Church Education as Consequentialism

For a long time I’ve felt a disconnect between the concept of “education” employed by programs such as the Church Educational System, and “education” in the context school learning (be it post-high or not). I think I recently have been able to put more of a finger on why I’ve felt this way. Before going further I should probably admit that this may reflect more of my own attitudes and experience with “education” both within and without the church, than an “objective” description of the situation, but I believe it will resonant with some. I’m also going to (over?) generalize, but hey, it’s a blog post and I’m happy to modify or defend my argument as needed

Church “education” (as defined on has the goal of “teaching” the gospel by both “precept” and “example” as well as “providing a spiritual and social climate” for interaction, and preparing members for “effective Church service”. What I take this to mean is that teaching by precept (i.e., book learning, or increasing factual knowledge) is first of all only one aspect of “education”, and secondly is not necessarily more (or less) important than any other aspect of education. Also, education is measured not only by one’s accumulation of knowledge, but by how well one follows the exemplars who teach the gospel, the frequency of “positive” intereactions one has in the church (which I understand as “spiritual experiences”), and active participation in the Church.

Aiming to increase “precept” cannot be done at the expense of the other goals (similar to the way in which a positive social environment cannot come at the expense of precept). This is to say that if learning leads to less positive experiences, worse exemplars, or decreased activity in the Church, it is not proper “education”.

Is this an appropriate description of the scenario? If so it seems to me that “precept” in this context is understood in consequentialist terms. In other words the learning of factual knowledge is valued according to the consequences it brings about in relation to the other goals. It is a means to an end, and not an end-in-itself; where “end” refers to stronger activity in the Church. To put it plainly, what is important is membership and activity in the Church, even more so than having a sophisticated understanding of our history (but at the same time we don’t want people to be ignorant of that history).

Now, this may seem common sensical to most, but I find it in deep conflict with the way I tend to perceive “education” in other contexts–meaning for the most part as an end-in-itself (although I realize that this may not the dominant view. Furthermore it is true that much of any kind of education is geared toward “successful” participation in an institution–the purpose of a business school is to produce successful business people, after-all. I should also note that, “You want to major in what? What in the world are you ever going to do with a degree in ____[insert anything from the humanities here]?” are common questions I’ve faced).

I don’t intend to critique a consequentialist view of Church education (should we expect something different?). I do, however, want to point out some of the implications of this position, especially to those who most likely share my non-consequentialist view of education. The implications of this line of thinking is that any call for more “precept” (be it in terms of “meat”, “nuance”, exploration into “grey” areas, new kinds of SS classes, etc.) will be immediately dismissed unless it can argue along consequentialist lines–How will learning about MMM (for instance) lead to more “spiritual experiences” or activity in the Church? How will “scholarship” be useful to the Church? Are people leaving the Church because we’re not teaching enough “precept”? If people are leaving because of it, what should be done is to teach enough about it such that people stop leaving.

This raises all kinds of interesting (but tangential) questions in terms of  the role of “objectively” presenting the facts in a consequentialist paradigm, the tension between “education” as pursued by the Religious Education dept and other departments at BYU,  and how much room this leaves for “scholars”. But I guess my general question at this juncture is what do you make of this description? Is it accurate? And what are the implications? It would also be interesting if anyone wants to take a more critical stance on this position. For instance, is it possible to assert that if the Church is “true”, “education” pursued as an end-in-itself will in the long run validate this claim?

7 Replies to “Church Education as Consequentialism”

  1. Brigham Young once taught,

    Will education feed and clothe you, keep you warm on a cold day, or enable you to build a house? Not at all. Should we cry down education on this account? No. What is it for? The improvement of the mind; to instruct us in all arts and sciences, in the history of the world, in the laws of nations; to enable us to understand the laws and principles of life and how to be useful, while we live.

    So in his view, education was a little of both – it was an end-in-itself (improvement of the mind), and also a means-to-an-end (being useful while we live).

  2. So how does the concept of “scholarship” and the role of scholars fit under the CES definition of “education”? Given the emphasis on good consequences, it seems good scholarship (which often challenges the status quo) can only be a threat to CES education. Which makes the role of CES within a university somewhat problematic.

  3. Bryce,

    Two questions:
    Has the contemporary church inherited BY’s notion of “education”, or is it different as I describe?

    Do you think education as both a means and as an end-in-itself is compatible?

    I think places such as BYU’s Religious Education department exhibit this tension. As mentioned in a previous post (, BYU looks for ‘disciple-scholars’, but I think the emphasis is on the ‘disciple’ dimension of the term.

  4. Reminds me of Nibley’s “Zeal without Knowledge” talk, in which he said (badly paraphrased):

    BYU’s response to criticism over its students’ low GRE scores was to throw out the GRE [not sure of the context here], saying that it has loftier goals in mind than the filling of the mind with empty facts. To which Nibley said, “like there’s any danger of that happening at BYU!”

    And that’s where I came to love Nibley.

  5. I love (and miss) the classical definition of knowledge within Mormonism that emphasized that gathering knowledge and achieving a more complete education was fundamental to our progress in the eternities. This limited “education construct” emphasizing something as short-term as Church activity is disappointing.

  6. Not very long ago (October 2000), Elder Oaks said this in general conference:

    “In contrast to institutions of the world, which teach us to know something, the gospel of Jesus Christ challenges us to become something.”

    That sounds like consequentialism to me. However, I agree with Mogget’s comment on the Brief Apologia … thread that church activity does not necessarily achieve the desired consequence. If I am to adopt Elder Oaks’ view I would hope that learning would lead not just to three hours a week of church attendance, etc., but that I would become ever more convinced of my need for the grace of God through Christ.

  7. As to your larger point, I believe this is what is implied by preparing for “effective church service”. The issue is what is necessary to “become ever more convinced of my need for the grace of God through Christ”? From a Church Educational perspective (and it seems that Elder Oaks is in agreement), a ‘knowledge-of-that’ (e.g., knowing about Church history) is perhaps only valued in as much as it instrumentally serves a ‘knowledge-of-how’ (or a practical knowledge) of how to increase our spirituality (measured of course by activity in the Church). The question is also whether such a perspective on ‘knowledge-of-that’ leads to a situation where the objective facts are valued less than perhaps they should be.

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