Grading Religion

Seth - August 6, 2007

I spent my high school years within shouting distance of BYU and the MTC. Timpview High School sits at the base of the Wasatch mountains among a well-kept quiet neighborhood. It’s students tend to skew affluent and the school has a local reputation for snobbery – though I didn’t notice any more of that than you see in any public school. On the other side of the student parking lot, creeping up into the foothills, sits the Seminary Building.

Timpview’s seminary building is almost the size of a standard LDS stake center. With recent remodeling, the place must have nearly a dozen classrooms, a large front office and about 20 faculty offices. I couldn’t say for sure, but the place did seem like a bit of a CES proving-ground where the rare few who can actually secure a full-time paid religious teaching gig “find their wings” before flying off to the CES youth speaking circuit. Our head seminary teacher was a highly charismatic motivational-speaker type who later went on to run Utah Valley State College’s on-campus Institute Building. Each time the bell rang for students to head to their next class on the high school campus, you’d see a stream of nearly 100 students trudging up or down the parking lot, heading to or from the Seminary building (to accommodate demand, each student at Timpview received on “release time” hour each day for Seminary attendance). Early in the school year, you might even see a few hapless Freshman standing in a line waiting for the “Freshman shuttle bus” to drive them to the Seminary building at the top of the parking lot.

All in all, I was indifferent to Seminary. I grew up in a devout household and my father was a “scriptorian” in the classic sense of the word. By the time I entered the MTC, I must have read the Book of Mormon over a dozen times, with the Pearl of Great Price, New Testament and Doctrine and Covenants coming in not far behind. I knew all the Gospel stories backwards and forwards. And, quite frankly, I was a snotty adolescent know-it-all.

Which isn’t to say I never learned anything, never laughed at a teacher’s jokes (some of those guys were genuinely entertaining), or was never spiritually moved. I had all those things. But it just wasn’t something I looked forward to and I viewed the Seminary youth leadership council as akin to beings from a distant planet. Once I was driving a car to school my senior year, I even skipped class a couple of times to go visit the local video arcade instead.

But it really was hard to take Seminary all that seriously. The main reason was that I wasn’t entirely sure my teachers were taking the whole thing seriously (everyone knew a lot of the students weren’t taking it seriously). Mainly, it was the grades.

You can’t tell me grades don’t matter to the typical adolescent student. By that time in a child’s public indoctrination, grades are being touted as the be-all-end-all of individual worth. The barometer of individual character, litmus test of personal work-ethic, number-one predictor of mortal success, and (in Utah anyway) a sign of personal righteousness.

As far as grades went with at least half my Seminary teachers though, they pretty-much blew them off. Oh, they had the standard tests and worksheets, and maybe an occasional project. But when it came down to grading time, they just really weren’t that strict about it.

Seminary grades in the 1990s, were negotiable. I witnessed silly young girls charm and giggle their way up the grading scale fairly regularly. I saw deadbeat guys skip half their classes, utterly disrupt the few classes they did attend, and bomb all the class assignments and win Bs after a few jokes with the teacher and an appeal to the teacher’s own “inner-cool.”

And it was all cool in the kingdom apparently. After all, “God never created a failure,” right?

Maybe so. But I never got the feeling that all this mattered either. In the end, I sat through a Seminary graduation ceremony among hundreds of other graduating seniors on BYU campus a couple days before the equally large High School graduation ceremony in BYU’s Marriot Center. I listened to the speakers with utter disinterest. Walked to the podium in-turn. Received my diploma and handshake. Went home and put my diploma in a box where, for all I know it still sits today. Because I haven’t looked at it since.

32 Comments »

  1. Seth, so what’s your point? Seminary was a bore…was it that way for everyone?

    I attended early morning seminar for 4 years, 6:30am. I went because I wanted to, actually had 2 great teachers and one not so great. Learn some, (it’s where I got my great love of the Old Testament) but more importantly I associated with a group of kids with my same goals and standards. It really did fortify me for the day.

    I’m glad I didn’t have release time….especially the kind you described.

    Comment by Don Clifton — August 6, 2007 @ 6:18 pm

  2. Here’s a question for all Wasatch-ers–is early-morning seminary even feasible? I often hear many GA’s speak of the advantages of early-morning Seminary, but then I wonder why they don’t make everyone do it that way.

