Category Archives: Posts on MSH Paper on Stewardship and Hierarchy

MSH Paper: Stewardship and Hierarchy in a Secular Age (Final version)

“We have learned by sad experience,” says Joseph Smith in what is now D&C 121, “that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.” These sobering and troubling words were written to the early saints while Joseph himself lay oppressed in a small jail cell. Why is it that this happens? Why are the saints—or in fact “all men,” as Joseph puts it—so quick to exercise unrighteous dominion?

This question is, I think, connected to the theme of our conference. Within the context of secularism, we’re naturally wary or suspicious about hierarchy—about hierarchies in general. We look back through history and find examples of kings oppressing their subjects, masters oppressing their slaves, parents oppressing their children, and those of higher social and economic status oppressing the poor and needy. And from where we stand, the most natural conclusion we draw as we review the injustices of history is that hierarchy, as such, is oppressive.

In this paper, however, I want to suggest that Mormonism points in a different direction—in the direction of the possibility that hierarchy need not lead to oppression. Obviously, at the very least, Mormonism’s commitment to structured priesthood must point in such a direction. But even as it points in such a direction, Mormonism arguably agrees in important ways with our secular perspective. D&C 121, for instance, by using the language of “almost all,” shares our suspicion that hierarchy rather naturally leads to oppression. And yet the same “almost all” suggests the possibility nonetheless of a hierarchy without oppression. That is, D&C 121 says that, somehow, it is possible for someone to receive stewardship over others and not treat them wrongly. So, how is it possible?

In response to such a question, we might be tempted just to think that non-oppressive hierarchy is possible simply or exclusively when the virtuous occupy positions of authority. More commonly put colloquially, we’re tempted to say that the key is just to “be a nice person.” But in this paper, I’ll argue that the problem addressed in D&C 121 most likely stems from failing to distinguish appropriately two different sorts of hierarchy—one that I’ll call the hierarchy of stewardship, and one that I’ll call the hierarchy of spiritual capacity. Drawing on the work of French philosopher Jacques Ranciere, I’ll argue that where these are distinguished, hierarchy can exist without oppression. So that I can focus on a couple of scriptural texts that illustrate the separation of these two hierarchies, I’ll take more or less for granted, in this paper, that where the two hierarchies of stewardship and spiritual capacity coincide or end up confused, oppression is the inevitable result.

To begin, I want to look at D&C 121 a little more closely. I think the key word in this verse is “suppose.” “As soon as [human beings] get a little authority, as they suppose , . . . they will begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.” They suppose they have authority and then begin to oppress.

They suppose they have authority, Joseph says. The way the word is used here seems to suggest that they don’t have authority—and yet the context makes perfectly clear that those in question here unmistakably do have stewardship (at least, they have had conferred on them the “rights of priesthood”). The rhetorical force of the passage suggests that these priesthood holders both do and do not bear authority, that they both are and are not part of a hierarchy. Better put: at first read, the word “suppose” almost seems to suggest that the prophet sees a complete lack of hierarchy at work in priesthood, and that it’s only when a priesthood holder supposes that there’s any hierarchy that oppression arises. Certainly, this is a rather amiable reading of the passage in our secular age.

My aim here, though, is to suggest another possible reading. Let me state my reading from the outset, and then I’ll draw on some theoretical resources to flesh it out. What I want to suggest is that the supposing of D&C 121 is an overlaying of one sort of hierarchy onto another—that is, a confusion or a coincidence of radically distinct hierarchies, which when confused, inevitably leads to oppression. Unrighteous dominion, in other words, is a direct result of doubling one sort of hierarchy with another.

To get clear about these two hierarchies, and about what it would mean to distinguish them, I want to turn to Ranciere. In his book The Ignorant Schoolmaster, Ranciere claims that there are almost always two hierarchies present when a teacher instructs a student. The first he calls the hierarchy of will—that is, the fact that the teacher or the master exerts pressure or authority over the will of the student. The teacher makes demands, and the student is expected to obey. The second hierarchy, almost always present, he calls the hierarchy of intelligence. This second hierarchy is usually hidden. The teacher assumes she or he has a higher intellectual capacity than the student, while the student assumes she or he has an inferior intellectual capacity. This double assumption has a kind of intuitive appeal. Why else would the teacher need to step in and explain the material to students if they were able to understand the material on their own? It can’t necessarily be proven that teachers have greater intellectual capacity than others, but it is an assumption that keeps the basic pedagogical order functioning. For Ranciere, what characterizes most educational situations is that these two hierarchies are not only operative, but they’re assumed to coincide. Each, as it were, justifies or implies the other. The teacher or the master is intellectually superior, and so therefore the student must obey.

This, I suggest, maps more or less directly onto the situation described in D&C 121. Just as Ranciere’s teachers or master “suppose” that they have greater intellectual ability and that this secures their position in a hierarchy of will, those appointed to a position within a priesthood-based hierarchy might naturally “suppose” that they must have greater spiritual ability and that this secures their position in a hierarchy of stewardship. The word “suppose” perhaps does a bit more work here as well. Ranciere emphasizes the fact that no one attempts to prove—nor does anyone feel the need to prove—the existence of a hierarchy of intelligence in the pedagogical situation. In a similar vein, no one attempts to prove—nor does anyone feel the need to prove—the existence of a hierarchy of spiritual capacity in ecclesiastical hierarchies. It’s simply “supposed.”

