Watching a documentary, A Life Apart: Hasidism in America, recently I was reminded of polygamous Mormon-splinter groups which also set themselves apart from mainstream American culture—living in separate enclaves, dressing distinctively, and educating their children outside public schools.
According to the film, Hasids see themselves as God’s chosen (even over other Jews), and have little desire to mix with “lesser’ peoples. Similarly, polygamists teach their children the outside world is dangerously evil and God will protect them only if they remove themselves from the world and follow their leaders implicitly.
Hasid’s refusal to allow their children to attend universities bars their entrance into occupations requiring a college degree—effectively limiting them to low-paid jobs. Choosing a low-paid occupation is an adult’s right. Limiting children’s educational opportunities so they can’t qualify for occupations of their choice is wrong.
I have no problem with adults choosing to live their religion outside the mainstream, but it is wrong for parents to deny children education. Prohibiting an education which gives kids the skills to survive outside the religious community deprives them of their agency.
Unfortunately, many mainstream Mormon parents also limit their children’s education—although to a much lesser degree. As a junior high teacher in Utah, I often heard parents who were registering their children for high school tell me that seminary was number one priority. Four years of seminary was more important than taking calculus or other Advanced Placement classes.
Mormon parents also often fixate on BYU and its Idaho and Hawaii campuses as the only “safe” places for higher education. They discourage their children from applying to “secular” institutions where they might earn scholarships or be better prepared for their chosen fields.
Our daughter served as YW president in their upstate New York ward. Not all the bright girls with good grades and test scores were accepted into BYU or could afford the cost. Regardless of the Institute programs available at New York State universities, for their families, BYU was the only university where the girls would be sheltered from secular teachings and non-Mormon friends. Instead of pursuing education, these girls took low-paying jobs hoping to eventually attend BYU—or to miraculously meet and marry a returned missionary.
In the first half of the 20th century, Mormon leaders emphasized education and achievement. Talented Mormon men seized opportunities to leave the security of Zion and pursue education in universities outside the Mormon Corridor. Many remained to work outside Utah. Some, like Willard Marriott, George Romney, Henry Eyring (Sr.), Harvey Fletcher, and Philo Farnsworth became nationally prominent. The dispersion of talented, committed Mormons to various parts of the country helped the Church grow beyond a small, regional organization.
Unfortunately, that pursuit of excellence is missing from contemporary Mormon rhetoric and culture. Too many contemporary Mormons have retreated into an inward-looking culture that fears outside influences. Families that prioritize seminary over education and BYU over all other universities run the risk of limiting their children’s future choices. And a church with few successful, accomplished members will find itself less able to attract converts.