    I also wonder how many kids (and parents) would take Seminary seriously if it wasn’t required for admittance to BYU.

    Comment by Tim J — August 6, 2007 @ 7:15 pm

  3. Seminary is definitely different in places outside of Utah and the Mormon corridor. In places like Massachusetts, seminary activity can make the difference between adult activity/inactivity or the decision to serve a mission. And many times, when it’s a separate program from school, it can be a remarkable spiritual experience. The teachers (meaning those called to be teachers from the local congregation) can be quite good when they are teaching for students’ personal spiritual edification, not for their grades. Sometimes, of course, there are teachers who aren’t that good, but my experience in seminary was quite good.

    OTOH, at BYU, I’ve done relatively poorly in all of my religion classes that were graded lightly. If it’s not a challenge, what’s the point? But the issue of religion classes in church schools is completely different from the seminary program.

    Comment by onelowerlight — August 6, 2007 @ 9:51 pm

  4. I attended release time seminary in a small Mormon community in Southern Idaho. I was the only member of my family who was active in the church. I guess (no, I know) I was not that committed when I started my freshman year and so I didn’t enroll in seminary that year. There was no pressure from my parents, my bishop or other church leaders because seminary, in that circumstance, did not seem to be connected to my church activity in the ward. I enrolled when I was a sophomore and was actually given a “3-year” graduation certificate in my senior year.

    Since moving to the east coast I have seen the early morning seminary work so much better as the students are asked to sacrifice so much by getting up in the morning and the faculty is made up of folks from the local ward who know the kids and their parents. If a student was not enrolled in seminary in our ward the bishop would be involved in asking why and most likely the student would eventually be enrolled. In my experience in “the Mormon corridor” too much was taken for granted and there was not enough interaction between CES and the ward leadership.

    I have only indifferent feelings about the seminary teachers who taught me. My sons have fond memories and a continued relationship with their seminary teachers.

    Comment by Lamonte — August 7, 2007 @ 5:23 am

  5. I get the sense that the people who care the most about teaching care the least about grades. This seems true in academic settings, why shouldn’t it be true in seminary? Of course, I’m speaking through my own bias that grades are frequently an impediment to effective learning.

    No college cares about your seminary grades (maybe not even BYU), so maybe the teachers feel free to use the grades for other purposes that they think are more important. Of course, you apparently disagree that their reasons are valid. Just remember that the teacher may be aware of a lot more than the “charm and giggle” that you observed.

    Comment by Bradley Ross — August 7, 2007 @ 6:52 am

  6. My own seminary experience in Spokane was wonderful. We had enough LDS students in our high school (130 or so out of 1200 students) to have release-time and I’m glad. Of course it also helps that I had the same teacher all four years and he was a fantastic, dedicated, humble man (who I became friends with and he eventually came to my temple sealing). I liked release-time because it was nice to get away from school for an hour and have some dedicated spiritual time in the middle of the day. I also liked that it was a talking point with those around me. Other students and teachers knew who the LDS kids were and I think overall that was a good thing.

    On the other hand, here in Brooklyn seminary is a serious challenge, mostly because there are so few youth in high school (in the ward). When I was teaching seminary my class size was 3 but only one person came consistently. That makes it tough to motivate yourself to spend an hour developing a lesson for one person…every day. AND it makes it difficult for the kid being taught. I mean, who wants to sit and be the only one participating…every day.

    Comment by Rusty — August 7, 2007 @ 7:12 am

  7. Grades for seminary didn’t bother me because I knew they were meaningless. It seems that most kids wanted a decent grade just so their parents wouldn’t get on their case.

    Grades for BYU religion classes did bother me because the courses were still somewhat seminary-like but the grade counted. If the classes were a more serious academic experience it wouldn’t have bothered me so much and I probably would have been more interested and motivated, but I just couldn’t take it all that seriously. My first non-A grade at BYU was in a New Testament class in my sophomore or junior year.

    Comment by Tom — August 7, 2007 @ 7:32 am

  8. When you guys talk about early morning seminary, how early are you talking? For my kids, it’s 5:30am. And I think that’s ridiculous. I can’t get up that early to drive them, it’s impossible for me. They’ve managed to find rides and go—well my daughter has. My son found it impossible to get up that early most of last year, and I can’t blame him, when I can’t do it either. The first year he went more often and I think his school grades suffered because of it.

