Teaching Sensitive Subjects
Writer: Jon Linford
My favorite part of teaching is seeing the lights go on. Carefully we build a network of ideas, and when a student makes a connection between one idea and another there is a flash of illumination, a pure intellectual delight at seeing how things belong together. "I get it!" the student says, or "I never thought of it that way!" This is the stuff of lifelong learning. When students experience the pleasure of connection often enough, reliably enough, they begin to crave it, and the learning goes on and on.
For this kind of connection building to occur, though, students need to be open to new ideas. They can't simply be looking for confirmations that what they have known all along is true. They need to be able to explore new viewpoints, examine new information, even withhold judgment (especially on complicated issues) for a time. As F. Scott Fitzgerald (1945) famously wrote: "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing views in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function" (p. 69). We need to teach our students to hold these apparently contradictory viewpoints in suspension while they examine both, evaluating the merit of each, finding places where they intersect, making careful judgments. This is essential to critical thinking, the much-touted outcome so essential to higher education. Some of these apparent contradictions are easily resolved by careful application of gospel principles. For some there is a resolution, but more information is needed to make the right choice. Some require decisions to be made that will be different depending on the personality and experience of the one who decides. Some require further light and knowledge through personal revelation, and the answer may be different for each person who inquires. And some will never be resolved in this lifetime, simply because the state of our knowledge is too rudimentary to have all the answers.
In the Foundations program we encounter these apparent contradictions everywhere we look. In the Sciences students learn about the theory of organic evolution and examine evidence that man was descended from lower forms of life, even though the scriptures teach us that Adam was the first man. They also see evidence that the earth is of greater age than the Bible seems to indicate. In American Foundations our students learn about different economic systems and are led to wonder which one is more harmonious with the Gospel. Do the United Order, charity, and generosity to the poor indicate a greater role for government in social welfare? Or do principles of self-reliance and fiscal responsibility indicate a smaller government and a more libertarian economy? In the Humanities our students quickly discover paintings, sculptures, music, books, theatre, dance, and cinema that do not seem at first glance to conform to standards outlined in the Strength of Youth. Our students have been taught to shun pornography like the plague, and yet here in their textbooks are pictures of naked men and women.
As a Foundations Humanities teacher I have often pondered what to do about nudity in art. I think I have a fairly clear understanding of the difference between art and pornography, but it isn't always easy to communicate it to young students. From time to time I have thought that it might just be easier to avoid the problem altogether. Surely there are enough great works of art, and we have so little time in class, that I can avoid any works that might challenge my students and make them uncomfortable. And yet, if I leave my students in that state I realize that they will never be able to go into the Sistine Chapel, or visit any of the great museums of the world, or read most of the world's great literature (including Shakespeare), and will thus be deprived of a lifetime of transcendent experiences. I believe that nudity is as essential to the nature of art as evolution is to biology. Somehow we have to confront it, deal with it, and learn how it fits into our view of the universe.
As an example, let's start with Michelangelo's David. This great work of marble, which President Kimball (1977, p. 4) once said "inspire[s] to adulation", was a product of the Renaissance, a time when the beauty of the human body and the nature of the human spirit became common subjects for art and literature. Artists sought to display humans as accurately and with as much detail as possible, even conducting dissections of cadavers to increase their understanding of human anatomy. Influenced by the Platonic humanists, the human body was no longer seen as evil, but as divine. There was nothing embarrassing or obscene about nudity in art. Instead, it was a representation of God's greatest work.
Michelangelo's David, although a perfectly formed and strikingly nude young man, is not intended to provoke any kind of carnal response. Of course, the same visual media that creates great nudes also can create vulgarity, obscenity, and pornography. Part of this has to do with intent-what the creators intended to do-inspire to adulation or entice to lust. But it also has to do with content-what the work is made up of. Michelangelo's David is nude to be sure, but the statue is of such heroic dimensions and imbued with such vision, courage, and nobility of purpose that it is the soul of David, not the mere body, that captures our awareness. In pornography the subject is all about the body alone, or any one or a combination of its various parts. In pornography the parts of the body intrude upon, or mask, or destroy the spiritual nature of the subject. The subjects of pornography may as well have no spirit, and this is probably why they seem so obscene. It is like looking at death-there is no depth, no truth, no love, nor light, nor life.
