Recently, my enlightened co-host argued that Church-owned and operated schools no longer serve the needs of the saints, and thus should be done away with. Such an argument could not be farther from the truth. In his fallacious attempts to convey his message, Al Doan fails to take into account anything beyond his personal opinion and imagined reality. Do Church schools necessarily need to have the same gravitas as in epochs past? No, they certainly do not. In a globalizing church, we no longer expect all “good saints” to seriously consider schooling at one of the BYUs or LDS Business College. Nevertheless, the argument against continued funding and maintenance of Church schools is riddled with flaws, as these schools serve a very real need in nurturing the faith and social cohesion necessary for twenty-somethings to remain active in the gospel, especially those who come from an area without a significant LDS population. The experience of attending a Church-owned school is unlike any other, and is especially valuable in an increasingly pluralistic and internationalized Church.
Let’s dissect some of Mr. Doan’s arguments and judge them on their merits (or, let’s be honest, lack thereof).
Crunching the Numbers
When one finally gets past the third or fourth repetitious paragraph of what is basically the same statement – that gathering to “Zion” (in this case, Provo, ironically enough) was wonderful for the Saints of years past – he or she arrives at the crux of Al’s argument: YSA numbers are now large enough that gathering the YSA community together en masse as a social, ecumenical, and academic bloc is no longer necessary. Al says, “[If] everyone chose their university based on merit and desire rather than dating opportunity and Mormon pride, we would all be allowed a great LDS experience with the same benefits currently sought by moving to Utah, right here in our very own local communities and schools…. We would have the same benefits of dating other LDS YSA, the Mormon groups of friends and so on….”[i] What complete nonsense! Does anyone really believe that the poor member from, say, Malta, as Al illustrates, is going to have the same dating opportunities by remaining in Valletta as that individual would living in PROVO? Not to pick on Malta, but let’s use some Maltese facts and figures to illustrate the point.
Population: 412, 966
Church membership: 132
Percent LDS: .03% or 1/3072 persons
Number enrolled in Institute[iii]: 6
Population: 2,737,000 (Utah County: 530, 837[v])
Wards: 4,357; Branches: 377 (Utah County: 138 stakes)
Percent LDS: 68% or 1/1.47 persons
Number enrolled in Institute in Nephi[vi] (lowest enrollment in Utah): 52
Now I ask you, based on these numbers, to use some common sense. What “Mormon group of friends” is the Maltese saint going to have by staying in his or her archipelagic paradise and taking advantage of its allegedly thriving Institute program? There are six people currently enrolled in Institute in the entire country. Six. Heck, even if this member takes advantage of his or her European Union citizenship and chooses to reside anywhere in the EU, they are still looking at an entire continent with fewer members, temples, and active institute programs than Utah alone. In fact, by my estimates, all of Europe has approximately 8,236 students enrolled in Institute, representing a mere .0013% of Europe’s total population. Utah, on the other hand, has 44,506 students in Institute, a solid 1.6% of Utah’s population.[vii] Translation? Europe has about 600 million people and those are the best Institute numbers it can muster. Utah? Not even 3 million residents and it’s overflowing with Institute students.
Care to apply this to somewhere stateside in an effort to knock me down? Knock yourself out. California has the largest LDS population outside of Utah and its 11,824 Institute students represent a mere .0318% of its 37 million people – a percentage on par with Iceland, Europe’s surprising leader in Institute Students Per Capita.
And this is only a discussion of Institute, which isn’t even the system being torn asunder by Mr. Doan! What of the entire BYU system’s nearly 50,000 students?[viii] Those are huge numbers, and condensed into small geographical areas. I don’t need to do more number crunching, but BYU Provo’s roughly 34,000 students make up nearly a third of Provo’s entire population. There is strength in numbers. This is not to argue that Utah culture or society is in any way superior to the offerings of Malta, Mediterranea, or all of Europe, but the numbers speak for themselves. That person can test his or her faith and rock out in Malta, or should the individual be so lucky, attend one of four Church schools, make hordes of LDS friends, and have the chance to experience the Church in – I hate to admit it – some of its highest-functioning glory.
Applied to Reality
I speak from experience. When I decided to attend grad school and was subsequently accepted to a handful of stateside and foreign schools, I was faced with numerous decisions. Eventually, I narrowed my choices down to either the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, or Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland – neither of which was going to offer me an LDS environment as one found in the Western United States. It’s no secret that Britain is absurdly expensive, and common sense will tell you that Poland is a cheaper place to live than the States (Not to mention the ubiquity of pierogi!). However, aside from the programs themselves and foreseen cost, I chose Edinburgh largely because the Church’s presence is microscopic in Poland. Britain, of course, has members. In Scotland the Church does not enjoy the same presence as it has south of Hadrian’s Wall, but there are stakes, and Edinburgh has an actual ward (No disrespect to Poland. Krakow is an amazing city).
Was the Church in Edinburgh perfect? Heavens no. The ward had its problems, but there was actually a fair number of YSAs, both locals and Americans, studying there. This isn’t to say that church alone forges strong bonds of friendship, but I made close friends and had a LDS-centered group of associates there. It was certainly not as wonderful as being surrounded on all sides by LDSness, but there were sufficient numbers of YSA that I felt like I belonged somewhere and didn’t need to spend my time struggling to find LDS friends. Sadly, all YSA programs are not created equal, and many YSA in far-flung regions are better off moving to Wasatchia or – heaven forbid – Rexburg than miring in mediocrity in Managua.
