I graduated from BYU in 2008, and reflecting upon the students who attended, most of them reminded me of myself. Most students were typical Latter-day Saint youth who came to the school because they wanted to prepare themselves for the workforce in an environment that encouraged gospel living. The prospect of possibly meeting a spouse who shared similar principles was also appealing to many of my friends.
I did meet a handful of hyper conservatives, but in my oblivion, I gave them the benefit of a doubt, thinking that we shared more in common than not. It was not until I read Tara Westover’s Educated that I realized that some of my conservative friends could have been completely off their rocker.
BYU’s motto is: “Enter to learn; go forth to serve.” It does not necessarily say: “go forth to serve ‘God’ or ‘the religious right.’” The motto itself remains ambiguous because it is up to the one who enters the institution to define who it is that they should serve.
As a teenager, I wanted to study at BYU, and I told a friend that I was excited to go there someday. My friend asked me why I wanted to go to that specific school. I told him that I wanted to meet people who shared my faith. He reminded me, “Brian, BYU is a university, it isn’t EFY!* If you treat it as such, you are going to have a miserable time. BYU is a hard school, and if you want to succeed, it is a lot of work.”
Though this fact should have been obvious to me, I was shaken by the way that he said it. In the end, BYU is a university, and a university’s job is to teach students the skills that will prepare them for life, and particularly for the workforce.
I recently learned that there is a hyper-conservative group who is petitioning BYU because they believe that the school has strayed from its Christ-centered principles. The petition, created by Hanna Seariac, only offered one example of how the school has strayed from such teachings.
Apparently, she was unable to find a professor to sponsor her pro-life group. However, her example was not the essence of her petition. She believes that BYU professors are often hostile towards the Church. She says: “For the last couple of years, I have just observed the way BYU has been going. I have heard a lot of professors suggest things . . . . that are contrary to the church or in opposition to the church.”
In my three years at BYU, I was never taught a single principle that went against any of the doctrines and policies of the Church. I did take a geology class where the professor taught that the earth was not created in 6,000 years, but that is not a controversial interpretation of scripture within Latter-day Saint circles. I wonder, is this the kind of teaching that the author of the petition is referring to? The same professor ensured that we started and ended class with a prayer, and he frequently remarked on how he could see God’s handiwork in rocks. He was one who I believed overly incorporated gospel learning in a secular subject, I think to overcompensate for antiquated scriptural interpretations.
I took classes from a handful of democrats, and even a Muslim, but again, there were no doctrines taught that countered Church teachings. Those who openly oppose the Church are often fired or leave willingly. In my experience, professors taught and stuck to their given subjects.
I believe that Seariac’s definition of “church teachings” is very different from the Church’s definitions of its own teachings. The Church does teach that its members should not seek out abortions except in cases of health of the mother, child, or in rape or incest, but it does not force or pressure political ideology on issues of ‘pro-life’ or ‘pro-choice.’ Based on the only example that the petition’s author gave, it seems that this “Christ-centered” petition appears to be political in nature, and it is important for BYU to not heed the pleadings of a handful of conservative extremists.
In Tara Westover’s Educated, the author describes her father, who appears to be an orthodox apocalyptic extremist who believes that most Church members are not real Latter-day Saints. He believes that the majority of the Church and BYU have been infiltrated by the Illuminati, so in response he pulled his kids from school to live in a bunker in the mountains in Eastern Idaho. I graduated from BYU the same year as Westover, and it is likely that either I, or my wife, who was in the same program as her, took classes together. Though Westover’s childhood was extremely conservative, there are many shades of extremism that exist in the Church and at BYU. To some degree, I believe that this is the kind of extremism that fuels petitions such as this one.
In my undergraduate degree, I nearly took a religion class every semester, just to fulfill the requirements for graduation. For a school that is designed to prepare students for the workplace, BYU places an extreme emphasis on spiritual learning. Every Tuesday at 11:00 the whole university shuts down because they pressure students to attend, either in person, on BYUTV, or online, the BYU devotional which is intended for spiritual learning. To paint BYU as a school that has strayed from spiritual principles is completely absurd.
It would be well for BYU to not heed the concerns of such extremists within their student body. Rather, it would be worth their time to educate them. BYU is a place of learning, yet so many students walk into the school believing that it is a spiritual camp or a religious conservative political action committee. This is not the case— at the heart of it, the institution, named after Brigham Young, is a university, and it is important for it to act like one.
*EFY is a Latter-day Saint Church sponsored camp where teens meet others of their faith.