The Value of a Foundations Experience for Disciple-Leaders
Brigham Young University–Idaho Devotional
December 2, 2008
About 15 years ago I was in my car somewhere on the North Dakota prairie headed home to Grand Forks. It was a typical winter night in North Dakota – 10 degrees below zero, waves of powdery snow blowing across the highway, thousands of stars visible in the clear moonless sky, not a town or car in sight. I was checking channels on the radio and came upon an interesting program. It featured the conductor of a symphony orchestra. He was analyzing a passage from a Mozart symphony. He was attempting to pinpoint and describe the genius of this particular composition. Even though I lacked a full technical understanding of his explanation, I was fascinated by the analysis and, of course, I was duly reminded that Mozart was indeed a musical genius. At the conclusion of the vignette the radio announcer said, “Join us next time for another episode of What Makes it Great.
In the moment that I heard the title of that radio program, What Makes it Great, I had one of those wonderful moments of enlightenment that was about 20 years in the making. I understood what it was that so many of my undergraduate professors were trying to teach me when I was a college student. Through their choice of subject matter and readings for classes, and through their comments about things that were important to know, they were exposing me to what was the most interesting, the most profound, the most successful, the most beautiful, in essence, the best that their discipline had to offer. On that frigid night as I experienced this insight, I was warmed by a feeling of tremendous gratitude for the great gift I had been given those many years ago.
Specifically, the part of my undergraduate curriculum in which these teachings were most prominent was my general education. We knew it then by the same acronym that you know it now: GE. I would like to discuss that part of your education with you today. My only qualification to talk on this subject is that I am a product of what I considered to be a great general education. I was simply an ordinary student just like you who ended up being profoundly affected by that experience. The seeds that were planted in me some 30 years ago have born much fruit in my life and those principles, habits of mind, values, and even knowledge are still a vibrant and important part of my life today. My wife would tell you the same thing as we have shared many wonderful experiences that came about or that were enhanced because of our undergraduate general education.
The topic is timely because this semester we have launched a new approach to general education which, as you know, is called Foundations. This new curriculum has enormous potential to bless your lives given its unique approach and concepts, and especially its connection with another one of our recent innovations, the BYU–Idaho Learning Model. On top of that, the Foundations experience becomes even more potent when it is connected with another unique BYU–Idaho idea, that of the disciple-leader. Today, I would like to weave these three inspired concepts together: Foundations, the Learning Model, and disciple-leadership.
I begin with a series of related questions: Does the Lord really care about you having a Foundations experience? In what ways would a disciple-leader benefit from the Foundations program of study? Why would the Lord want you to step outside your chosen career path to learn extra “stuff?” Does your Father in Heaven really care that you write and speak well, or that you are able to wrestle with the thorny issues of our time, or that you are able to appreciate and even understand certain artistic achievements? Why would He want you to delve deeply into any issue or idea that is not “mainstream gospel?” When I ask these questions in the way that I have, it may seem obvious that, of course, the Lord wants His disciple-leaders to have these experiences because they will help them to be better disciples and better leaders. I hope to impress upon your minds today that this is the indeed the case.
To address these matters I would like to take a brief journey through each of the five primary areas of the Foundations experience. They are Academic Fundamentals, the Sciences, Cultural Awareness, Analytical Reasoning and Moral Judgment, and Eternal Truths.
1. Academic Fundamentals
I start with Academic Fundamentals. This area involves writing and reasoning (please note that it’s not just writing), professional communication, and quantitative reasoning. I would like to think that we all agree about the value of writing and reasoning. Unfortunately, I know there are a few students who might not share that sentiment. A few years ago my wife showed me a paper written by one of her students and asked, “What do you think of this paper?” My assessment of it wasn’t very kind. I said it was a very bad piece of writing. She said, “That’s what I thought.” She called the young man into her office and expressed her concerns. Surprisingly, he was not the least bit flustered by the feedback. He said, “Oh, Sister Bergstrom, I’m not worried. I plan on being rich enough to hire people to write for me.” Of course, the student completely missed the point because writing is far more than just grammar and editorial style. It is a manifestation of our thinking.
As I have pondered this issue, I hear the voice of two great Book of Mormon prophets, Nephi and Moroni, who lamented their perceived writing deficiencies. Nephi said, "... neither am I mighty in writing, like unto speaking." (2 Nephi 33:1). Moroni was more specific. He said, “And thou hast made us that we could write but little, because of the awkwardness of our hands” and “We stumble because of the placing of our words.” (Ether 12:24-25). In frustration he cries out to the Lord, “… the Gentiles will mock at these things, because of our weakness in writing; for Lord, thou has made us mighty in word by faith, but thou hast not made us mighty in writing; for thou has made all this people that they could speak much, because of the Holy Ghost which thou hast given them.” (Ether 12:23) Moroni dearly wishes that he could write like the Brother of Jared whose writing was so effective, as he reports, that it would literally overpower readers.
