Margaret Young mentioned at BCC that CES (Church Educational System) is no longer CES. A quick look at the organization’s website seems to confirm that it is now Seminaries and Institutes of Religion. As long as they’re messing with the name of the organization may I suggest a few other changes as well?

I should note that my experience with CES (now SIR?) is limited to going to one of the largest seminaries in the system in high school and a mid-sized institute in college.

Let’s start with high school and seminary. Seminary should be the rough equivalent of a high school class on the book of scripture being studied. My impression was that it never aimed that high. In fact I think it aimed at being a very repetitive Sunday School class and it usually failed to hit that mark. The target that was most often struck was babysitting.

It seemed to me that the instructors wanted the students there so badly that they’d never risk frightening them off by actually requiring them to learn anything. Most classroom activities were designed to entertain rather than instruct or bring tears rather than academic learning. Since it is seminary occasional tears are okay, I suppose.

But I certainly didn’t come out of four years of seminary with same level of understanding that I got out of any of my other high school courses. More than once I asked seminary teachers why some sort of “honors seminary” wasn’t offered. There was certainly room for it with 2,000 students attending the program. They looked at me in horror (I must have come across as quite the elitist) and told me there would never be such a thing. More than once I was told to stop bringing up difficult subjects that the lessons (when there were any) raised. After one teacher gave me a flat out false answer in class he held me after to tell me that he wasn’t allowed to talk about the topic (the priesthood ban) and admitted to having misled the rest of the class.

I had friends that stopped going to seminary. The stated reason was that they had another class they wanted to take and couldn’t fit it into their schedule with seminary. But in truth the experience of being treated like an imbecile each day in seminary was incompatible with their high-school sized egos. If seminary had been something other than a waste of time they would have been dropping other classes in order to make room for it in their schedule, or going to early morning seminary.

Even assuming that an honors track is impossible for egalitarian reasons, I still think that a more rigorous program would do more good than harm, and would be an improvement for the majority of students over the babysitting that I witnessed.

Entering college I had high hopes for institute. These were quickly smashed. Our institute director was a local stake president who seemed more interested in devotional material than providing a college level course in the D&C. One day he said we were going to discuss a section that had recently in the news and asked us to guess what it might be. Since the September Six and the Strengthening the Members Committee were in the news I quickly mentioned D&C 123. He said, “No,” and quickly moved on. I approached him afterwards and was told that we certainly were not going to discuss that topic. At that point I decided that I wasn’t going to go to institute for the sake of going to institute. I was going to go because it was interesting to me and worth my time. Given that it was neither I stopped going to institute the rest of my freshman year and then left on for a mission.

When I returned to campus there was a new institute director who actually taught as if he had serious, intelligent college students as his pupils. He would bring up difficult topics and we’d discuss the issues around them. The difference was night and day. I would often take several courses at a time and continued attending after graduation. Other students were similarly energized and attendance went up dramatically.

This institute teacher eventually joined the faculty at BYU. I dropped in on one of his classes there once and found him teaching in the same energetic, engaging manner. Unfortunately the students clearly weren’t interested in anything more than babysitting. I lost track of the number of times, “Will this be on the test?” was asked.

Of course religion is a required course at BYU so students aren’t taking it just because they’re interested in it, which will increase the dead weight in any class. That experience however has made me question whether serious seminary and institute courses would work. Perhaps there aren’t enough students that want such an experience in studying their own religion. Or maybe they just been trained by the system to expect pablum.

I wonder if SIR/CES has considered ways to address these issues and how often the concept of actually teaching the subject matter as if it were a serious academic course rather than a serious of Sunday School lessons for the uninterested has come up.  I do know that Church leadership is very concerned about the activity rates of young adults, including the rate at which they attend institute.  Perhaps young adults would show more interest in institute if the material was interesting.  Certainly the gospel and various aspects of it have the potential to be the most interesting of subjects, but when we strip them of their complexity in order to indoctrinate those that have already been indoctrinated rather than educating them we risk pushing them away.  Show them the depth that can be had and they might just dive in.