    He signed up for a zero hour class at school this year hoping it’ll help him get to seminary. It’s his last year (he’s a senior).

    Comment by Susan M — August 7, 2007 @ 8:09 am

  9. That is ridiculous, Susan. I don’t have the faith to get up that early. Is there an option for home study seminary?

    Comment by Tom — August 7, 2007 @ 8:24 am

  10. There probably is. I haven’t checked into it. If he has trouble again this year going I’ll look into it.

    Comment by Susan M — August 7, 2007 @ 8:53 am

  11. Anytime you have a Church program that is effectively compulsory you are going to end up with mixed results. Just look at the Scouting program being the official YM program. If the kids are into it and the adult leaders are into it, then you have a great program. If not, things arent so great. Same with Seminary. The Church has put in a lot of effort to develop high quality media and materials, but since it is effectively compulsory (want to go to BYU?) you are casting a wide net and bring in a lot of kids, and adults, that dont want to be there.

    If the kids really dont want to participate, then dont force them.

    Rusty,

    I hope that one kid looks back at some point and realizes all you did for them. I bet they will, probably when they are an older and wiser adult, and then they appreciate what you did for them when you could have just blown it off. I only briefly attended a take-home seminary program and can fondly remember the poor sister that knocked herself out for us dumb kids.

    Comment by Kurt — August 7, 2007 @ 10:07 am

  12. Rusty,

    My sophomore year, all the kids in my seminary class quit after a month except me and one other kid. He must have rubbed them the wrong way, so they were given permission to hold home study seminary. It was a fantastic year personally, and the teacher made church history come alive for me. He ended up having a tremendous impact in my life and who I am as a person. I thanked him a few years later. I could see the relief in his face as he learned that his sacrifice made a difference. I needed him that year. My second son now shares his name.

    It matters.

    Comment by KyleM — August 7, 2007 @ 10:33 am

  13. Rusty, I’m glad you were able to get a little early morning experience. Release time is for pansies.

    Comment by cj douglass — August 7, 2007 @ 11:01 am

  14. Just to clarify, the “Freshman Shuttle” didn’t exist. It was a prank from the upper classmen. The funny thing is how many freshmen believed it and waited around to be driven across a parking lot. I agree cj. We were pansies.

    Comment by Seth R. — August 7, 2007 @ 11:13 am

  15. Seminary (early morning) was good for me. I went FIVE years because it was a new program for our new ward and in order to get enough students, the Bishopric recruited about 4 eighth-graders the first year (1966). We had some good teachers. But, out here “in the mission field,” it has always been early morning Seminary.

    My youngest is 16 and I get up at 5:15 to drive him to Seminary. (I sleep while he’s in class and will be glad when he doesn’t need me for transportation.) The teachers are not CES. He says he enjoys going.

    I have heard, however, that having a 4-year Seminary diploma is important to missionary service because some countries want “proof” that the 19 yo kid really has been trained for the ministry. Anybody know anything about this?

    Comment by Mondo Cool — August 7, 2007 @ 11:34 am

  16. onelowerlight,

    I think I’m the same way. I need some opposition for my spirituality to really grow. I followed Rusty in the same seminary program (though I had a new teacher my junior year who was only ok, especially compared to Bro. Sims) and I don’t think I would have gained as much from it if I lived in the Idaho/Utah corridor. I tend to push against whatever the prevailing attitude is. I’m a bit of a jerk like that.

    Comment by Bret — August 7, 2007 @ 1:19 pm

  17. Mondo Cool, I don’t have proof, but our CES coordinator has said that that is the case with Brazil. Also, we have a girl in the ward who didn’t enroll for seminary this last year, but in a few weeks she will be a freshman at BYU.

    Comment by John Mansfield — August 7, 2007 @ 1:43 pm

  18. Lamonte-
    Where, can I ask, in Idaho?

    I also come from Idaho and we had Release Time. I loved it for the same reasons Rusty did. Having a chance to “leave the world” for an hour each day was refreshing. And most of our teachers at school were cool about it, too.

    However….

