Things To Act
Saturday, February 19, 2005
Book Review
Thoughts on God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation Are Changing America, by Naomi Schaefer Riley

The book’s first six chapters profile one school each: Brigham Young University, Bob Jones, Notre Dame, Thomas Aquinas College, Yeshiva, Baylor. Later chapters look at feminism, race, student life, minority religious groups, the integration of faith and learning, and political activism at these and other religious schools.

The author declined to include interviews with graduates who had “since left the faith or decided that their education was a failure.” Two reasons are given: first, that such students will not affect culture much differently than graduates of secular schools, and second, that the book’s purpose is to explain why people do attend such schools to readers who likely can find their own reasons not to do so. This was a good choice, and I think it keeps the work from being seen as a criticism instead of a search for understanding, especially to those who have attended these schools.

It is definitely possible to read the chapter on BYU, which describes the author’s interviews and experiences with the students she met, and come away thinking that BYU students are strange or overly sheltered. But, as anyone who attended BYU will tell you, some of the students definitely are. Some of the author’s generalizations didn’t seem quite right (BYU students often keep bags of mini candy bars in their backpacks?), but the BYU she describes is, by and large, pretty close to the BYU I attended. I wouldn’t always choose the same anecdotes she does as examples of generic students, but that’s more a matter of opinion than anything else. There are students there who don’t obey the Honor Code and who don’t have the same vision of what BYU is supposed to accomplish as the administration, and pretending there aren't in a non-recruiting-poster portrayal of BYU usually doesn't work.

Unfortunately for the author’s perceptions of LDS sacrament meetings, the one she attended happened to be at the beginning of a semester in a BYU singles’ ward. She is assured that “This does not usually happen,” but probably most of us will agree that we’d rather that someone’s first impression of our church meetings did not include canceling Sunday School and RS/PH meetings for two hours of “a combination bachelor auction—beauty pageant” where everyone comes up and tells his name, major, hometown, mission, etc. She also attended a CES fireside where President Hinckley spoke, and noted how most in attendance were taking notes, but contrasted another school’s prohibition on public displays of affection with the handholding, arm-around-shoulder, etc. she saw around her in the audience at BYU. (It’s unclear whether she connected this incident with her earlier citation of 45% of the women and 55% of the men married by graduation.)

BYU’s students come off appearing motivated and hardworking, at least in the classes the author attended. This wasn’t always my experience when I taught courses as a graduate student—but I suppose that since it was the beginning of the semester when the author was there, students were still taking every class seriously, and the whining for points and not studying unless an exam was imminent hadn’t begun yet for that small but noticeable (for the instructor) group of students who engage in such things.

The author was in Provo on September 11, 2001, and attended the prayer service that replaced the usual devotional that day. I was at that meeting; everyone was trying to make sense of events, and still in shock, and it was strengthening, somehow, to sing and pray with fellow Saints, in a way that's hard to put into words. I’m glad the author was there, to balance out her experience with what should have been Sunday School and RS meeting.

In the section on proselytizing and converting others, the author’s observations are that few students “are involved in missionary work while they are enrolled in school” and that “Mormons never do their mission work in the community where they’re from”. I’m sure there are some ward mission leaders in Provo who will agree with these sentiments. She contrasts this with other religious schools, whose students do more of this and must face the possibility that they’ll “alienate the other members of the community by trying to explicitly convert them.” It's interesting to read an outsider's view, which can point out contradictions between what we say we believe, or what we're taught, and what we actually do in practice.

Interesting details picked out of the book:

Newsnet story on the book here. Deseret News here.

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