Moroni concludes his lamentation by telling us that he has seen and talked with the Savior, but cannot tell us anything about it because of his inability to write. Oh, that Moroni and his fellow Book of Mormon prophets could have had a Foundations writing experience! What additional sublime experiences and truths could have been passed on to us? Now lest we be too harsh, we should note that these prophets lived in a culture where the oral tradition was predominant and writing technology was primitive. In spite of what these prophets said about their writing ability, I think we can all agree that Nephi and Moroni were truly great writers, and that their teachings and testimonies have had a powerful impact upon the lives of the millions of people who have read their words in the Book of Mormon.
Let’s turn to professional communication, another critical part of the Academic Fundamentals experience. If there was one glaring deficiency in my undergraduate education it was not being able to speak effectively. As undergraduates we worked very hard on our writing and worked very little on being able to articulate our thoughts in speech, especially in real-time. As part of your Foundations experience, you have an incredible opportunity to learn to verbalize your thoughts by engaging in meaningful discussions and by being able to teach others what you know because Foundations courses are coupled with a learning model that invites you to come to class prepared, ready to articulate your ideas and to teach other classmates. Many of your teachers will expect you to do this. I and my fellow undergraduates never did much of that, even though our teachers encouraged us to do so. I had to develop this skill on-the-job, as it were. You will be much further ahead than I was.
Your speech and your writing will portray to the world who you are. A disciple-leader will want that portrayal to be as clear and true as possible. There should be no mystery or ambiguity about who you are and where you stand based on your words and speech. Furthermore, consider how these skills will help you as you rear your family, build the Kingdom of God, and communicate with others in your community and at your workplace. As you acquire these skills you must be especially careful that you don’t misuse them. If you use the elevated vocabulary and rhetorical skills that you acquire in your Foundations experience for vanity, manipulation, or shading the truth, or if you use these skills as a weapon – for example, being sarcastic or belittling to others – your education will have been in vain. Many of you will live among Saints and neighbors who have not had the blessing of higher education. You are not better than them because you are articulate or good with words. You simply have developed a significant talent and it should be used to bless, edify, and serve others. As Paul taught, we all have need of each other’s talents.
The last element of the Academic Fundamentals area is quantitative reasoning. That’s not just a euphemism for math. It is so much more than mathematical computing and formulas. Some of you might be thinking that the only quantitative ability needed by a disciple-leader is how to calculate 10% of one’s income. This is important, but it is not enough. In his introduction to the Word of Wisdom, the Lord stated, “In consequence of evils and designs which do exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days, I have warned you and forewarned you . . .” (D&C 89:4) Conspiring men frequently use faulty numbers and bogus numerical reasoning to get your money, your loyalty, and your attention. Numbers have an aura of objectivity and truth. Numbers are an easy way to deceive people who are unable to process them correctly. A disciple-leader who can detect those deceptions which misuse numbers is not easily led down false paths.
Beyond that, many important decisions in life depend upon a certain level of ability to work with numbers. You will all buy a house someday. You will all have to make investment decisions for your retirement. You will have personal and professional challenges related to budgets and money. A disciple-leader will want to be prepared to make good decisions when the stakes are high. A disciple-leader will want to use the financial resources at his or her disposal wisely and with integrity so that he or she is never ethically compromised in any way. Consider how much more effective you will be as a disciple-leader free from the burdens of unsound financial decisions.
2. The Sciences
Now, let’s turn to the Sciences area of your Foundations experience. Why would the Lord care that His disciple-leaders understand some science? A compelling reason is found in Alma 30:44-45. Alma is contending with Korihor.
44 … Alma said unto him . . . Will ye say, Show unto me a sign, when ye have the testimony of all these thy brethren, and also all the holy prophets? The scriptures are laid before thee, yea, and all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.
45 And yet do ye go about, leading away the hearts of this people, testifying unto them there is no God? And yet will ye deny against all these witnesses? And he said: Yea, I will deny, except ye shall show me a sign.