    Bret and onelowerlight–
    I’ll share with you the same argument I share with my husband. He comes from California, where he was one of about 200 LDS kids in his high school. Not bad, considering some kids are all alone. He told me (after I explained that there were 3 Stakes feeding into my one high school) that we should raise our children where they would be tested and have to stand strong in the face of opposition. I told him that I think living in a small Mormon town was way harder then living amongst “the world”.

    How, you may ask?

    In a small Mormon town, we have drug use. We have teen pregnancy. We have underage drinking. However, it’s the Mormons that are doing it. We weren’t “shielded” from the world, the world was there –but the Mormon kids were jumping into the fray (at least they were in the 90′s when I was there). It disguted us to see certain Priests blessing the Sacrament the day after they were out drinking. It broke our hearts when the Laurel Secretary got pregnant (at 16). It hurt us to see our friends, who went to seminary, who went to Church, who professed Testimonies –smoking behind the school when the teachers weren’t looking. Hypocrisy was king. Jack-Mormon became a name eveyrone understood. I watched 4 of my best friends give into the temptation that was offered by so-called “good Mormon boys.”

    Now THAT is somewhere where the Testimony needs to be strong. Sure, in the “world” you would say “No, I don’t drink, I’m Mormon” but at least your friends would support you and respect you. But in “Mormonville”, it’s harder to stand up for yourself when the girl offering you a drink says “golly, I’m Mormon, too, what’s the big deal?”

    So, I don’t want to hear, ever again, that growing up in the world is harder or a better testimony builder. I have a life that proves otherwise.

    Comment by Cheryl — August 7, 2007 @ 1:59 pm

  19. PS Didn’t mean for my last paragraph to sound so harsh. I can’t help my desire to deliver a crushing blow at the end of my lectures…I hope I didn’t offend!

    Comment by Cheryl — August 7, 2007 @ 2:10 pm

  20. Cheryl,
    That happens in big Mormon towns too. No matter where your kids grow up, they will have opposition, and it will show up in different ways, from different people. I don’t think there is One Right Environment in which to raise our children.

    And I guess I’m a pansy cuz I loved released-time Seminary.

    Comment by Michelle — August 7, 2007 @ 2:57 pm

  21. Believe it or not, I once aspired to be a full-time seminary teacher. When I was taking a training class at the USU Institute, our instructor addressed the topic of grading seminary students. He let us know how very, very important it was that EVERY seminary student be given an “A” grade, “or else they might not think they can reach the celestial kingdom!”

    I kid you not, folks.

    Comment by Nick Literski — August 7, 2007 @ 3:25 pm

  22. I can personally see an argument for leaving grades out of seminary altogether. But if you are going to have them, I think you’d best be serious about them.

    Keep in mind that teenagers are very unforgiving and a lot more perceptive than adults give them credit for. They have a rather sensitive B.S.-o’meter. What message did it send to the kids who actually put some effort into the class when a seminary teacher was openly indulging bad behavior?

    I’m all for reaching out to the lost lambs out there, but not at the expense of even more youth in the classroom. I think there is a certain point where you just gotta be willing to abandon a problem kid in the interest of retaining the respect of the other kids. Because I’m pretty sure the kids in the classroom won’t be half as indulgent as the teachers are willing to be.

    Comment by Seth R. — August 7, 2007 @ 10:19 pm

  23. Cheryl,

    I must have mistranslated what i was trying to say. (and me without my seerstone) Basically what I meant was that at least for me I liked being able to fight opposition coming from the world rather than the opposition you are talking about. I don’t think I could have survived growing up in your world or a big mormon town.

    Basically, when I’m in the Utah/Idaho corridor I find myself leaning to the left and fighting the molly mormon/peter pristhood (whatever that means) persona. However, when I’m somewhere else I lean farther to the right and feel the need to defend the molly mormon/peter priesthood position.

    Does that make sense? I guess you could call me a flip flopper>:)

    Comment by Bret — August 8, 2007 @ 2:11 am

  24. Michelle-
    Yes, you are right.
    Bret-
    Yes, that makes sense.

    I have this pervasive problem of getting carried away with my thoughts. I probably could have said what I did in a more intelligent way without making it sound like I was bitter. I’ll keep working on it!

    FWIW (and back on topic), I agree with what Seth’s stance is about grading –But if you are going to have them, I think you’d best be serious about them. Some of my favorite classes at BYU were religion courses where the instructor (I tried to get Religion professors whenever possible) really challenged us.