In many times and places when people have been striving for self-mastery, they have come to consider their bodies evil. The aim, they think, is to mortify the flesh, to kill it, at least in a symbolic fashion, so that it can give them no more trouble. They look forward to the day when they will die and be rid of the body, so that they can be truly free. But modern revelation tells us that "the spirit and the body are the soul of man" (D&C 88:15). This is a doctrine, as far as I'm aware, that is unique to LDS theology. To everyone else the soul is either equivalent to the spirit, or else it is some kind of ineffable essence that defines us. Most people who believe in a soul believe that when the body dies, the soul is set free, and it returns to God who gave it, or hovers in some other dimension, or loses its individuality and becomes one with the vastness of the cosmos. There are even atheists who think of a person as having a soul, even if it is just a collection of personality traits that will end with death.
But Latter-Day Saints believe that our soul is the union of our spirit and our body. Our soul has both a physical and a spiritual dimension. The body is essential to us. In fact, one of the primary reasons we came to earth was to get one. We know that the Father has a body of flesh and bones, as tangible as man's. We know Christ came to earth and received a body, and that after he died he was resurrected and took his body up again. The apostles testified that he ascended into heaven with his body. The resurrection is not some mere spiritual event, like a spirit rising up to heaven to sing in the heavenly choirs. Our bodies shall come forth from the grave and be redeemed, to never be separated from our spirits again. This oneness of spirit and body, this need for a physical as well as a spiritual dimension to our lives, tells us something important about the nature of God, about earth life, and about the human condition. The physical body of a human being is beautiful, and we must strive to see the beauty in it without succumbing to the temptation to make it an object of lust and fantasy.
It is this union of body and spirit, this mixture of humanism and Christianity that gave the Renaissance its startling new quality. The ancient Greeks loved the human body, but Greek statues were never as full of life as they came to be in the Renaissance. David is not just another pretty face. Seeing him for real in the Accademia in Florence (not just in a photo or a replica) we are swept away by his power and majesty. Mostly it is the eyes that capture us, full of faith, determination, power-virtù, as the Renaissance Italians called it. Here is man as he was intended to be, the Platonic ideal of man, armed with faith and the power of God, ready to meet his Goliath. In David we see the perfect union of body and spirit; man as a living soul.
In many cases, students have not encountered complex ideas like these except within a context that indicates that they should reject them. All the experience of a typical eighteen-year-old seems to fit neatly into a black-and-white, right-or-wrong duality. Of course, we are eager to move students beyond this. But at the same time, we fear the result of tearing down this framework. Beyond dualism lies the abyss of relativism, and we are well advised to fear the abyss. We also acknowledge, in a way that much of the rest of the world does not, that there is such a thing as absolute truth. Our aim is not simply enlightened relativism. It isn't any kind of relativism. As Latter-Day Saints we believe that there are things that we can know with absolute certainty.
And yet between dualism and relativism there is a third way. Paul called it a "more excellent way" (I Corinthians 12:31). It is charity, and it needs to govern all we do when teaching our students sensitive subjects. As we know, "charity is the pure love of Christ" (Moroni 7:47), and Christ's love is rooted in his knowledge and understanding of us. Isaiah tells us that by "his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many" (Isaiah 53:11). Alma tells us that the Lord took upon himself his people's "infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities" (Alma 7:12). Among other things, I think this means that before we can seek to elevate our students, we must seek to understand them. I recently had a conversation with several professors who were appalled at students' rudeness at receiving and sending texts during class. I told them that our students live in a society where friends often take umbrage if their texts aren't immediately returned, and it can be social suicide to appear unconnected at the wrong moment. It is not so much a question of rudeness versus courtesy as it is of competing viewpoints as to what those terms mean. Of course, that doesn't mean we simply give over to our students' values without seeking to promote something better. The Lord has said that he gives his people commandments "in their weakness, after the manner of their language", but he does so "that they might come to understanding" (D&C 1:24). We must hold our students to high standards, but in many cases it is easier to do this when we come to better understand their world.
I would like to share with you a number of things I do to help students find their way through sensitive issues. First, I always teach them that there are different ways to learn. There is empirical knowledge, which comes through the perception of the senses. There is rational knowledge, which comes when we apply careful logic to solve a problem. As an artist I am interested in affective knowledge, or the perception of truth through our emotions. And there is revealed knowledge, which is revelation that comes from God in answer to prayers. As Latter-Day Saints we believe that revealed knowledge is knowledge of the highest order, the only kind of knowledge that we can hold with absolute certitude, and the knowledge that takes precedence over all others. But we also know that careful perception and reasoning is an essential precursor to revelation. The Lord told Oliver Cowdery that he failed to receive the revelation he was searching for because had not made the necessary empirical, rational, and affective preparations: "Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me" (D&C 9:7). He also explained that when revelation comes it is to the same cognitive and affective systems that we use to think and feel: "Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart. Now, behold, this is the spirit of revelation; behold, this is the spirit by which Moses brought the children of Israel through the Red Sea on dry ground" (D&C 8:2-3).