Philosophers would observe that Alma was making a teleological argument for the existence of God. Maybe you’ll learn about that in one of your Foundations courses. Alma is right. You can't help but be awestruck by looking into the night sky. On a clear night there are about 10,000 stars visible to the naked eye. Beyond this visible layer lies an uncountable array of heavenly objects. The Hubble telescope has captured images of very small segments of space in which there are hundreds of galaxies populated by trillions of stars. We have an equally wondrous view of God’s greatness and glory as we contemplate the Earth and how it works, or the human body and how it and its various components work, or human behavior and how it works in all its dimensions, and ultimately matter itself and how it works.
For the disciple-leader, the study of science is the study of God’s creations. Jesus said, “Behold, I am Jesus Christ, the Son of God. I created the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are.” (3 Nephi 9: 15) Surely, He would appreciate the fact that you would spend time delving deeply into one or more parts of His handiwork, trying to understand and talk about “what makes Him great.” This is a form of worship.
Two important spiritual side benefits for the disciple-leader come from studying science. First, as Alma indicated, you acquire evidence of a supreme and intelligent Creator. Understand that this is not conclusive proof. You would do well to re-read talks given by Elder Richard G. Scott in the October 2007 general conference and Elder Dallin H. Oaks in the April 2008 General Conference on this topic. As both of these brethren taught, scientific inquiry yields evidence; the Holy Ghost provides the conclusive proof. The example of Korihor, the non-believer, clearly shows that one can have much evidence and, for whatever reasons, still refuse to believe.
A second side benefit is a deep sense of humility and a sense of place in the scheme of things as one contemplates God’s grandeur. Jacob taught: "Behold great and marvelous are the works of the Lord. How unsearchable are the depths of the mysteries of him; and it is impossible that man should find out all his ways." (Jacob 4:8) Disciple-leaders will use their learning from the sciences to develop a profound appreciation for our Creator and to use this understanding to build and strengthen others in their faith. They will always know that man’s scientific and technological achievements, no matter how impressive, will always fall short of our Father’s magnificent accomplishments.
3. Cultural Awareness
Now we come to the Cultural Awareness area. In this area you will study the principles upon which this country was founded, the creative accomplishments of mankind, and the broader context in which we live, either as citizens of this world or as children of history.
I’d like to focus on the part of this area which deals with the creative accomplishments of mankind, specifically music and literature. One of my general education requirements was to attend a certain number of cultural events. Does that sound familiar? I decided I would attend an upcoming performance by the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra. The concert was to be held in the Marriott Center. I thought to myself, “That’s where they play basketball, not violins.” Even though I didn’t hate classical music, I didn’t exactly embrace it either. My mother had taken us as small children to see the Utah Symphony on one or two occasions. They were thoroughly enjoyable outings. But, I went to this one with a little bit of the attitude that I’m really not into this type of music. The first number to be performed was a piece composed by Igor Stravinsky called the Firebird Suite. It only took about 60 seconds into the piece for me to become completely mesmerized by the music I was hearing. I had never heard music like this before. The remainder of the concert was equally beautiful and impressive to me. I could not remember having witnessed such a display of skill and perfection. The experience changed me. I discovered that what we call classical music could engage me spiritually, intellectually, and aesthetically in a way few things outside the gospel could.
It has been a profound blessing to have great music as part of my life. These days when I need a haven from the world, I retreat to the beauty of great music from all genres. Disciple-leaders who surround themselves with the great creative accomplishments of mankind are reminded that the children of God are capable of great nobility and expressions of beauty. By seeking out the things which are, as the 13th Article of Faith teaches, “virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy,” disciple-leaders are refreshed and strengthened so that they can, in turn, uplift and inspire others.
I’d like to talk about another very important part of my life which was shaped by my general education experience. This is the love of great literature. The Lord counsels us to “seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom” (D&C 88:118) and to “… study and learn, and become acquainted with all good books.” (D&C 90:15)
President Monson is a shining example of a well-read man. In a recent devotional at BYU he talked about how he called upon his own Foundations experience on his first day of meetings with the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve. After the customary Thursday morning meeting in the temple, the Brethren adjourned for lunch. President Monson relates the story:
“As we sat around the table, President McKay said, ‘Brother Monson, do you believe that William Shakespeare really wrote the sonnets attributed to him?’
‘Yes,’ I responded, “I do, President McKay.’
He then exclaimed, “Wonderful! So do I; so do I.’
I thought to myself, ‘I hope he moves away from Shakespeare.’ I was a business major.
However, he turned again to me and said, ‘Brother Monson, do you read Shakespeare?’
I said, ‘Occasionally.’
‘Fine,’ he said. ‘What is your favorite work of Shakespeare?”