    Grading spirituality, though, is really not as far off as people might think (or wrong, for that matter). What is our eternal life based on anyway? Isn’t this whole thing a test?

    Comment by Cheryl — August 8, 2007 @ 8:06 am

  25. Here’s a question for all Wasatch-ers–is early-morning seminary even feasible? I often hear many GA’s speak of the advantages of early-morning Seminary, but then I wonder why they don’t make everyone do it that way.

    I’ve heard people argue that there are too many kids to make early-morning work in Utah. I disagree. Given the number of wards, stakes, meeting houses and faithful members in the region, it would be relatively easy to set up early-morning seminary on a ward or stake level.

    Of course, conducting training for all of those volunteers might require just as many full-time staffers as we now have teaching in the classroom. :)

    Comment by Eddie — August 8, 2007 @ 12:08 pm

  26. I know I’m commenting too much here, but…

    …one weird thing that happened a couple of times in my Seminary –the Teacher dating the student right after graduation. Not even kidding. They flirted during the last semester and then dated as soon as she graduated. And it happened more than once (with different teachers and students). Of course, it was also popular for High school senior girls to date RM’s and then marry them 2-3 months after graduation, too.

    Yucky, eh?

    Comment by Cheryl — August 8, 2007 @ 12:54 pm

  27. If I were the seminary principal, I’d fire the guy in a heartbeat. And I’d make it clear to the rest of the staff as well. You don’t even want a suggestion of abuse happening at your school.

    Comment by Seth R. — August 8, 2007 @ 3:18 pm

  28. Seth-
    I would think so, too. But I guess since there was no abuse, and the dating didn’t happen until she was out of high school, there wasn’t “grounds” for it. It was just so weird…not that she would be interested in a good-looking (hey, when’s the poll going to be reported on, Rusty?) RM/Seminary teacher guy, but that he would even be looking that direction. It shouldn’t have even been on the guy’s mind…

    I still wonder if he ever got “transferred”…

    Comment by Cheryl — August 8, 2007 @ 4:53 pm

  29. There once was a promising LDS scholar, who was hired to teach at BYU. He had one glaring problem, however. He was single. He was strongly “counselled” to find a wife. He promptly married one of his own students, and she became Mrs. Hugh Nibley.

    Comment by Nick Literski — August 9, 2007 @ 12:11 pm

  30. Yes, but an 18 year old BYU student and a 17 year old High school senior, although close in age, are WORLDS apart…

    Comment by Cheryl — August 9, 2007 @ 1:40 pm

  31. Thanks for your post, Cheryl. I can say that I’ve heard the argument before, but that it’s still not a completely successful counterpoint. I’m sure that there is opposition and sinful practices in places dominated by Mormons, and that this opposition can be helpful in pushing one to gain a testimony. However, in places where Mormons are a very small minority, the opposition is of a completely different nature. In that kind of an environment, your peers know next to nothing about your faith except for how you live your life, and for better or worse, their impression of Mormonism is based almost completely off of what they see you do. The pressure is to live the gospel without hypocrisy so that others won’t get a false impression of your religion; the stakes are so much higher. Besides that, your friends are always asking you strange questions about the church, and you are the only one available to answer them. I don’t know how often I was asked “how many wives can you have” or the variants “how many mothers do you have” or “how many wives can I have if I join your church?” Situations like these give you a lot of incentive to do your research, find out what you really believe, and act on those beliefs without hypocrisy.

    Comment by onelowerlight — August 10, 2007 @ 9:45 pm

  32. Situations like these give you a lot of incentive to do your research, find out what you really believe, and act on those beliefs without hypocrisy.

    I totally get that. I was in a situation like that just yesterday. I was talking with a member of a different faith, and if I hadn’t known what she was asking, it would have been so awkward.

    I guess, in reality, I do agree that living somewhere with few LDS members means you have to be strong and stand firm –BUT how much harder is it to be strong and stand firm in the face of hypocrisy? They may “understand” the doctrines of the Church (because they are members of the Church), but really, they don’t, because if they did, they wouldn’t be doing the awful things they are doing, you know?

    I think Michelle said it best, though. Both environments present challenges. And it’s personal as to which challenges you’d rather have your children exposed to, eh?

    Comment by Cheryl — August 11, 2007 @ 8:28 am

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