Idolizing BYU

As in worshipping a false idol.

Several years ago, a mother and daughter came into my school office for help resolving a conflict: mom wanted her daughter to go to BYU, and the daughter just wanted to go to a school as far away as possible, a school that was not BYU.  Mom’s argument was simply that BYU was where you send your kids so that they’ll finish growing up spiritually safe.  I didn’t overtly contradict her naive perception, but I definitely worked them towards a compromise. 

Her simplistic devotion to what she’d assumed BYU stands for is not an individual error: it is a deep-seated error in thinking among the Latter-day Saints that BYU is not only a special school but a better school, and the one for which good Mormon kids and families should strive. 

In the earliest days of the Church, converts were encouraged to gather into the main body of the population, but as the 20th century progressed, “the First Presidency specifically admonished the missionaries to cease preaching emigration; the converts in foreign countries could do more to build the kingdom if they would remain in their own lands.” (“Growing With A Living Church,” Arnold K. Garr, Ensign, October 1996).  Or, as Bruce R. McConkie put it, “we have gathered, from their Egyptian bondage as it were, the dispersed of Ephraim and a few others, initially to the mountains of America, but now into the stakes of Zion in the various nations of the earth.” 

If that principle is true of where we physically build our homes and raise our families, why would some assume that it isn’t true of where we send our children to school?  Where does anyone find in the teachings of any Church leader–anywhere–ever–the idea that righteous families should set BYU as the goal for their children?  Has the Church set up and sustained an awe-inspiring system of global Institutes of Religion at hundreds of college campuses because they would prefer people to ignore them? 

Attending BYU has become for far too many people not an aspiration to quality education (which it certainly is), but a security blanket, a status symbol, and a lazy accessory of cultural comfort.  In short, a false idol.

Now, I didn’t go to BYU, nor could I have gotten in if I’d wanted to, so cynical critics will quickly sell this complaint short as sour grapes.  I can only protest my honest motives: I have no interest in defaming a great school, only in deflating the incorrect ideas that send people there for the wrong reasons. 

There are dozens–no, hundreds–of amazing schools out there for the serious, spiritually-minded Latter-day Saint.  Just getting on the bandwagon and focusing your tunnel vision on BYU is not appropriate–not for the global Church of the future, not for the equally wonderful schools that are getting neglected, and not for the students who think having those three letters on their resumé will automatically make them a better person.

2 comments on “Idolizing BYU

  1. I saw the heading, and actually thought that you posted on the wrong blog:)

    Seriously though, while I immediately felt a tinge of defensiveness at the title of your post, when I thought about it and read it, I couldn’t agree more. BYU, if anything, can stunt spiritual growth because there is that mentality. “The world is our campus”, the prominently displayed BYU motto, can easily be altered to become “The campus is our world”.

    Quick question. How many General Authorities are University of Utah grads? The answer usually ticks off BYU grads. (I’ll be honest, I’m not up on the current count)

  2. When I was reading Elder Maxwell’s biography recently, I was touched by an anecdote about he and other leaders actually getting together to lament the passing of an age, as it were, as their generation formally started adopting things like correlated curricula in the Church. They knew that it was a necessary step for the Church’s transition to a global presence to change some of its old habits and standardize itself, but there’s no denying the fact that they were saying goodbye to the insulated “Mountain West” culture their parents and grandparents had built for them.

    I certainly don’t begrudge our elders their nostalgia, and in some ways that less standardized, more insulated culture was superior to the one our current needs demand (have you ever seen a Relief Society or priesthood manual from 30 or 40 years ago? While current manuals are more doctrinally rigorous, the old ones were more stimulating across a wider range of life’s experiences), but I see the excessive reverence paid to BYU as a lingering aspect of that Utah-centric era.

    It’s a fine school, and I’m sure that it will always have an important place in the Church as its educational flagship, but the cult of BYU worshippers will, in the 21st century, probably become as irrelevant a regional artifact as, say, Daughters of Utah Pioneers.

    And in the long run, it’s for the best.

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