I thought quickly … and replied, ‘Henry the Eighth.’
‘Which is your favorite passage?’ he asked.”
[Monson, Thomas S. (2007). Guideposts for Life’s Journey. A devotional address given on 13 November 2007 at BYU).]
Fortunately for the young Elder Monson, the pop quiz ended and they had a nice conversation centered on important principles from the play. As I have thought about the purpose of President McKay’s questions in this anecdote, it suggests that a disciple-leader will want to develop sensibilities towards literature, art, and history because so much of it teaches us about ourselves and others, and motivates us to be better people. The best of it is uplifting and praiseworthy. Great works of art and scholarship are ultimately about important ideas and how others have wrestled with them. Some of it – not all – even inspires us to believe in Christ and worship Him as our God and Savior.
This is in direct contrast to most popular culture which is served to us through television, movies, popular music, pulp fiction, and the like. The products of popular culture are like fast food or junk food. For sure, they can be tasty morsels, but they are low in nutritional value and continual consumption over the long-term is unhealthy. In truth, I don’t eat a gourmet meal every day, but I try to eat as well as I can. By the same token, I don’t read Shakespeare every day or listen to Beethoven all the time, but I do try to engage great thinkers and artists as often as opportunities to do so present themselves. There is also room in my life to pursue other praiseworthy works which may not rise to the level of the best or the greatest, but certainly can make valuable contributions to our lives.
A somewhat legendary professor at BYU in my day, Arthur Henry King, had a number of interesting observations about the power of great art. He wrote,
“The sensitivity and truth that we can gain from great literature can help us to appreciate the greatest of literature – the scriptures. We shall know the scriptures better, too, if we are able to sing them with Bach and Mozart and to see them with Rembrandt and Michelangelo. These artists will strengthen our weaknesses, deepen our eyesight, and make our ears come alive.” [King, A. H. (1986). The Abundance of the Heart. Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft. p. 103]
Disciple-leaders will use the works of great thinkers and artists to more fully understand the human experience and the struggles of mortality that take place without gospel truths. They will use great works of art to enhance the power of the scriptures in their lives and use them to teach and illustrate eternal truths. I am grateful for the wisdom and creativity of great men and women who expressed truth as best as they could without having the plain and precious truths of the restored gospel. They were and are my teachers.
I hope experiences in Cultural Awareness will enrich your personal life as you undertake a lifelong appreciation of human creativity and scholarship. For many of you, it will start here. For the rest, you enhance your understanding and appreciation. It is very possible that you will never have the time or the opportunities to have so many varied, high quality, and affordable cultural experiences as you do now as a student.
4. Analytical Thinking and Moral Judgment
The capstone of Foundations is an experience in analytical thinking and moral judgment.
I trust that your work in a major will teach you how to grapple with the issues of your field. But, where will you learn how to effectively tackle all the other problems of modern life? Some of that learning comes from your parents and other wise friends. Some of it will come from your own experience. Some of it will come from simply observing what happens to people around you. It is a tremendous blessing that a Foundations experience will provide you with a unique opportunity to learn to think clearly and rigorously about the problems we face in our world. You will learn to confront these moral issues in the company of fellow students, guided by a righteous faculty member, in a context of friendship and good will, under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. Can there be a greater learning opportunity?
The Savior instructed his disciples, “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” (Matthew 10:16) The Savior’s use of the serpent symbol here is curious because the snake is generally associated with craftiness and deception rather than wisdom. In my interpretation, to be wise as a serpent means to use your intellectual and spiritual resources to see through the fog of uncertainty, even deception, and determine a course of action which is correct or at least optimal. It is to use these resources to correctly judge which things are right and praiseworthy, and which things are not, in a world which routinely presents evil things as either morally neutral or morally acceptable. And then, having made your determination, you remain humble, peaceable, and agreeable, as represented by the symbols of the dove and the sheep.
C. S. Lewis observed,
“Our leisure, even our play, is a matter of serious concern. There is no neutral ground in the universe; every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counter-claimed by Satan.” [Lewis, CS (1967). Christianity and Culture. In Christian Reflections. Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans Publishing, p. 33]
In this part of your Foundations experience you become practiced and confident at making these very necessary judgments so that you align yourself squarely with the Lord at all times and in all places, never granting Satan even a millisecond or a millimeter. A disciple-leader should have disciplined thoughts so that he or she can deal effectively with difficult situations and the challenging problems of life. I don't recall this ever being part of my general education. I had to learn it on-the-job. Testing your attitudes and values in this setting is invaluable. As you leave here, this experience will help you to be resolute and confident, not afraid, but full of faith in the Lord and in yourselves. These are vital qualities for a disciple-leader.
