Hugh Nibley saved some of his harshest criticism for those using education as means rather than as an end. Our scriptures are replete with exhortations to study and learn, even to seek out the best books. Yet it seems that education, once playing a central role in Mormon theology, has taken a back seat.
Nibley said, “Why should there be a school for the sole purpose of students preparing themselves? It is becoming the only purpose for which anyone attends school anymore. This is a new trend of just the past few years. They go not to get an education but to learn to acquire wealth, to earn more money. Students think there is something idealistic about that because they sacrifice for a time.” There is a quote from Joseph Smith that is very seldom repeated today because it would be flat out offensive to many members. He said, “The greatest temporal and spiritual blessings which always come from faithfulness and concerted effort, never attended individual exertion or enterprise.” If that is true, education must be more than a preparation for monetary gain.
We have effectively managed to quarantine a type of dry education at the University, not letting it diffuse to the rest of our lives. I don’t think society among the Latter-Day Saints has always been so wanting in intellectual life, though. Joseph had very little formal schooling yet seemed fascinated with the ideas of his time. He cared enough about the origins of the Bible to at least begin learning German, Greek, and Hebrew.
For the Confucians in ancient China, learning was more than the accumulation of knowledge—it was a way of life, a betterment of character through progress. Perhaps this is the type of learning we are encouraged to pursue, and if so, we have done a poor job. It is often said that the best art can make a person want to be better. Yesterday I went to an art show displaying forty portraits of Christ, each one unique. There was so much in each small painting of Christ open for interpretation—each person chooses their unique Christ. There is something in the best music and art that lifts character and accesses avenues of emotion not readily accessible by other mediums.
Literature, too, has fallen by the wayside in our attempt to obtain education for monetary gain. Somehow the days of Dostoevsky, when Schiller and others were often quoted by those of all ranks, seem very tempting to me. Gone are the days when quoting a Dostoevsky passage or a Schiller poem in conversation adds insight or wit rather than raises the eyebrow of the hearer. If God has had a hand in the past, it is more evident in literature than by any other medium.
I do not think that we should become a school nor a culture of intellectual snobs, but we have essentially been ignoring what should be a fundamental part of LDS theology. Education should be free because we should be so infused with the spirit of learning and curiosity that it is everywhere.