer Fluhman have in recent years.
BYU in general is an excellent university with a large and strong faculty who in theory could do an enormous amount of great work in Mormon Studies, but as things stand now, for faculty to do scholarship on Mormon issues is generally not encouraged.
Claremont Graduate University has Mormon Studies offerings as part of its graduate program, but not enough for it to count as a degree program in Mormon Studies.
There are a number of other specific institutions it would be interesting to comment on. I’ll comment on some of them in future posts. Comments giving a snapshot of particular institutions, or expanding on/disagreeing with what I’ve said about particular institutions, are welcome.
For now, my point is that a robust Mormon intellectual culture requires quite a number and variety of mutually reinforcing components, and that right now most of these components exist only in a fragmentary, scattered, and/or rudimentary form. Hence to make significant headway in any one area will require progress in all the others as well. Where to start? A subject for future posts.