5. Eternal Truths
I want to briefly touch upon the Eternal Truths area of your Foundations experience. It seems self-evident that the Lord would be very interested in the experience you have in your Religion and Family Foundations classes. Initially, I thought that I would simply mention this and move on. But, as I thought more about it, the more impressed I became with the singular nature of this experience. You have the opportunity to delve deeply into many aspects of the gospel. You will carefully study the prophets, ancient and modern, and become acquainted with leading gospel scholars and their writings. Above all, you will carefully study Savior, His ministry and His atonement. Disciple-leaders will use these experiences to bolster their testimonies with new enlightenment and understanding, and to establish a solid foundation for future gospel study.
6. The Overall Foundations Experience
Taken as a whole, your Foundations experience will comprise approximately one-third of your undergraduate curriculum. I hope you regard it as the incredible opportunity that it is. I will always be grateful to those teachers who, not of my major, were so skilled and inspirational. They exposed me to things that have been a lifelong blessing. I hope you will feel the same toward your Foundations instructors here at BYU–Idaho who will teach and inspire you in somewhat the same tradition, only much improved. I am grateful to the authors of the texts and other great works that I studied. As I have said, they were my teachers as well.
I suspect that many of you have thought to yourselves in a Foundations class, “I will never use this again!” This is not entirely a bad thing because it shows that at least you are engaging in the “ponder and prove” part of our Learning Model. I, along with your teachers, would simply ask that you not be so quick to dismiss a Foundations experience because there is no immediate payoff or perceived long-term utility. I would ask you to trust your teachers. If you cannot see the beauty or the point of something long recognized to be beautiful or meaningful, then you might want to ask yourself, “What am I missing? Why do so many smart and well-educated and righteous people regard this so highly?”
I hope that the very experience of being in a Foundations class as it is delivered in accordance with our Learning Model will be a treasured experience in and of itself. The social connections gained in these classes can help you grow. Allan Bloom, a well-known professor in my day who taught at the University of Chicago, made a profound observation about the nature of education when he said:
“Lovers of the good become friends because they think about it with the help of wise old books …. Friends spend their lives together reading and talking about the life they would like to lead while they are leading it.” [Bloom. A. (1990). Giants and Dwarfs. NY: Simon & Schuster, p. 11]
Our gospel culture is the perfect context for such an education to be fully realized. Disciple-leaders create great friendships wherever they go because they have experienced an inspired Learning Model and they know how to read and talk about things which inspire themselves and others to lead exemplary lives.
I have long regarded my general education as a spiritual experience because, as I came to realize, all truths and all praiseworthy endeavors are in harmony with the things of God. Brigham Young made this very point when he said, “Every true principle, every true science, every art, and all the knowledge that men possess, or that they ever did or ever will possess is from God." [Young, Brigham. (1869). Journal of Discourses. Vol 12, p. 326. Address given on January 10, 1869.]
On another occasion, he said, “Every accomplishment, every polished grace, every useful attainment in mathematics, music, and in all the science and art belongs to the Saints.” [Young, Brigham. Discourses of Brigham Young. Edited by John A. Widstoe (1941). p. 252.] Disciple-leaders will want to claim these truths and great accomplishments for themselves.
As disciples-leaders determine the things with which they will surround themselves, they will carefully cling to Moroni’s standard: “ . . . that which is of God inviteth and enticeth to do good continually, wherefore, everything which inviteth and enticeth to do good, and to love God, and to serve him, is inspired of God.” (Moroni 7:13) Disciple-leaders will want to fill their lives with things that are praiseworthy and great so that there is no room for things which are dark, vulgar, vain, or foolish.
The Lord cares about your Foundations experience because it is an integral part of your preparation for future disciple-leadership. In the 88th section of the Doctrine & Covenants, He made that clear as He summed up the oft-quoted verses on education. In verse 80 He said:
That ye may be prepared in all things when I shall send you again to magnify the calling whereunto I have called you, and the mission with which I have commissioned you. (D&C 88:80)
I hope that you will never adopt an all-too common attitude among students that you should just “get through” your Foundations courses. I am confident that you will love the coursework in your major, but will you regard your Foundations coursework just as highly? I hope so. I hope you have learned from my own personal journey in life that a successful Foundations experience can make you a stronger and more prepared disciple-leader. I hope that you will appreciate your Foundations experience and understand the great blessing it can be in your lives as you develop yourselves as disciple-leaders in the service of our Father in Heaven.