In choosing what we teach and share with our students, we choose the most edifying path. We should never seek to merely shock. We should not tear down that we might build up. The argument that students are heading out into the "real world" and we need to prepare them with a "dose of reality" is misguided. The best way to prepare our students for the world is to teach them faith. Of course, I like to blow students' minds, and the mind-blowing experience should be a common experience in our courses. But minds should be blown in a way that causes students to marvel at the beauty of truth, not despair at its apparent absence.
When taking students into new territory, we should move slowly and carefully. We need to give them opportunities to express their concerns and address them in class. Many times an open discussion can be helpful, and there is much value in letting students teach one another difficult principles. At all times we need to maintain in our classrooms a supportive, gentle atmosphere. We should not be dismissive of any concern or belittle any opinion, nor should we allow anyone else to do so. We should also be careful not to make light of an awkward situation. From time to time I have observed an instructor try to lighten the mood of an awkward situation by making a joke, only to have it deepen the offense. Levity in the face of embarrassment can send the message that we do not take the situation seriously enough, or even make the student feel that we are laughing at them. Sometimes in our hyper-litigious, politically correct world, we crave frankness and bridle at those who are too eager to make us an offender for a word. But we must remember the example of Paul: "To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some" (I Corinthians 9:22).
When a student has a concern, we are well advised to listen. Not only do we thus assure the student that our love is unfeigned, but we also have the opportunity to learn from her. When I get a letter or a visit from a student who is concerned about something that is being taught in one of his classes, my first priority is to encourage a meaningful conversation between student and teacher. I ask the student to share his concerns, and in return, allow the teacher to explain why she believes the knowledge or experience is important. I encourage the student and the teacher to keep talking until they at least come to understand the other's viewpoint, even if they don't agree. My experience is that when we truly teach one another in this way, all are edified of all (see D&C 88:122).
When teaching topics where prophets and apostles have said things that seem to be at odds with current research in any of our subjects, it is important that we never tell our students that the prophets are in error. In the case of organic evolution or the age of the earth, for instance, some prophets have been outspoken against certain scientific theories. In these cases, we must be clear that we believe revelation from God to be superior to the theories of men, even if we think there is room for interpretation. Students need to know that we have a strong testimony and are trying to live our covenants, even while we seek knowledge by learning as well as by faith.
Our students also should know that we believe the gospel to be a blessing to the earnest seeker of truth, not a hindrance. I have heard it said that the Latter-Day Saint religion, or at least Latter-Day Saint culture, encourages a dualistic way of thinking. I don't believe this. It is a human tendency, not just an LDS one, to run to one side of the aisle or the other and spend the rest of our lives finding evidence to support our conclusion. If anything, the teachings of the gospel teach us to seek truth wherever we can find it, and that ultimately, all true things belong together. The 88th section of the Doctrine and Covenants was given to the School of the Prophets, and I find in it a great pattern for what we should do at BYU-Idaho. In verse 118 it tells us, "And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith." I think this means, among other things, that those who do not have faith, or those whose faith is weak, find strength studying words of wisdom out of the best books. Studying the sciences and the humanities will deepen our students' understanding of their religion and leave them with more advanced and developed testimonies.
Near the end of the 88th Section the Lord reveals a special greeting that members of the School of the Prophets should address to each other. It is a model for how we should treat our students:
Art thou a brother or brethren? I salute you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, in token or remembrance of the everlasting covenant, in which covenant I receive you to fellowship, in a determination that is fixed, immovable, and unchangeable, to be your friend and brother through the grace of God in the bonds of love, to walk in all the commandments of God blameless, in thanksgiving, forever and ever. Amen. (D&C 88:133)
All that we do should be in the name of Christ and governed by our commitment to our covenants. Our relationship with our students should be one of fellowship, and nothing should deter us from being their friends in the bonds of love. This friendship is one of mutual edification: friends help friends live the commandments and stay true to their testimonies. Finally, there is thanksgiving. It is a great privilege to work at BYU-Idaho, to be led by prophets of God and to be guided through the spirit of revelation. It is an honor to associate with the good men and women who work on this campus. And it is a sacred responsibility to receive these remarkable young people into our fellowship for a time, to teach them and to learn with them. May God bless you in your efforts to walk peaceably with these the children of our Heavenly Father, to testify to them, to build them, and to guide them in their search for truth.
Check out the Spring 2012 Perspective Magazine
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Crack-Up. Edited by Edmund Wilson. New York: New Directions, 1945.
Kimball, Spencer W. "The Gospel Vision of the Arts." Ensign, July 1977.