This wouldn’t be complete without a mission story. I served in Spain/Catalonia (depending on how nationalistic you are). The Church is no better off in Spain than it is anywhere else in Europe. I think the only advantage there is the neverending influx of immigrants from South America who really bolster the Church. Attend church in Barcelona sometime. You might as well be in Lima or La Paz. Regardless, the Church had only two legit Institute programs in my mission – one in Barcelona and the other down south in Elx (Elche). That was it. There were not sufficient members in every area of respectable Church presence to merit an Institute. The YSAs banded together as best as they were able, but let’s not kid ourselves and think that they didn’t long for the chance to at least see what BYU was like. Members abroad – heck, even members in Vermont – can hardly imagine what it’s like to be around so many LDS people. It is a joyous prospect to most of them.
I Can’t Date You. You’re from a Different Count(r)y
Mr. Doan goes on to say that there is some sort of inherit value in dating people solely from one’s own geographic region. That is a narrow-minded view. Unless we are actually the Amish with whom the world so constantly confuses us (Rent Witness in Spanish), we will do better to look outward, not inward, for friendship and companionship. I know that I tend to be more internationally-minded than most, but this isn’t even about internationalism. This is about pluralism. Do I want to date someone from my native Southern California? Sure, if it works out. But have I also benefited by dating women from Northern California (Trust me, it’s like a separate state), Maryland, Utah, or even South Africa and Moldova? I sure have. I will agree that there are sometimes cultural road blocks when dating foreigners, but the issues or problems a happily dating Floridian and Washingtonian face mostly revolve around the hassle of choosing where to fly for holidays. Al’s clan mentality would be more appropriate for his inbreeding Viking ancestors.
Our beloved Midwesterner then says, “Also knowing that a social conversion is as important for a young single convert as a spiritual conversion, having a significant gathering of singles and well attended activities significantly improves the chances of people having an enjoyable experience at church/institute.”[ix] The flaw here is to allege that BYU somehow denies people these opportunities or that one would be better served through local programs. Again, without the extant membership, it is difficult to fully take advantage of these things.
Now is there a serious problem with brain drain in the church, especially with regard to international students attending BYU? Undoubtedly. That is a very real issue that needs to be addressed, and Al is correct in noting the issues associated with it. I see countless members from foreign countries come to BYU for an undergrad, and then because they have yet to marry their own personal gateway to a green card, they go on to obtain a master’s. Many of these people will do anything to remain in the States. Their reasons for staying are their own, but it is not outlandish to assert that the home countries of these individuals suffer when they never return. I watched numerous kids disappear from Scotland for the likes of Provo. Only once have I seen the immigration go the other way, when a Utahan married a Scotsman and moved back to Edinburgh.
I Want to Get Married In a Real Temple, Not That Once-Spireless One in Boston
Al then rambles in the same paragraph about not comparing BYU and Harvard because they are not the same thing. I don’t think anyone is saying that they are. Harvard offers wonderful experiences and yes, has a good Institute program, and BYU offers a great education with the added benefit of being centered around the Church. There are benefits and drawbacks to each. I don’t think that someone attending BYU does so solely for academic reasons. I know I didn’t. I went there for the combination of a good education from a reputed university, good “churchiness” around me, and a social element centered on the Church. If I would have wanted to go to UCLA or OSU, I would have for different reasons.
However, I will concede that much could be done differently with the heaps of money that is thrown at the BYU system. A Cougar through and through but rather indifferent about BYU sports, was I thrilled to see my tithing money going to build a new state-of-the-art broadcasting facility next to the Marriott Center? Not really. I think BYU puts too much emphasis on its athletics and not enough on academics, but that’s just me. Al is correct in his assertion that perhaps CES’ financial priorities are not as balanced as they should be.
There are innumerable benefits to attending Church-owned schools. I sincerely doubt that the Church wants BYU or LDSBC to become a sort of crutch to its students, and we are right to worry that such can be the case without proper care and concern (CES’ recent decision to make attending Church schools prohibitively expensive and near impossible for international students is a more cutthroat example). The important difference between myself and Señor Doan is that while he would assume everyone can swing it in their local Institutes and there is no need for Church-owned schools, I feel that there needs to be a certain number of students – a threshold – in order for YSAs to actually have a robust social, educational, and spiritual experience.
Regardless, by closing Church schools we stand to lose a great, concentrated, potent force of YSA to their local lands, and many more sheep will eventually be lost. The YSA demographic is of greatest concern to the Brethren. The greatest drop-offs into inactivity happen during these years. Is attending BYU some sort of panacea? Hardly, but that lone Alabaman stands a better chance drowning in fry sauce and all the weird minutia of Happy Valley than he does at Enterprise-Ozark Community College in Dothan, Alabama, where he, combined with six other universities, is one of thirty-tree Institute students.
Besides, Institute is full of weirdos. Everyone knows that.[x]