Mormons have long been supporters of education, both secular and spiritual. Joseph Smith organized adult education schools to further both his own learning, since he’d had little schooling, and the learning of others. Mormon pioneers opened schools even before they were completely settled into Utah. Today, Brigham Young University is recognized as a quality school. Education is a key factor in the Mormon faith.
However, while counseling its members to get all the education they can, both formal and self-directed education, they counsel them to keep their priorities in order.
In the Bible, Jesus commanded his followers to seek first the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33) This suggests an appropriate pattern for our learning: First learn spiritual things, and then learn secular things. This doesn’t mean we have to put off secular learning until we’ve mastered the gospel. It means to make sure we don’t neglect our spiritual educations while achieving our secular education. When we have a firm foundation in spiritual knowledge, we are better able to discern truth from falsehood in our secular studies.
Henry B. Eyring taught: “Our first priority should go to spiritual learning. For us, reading the scriptures would come before reading history books. Prayer would come before memorizing those Spanish verbs. A temple recommend would be worth more than standing first in our graduating class. But it is also clear that spiritual learning would not replace our drive for secular learning.
The Lord clearly values what you will find in that history book. And He favors not only Spanish verbs but also the study of geography. His educational charter requires that we have “a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms” (D&C 88:79). There is also an endorsement for questions we study in the sciences. It is clear that putting spiritual learning first does not relieve us from learning secular things. On the contrary, it gives our secular learning purpose and motivates us to work harder at it.
To keep spiritual learning in its proper place, we will have to make some hard choices of how we use our time. But there should never be a conscious choice to let the spiritual become secondary. Never. That will lead to tragedy. Remember, you are interested in education, not just for mortal life but for eternal life. When you see that reality clearly, you will put spiritual learning first and yet not slight the secular learning. In fact, you will work harder at your secular learning than you would without that spiritual vision”
Mormon beliefs assure us we can take with us when we die what is in our hearts and what is in our minds. The knowledge we gain today will go with us into our eternal lives, and this should influence what knowledge we choose to gain. Knowledge that will help others live better lives on earth and knowledge that will be valuable in heaven are likely to be the most valuable types of education. Hours spent memorizing batting averages probably has very little value in either life, but finding out how to save a life in an emergency has great value in our earthly life. Memorizing scriptures will serve us both here and in heaven.
A secular education is important in furthering the Mormon teachings of self-reliance. Education in childhood, whether gained through a traditional school or a homeschool (the church is neutral on homeschooling) prepares a child for adulthood and college. A formal college education gives a person the credentials society currently requires to obtain good employment and can increase the likelihood of a family being able to support itself and of being able to earn enough money that the mother in a two-parent home will be able to remain home with the children.
Mormons are encouraged to create a habit of life-long learning in both secular and spiritual matters. It’s important, therefore, to teach children how to be self-directed learners.
When my children were young homeschoolers, they overheard a woman complaining that she’d always wanted to learn history, but couldn’t because she couldn’t go to school right now. On our way home, they asked, completely baffled, why the woman thought you could only learn history in a school. They were learning history right at home. Whether or not a child is homeschooled, they must learn how to learn. They should be filled with joy at the thought of learning something, not for a grade, or candy, or a reward, but for the pure joy of learning. If they don’t get this at school, they must get it at home. Help them find fun educational books to enjoy in their spare time, carry out science experiments that don’t “count” and memorize poetry. Then, whether or not their lives are currently allowing them to attend school, their adult lives will be filled with learning.
It can be challenging, in a busy life, to find time for learning. Often, goal oriented people will push aside spiritual learning to make more time to learn what they need for school or work. Mormons often study their scriptures first thing in the morning, before the challenges of the day begin to intrude. This literally puts spiritual learning first. During the course of a day, they might put on a talk by a church leader to listen to as they do housework, or read a spiritual book during lunch.
Secular learning can also be fit into a busy day. A poem taped over the sink can be memorized while the dishes are washed. A book on tape can educate during the morning commute. An ordinary conversation can provide an introduction to a new topic. When you meet someone new, find out what they know best and begin asking questions. Most people love to talk about their passions and a fifteen minute conversation can educate you in an entirely new field.
Periodically evaluate the types of learning you are doing. Are you achieving a balance? If you’re spending six hours a day on secular learning, it is wise to include more than fifteen minutes of spiritual learning into the day. Is there a way to blend the spiritual and the secular? For instance, when I taught my children ancient history during our homeschool, we combined it with Old Testament reading and the two types of learning complemented each other and increased our learning in both the secular and the spiritual. Someone studying medicine in college might supplement that with God’s teachings on health. A mother who is immersing herself in child development books might also read articles by church leaders on parenting. The two types of learning do not have to be placed into separate boxes and isolated from each other. Blend the two and achieve a richer and fuller education.
Terrie Lynn Bittner
The late Terrie Lynn Bittner—beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and friend—was the author of two homeschooling books and numerous articles, including several that appeared in Latter-day Saint magazines. She became a member of the Church at the age of 17 and began sharing her faith online in 1992.