My perspective here, then, is that those who exercise unrighteous dominion ultimately “suppose” an authority that is not given them, an authority not stated in scripture. Coupling the real hierarchy of stewardship with a parallel (but ultimately imaginary) hierarchy of spiritual capacity, they go beyond scripture and cannot help but exercise dominion in an unrighteous manner. But scripture, I believe, clearly insists that all human beings actually are equally capable of understanding spiritual things. Mormon scripture encourages all to pray and seek personal revelation. It directs that all members receive the gift of the Holy Ghost after they are baptized, and D&C 46 says that everyone receives spiritual gifts. King Benjamin says all are beggars before God, and Ether 12 says that God makes us all weak together. And all the same, Mormon scripture commits believers also to the hope that everyone on earth has the full potential to be exalted! Of course, that’s not to say that all equally act on their potential, or that all do so in the same ways or with the same experiences or at the same time as another. But one must never let that lead to a belief that anyone is spiritually superior to anyone else. There are simply distinct experiences in spiritual development, what Ranciere calls in the area of education “adventures in the land of knowledge.” At any rate, all have the capacity to understand spiritual things. And no one can prove that they have a greater capacity than someone else. This only gets assumed, or “supposed.”

Ranciere calls the realization of one’s intellectual capacity, usually via the practical separation of the two hierarchies, “intellectual emancipation.” From a Mormon theological perspective, I think we might call a realization of one’s spiritual capacity, or the disentangling of every position of authority from any imaginary hierarchy of spiritual superiority, “spiritual emancipation.” In education, emancipation is usually the result of a teacher who believes in students’ intellectual capacity, such that the students are redirected away from the teacher and towards the material itself. That is, emancipatory teachers eliminate or ignore the social fiction of intellectual hierarchy, insisting solely on a hierarchy of will. They exercise their will always and only to place students in a direct intellectual relationship with the material they’re to learn. They constantly persuade and push students to work harder and pay more attention to the material.

In a similar vein, leaders in a hierarchy of stewardship can treat those under their care in two different ways. When leaders justify their position as stewards by imagining they bear a position of superior spirituality, they are unlikely to trust those supposedly spiritually inferior to them to receive their own inspiration. In practical terms, they’re more likely to micromanage others’ callings, or to explain how to live commandments in every detail. They’re likely to carry an imagined burden of responsibility, as if everything rides on their own understanding of spiritual things. On the other hand, when leaders don’t feel the need to justify their position in a hierarchy of stewardship, they can’t help but trust others’ spiritual capacity. They point others away from themselves to God and to scripture, trusting they can also understand things of the Spirit. And this trust, frankly, is vital if others are to grow spiritually – to, for example, receive answers to prayer, to trust in God’s love, or simply to repent. In short, we could say that “spiritual emancipation” is possible when leaders refuse to add any hierarchy of spiritual capacity to the ordained hierarchy of stewardship. As D&C 121 puts it, one’s real power or influence over anyone can “only” come this way: “by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned.” These qualities come into their own, I want to say, in when spiritual equality is assumed.

Now, is it really possible for someone in a hierarchy to claim spiritual equality to those under their care and still retain a place in a hierarchy? That is, is it possible, as I have claimed, to disentangle the hierarchy of stewardship from the hierarchy of spiritual superiority? For a few minutes, I want to review two places in Mormon scripture where I believe something precisely like this is presented.

The first comes from the Book of Mormon, in the story of Alma’s preaching in Ammonihah. You might remember that, according to the story, when Alma first preaches in Ammonihah, the people there reject him specifically because they think he has no power or authority over them. They say, “And now we know that because we are not of thy church we know that thou hast no power over us; and thou hast delivered up the judgment-seat unto Nephihah; therefore thou art not the chief judge over us.” They understand Alma only as a person within hierarchies that don’t apply to them anymore. They see no reason that Alma can claim superior authority over them, so they easily reject his call to repent.

After a walk, a visit from an angel, and a good meal at Amulek’s house, Alma is ready to try again. This time, luckily, he ends up with an opportunity to explain how he understands his role as a high priest. On my reading, he spends most of his sermon explaining that he comes neither as a person of superior rank in administration nor as a person of superior spirituality. I see him making three specific claims regarding equality:

First, he points out that church administration is only one way to understand priesthood. Priests were ordained long before the creation of the Nephite church. In fact, in Alma’s time, the Nephite Church has only been around for two generations! Alma reminds his audience that, according to their scriptures, the first priests were ordained to teach the very things that angels taught Adam and Eve. While Alma also has a place in a church administrative hierarchy, he puts that aside and instead claims a different sort of role: he is coming to them as a high priest after the holy order, whose only assignment really is to preach. He occupies a position of stewardship, but one that’s uncoupled from the ecclesiastical setting.

Second, Alma points out that this role as a priest does not indicate that he is spiritually superior to his hearers. He claims that every person is on equal standing before God, though not every person acts in faith or seeks out spiritual understanding. This point is especially important, because it’s precisely in the context of defending his place in a hierarchy of priestly stewardship that Alma insists on spiritual equality before God.

Third, Alma explains that the gift high priests have received through their faith is to “enter into God’s rest,” but then he goes on to promise the people that if they “humble [themselves] before God, and bring forth fruit meet for repentance, [they can] also enter into that rest.” This seems to suggest not only that Alma sees the people as equal to him in spiritual capacity, but also that he sees it necessary that they give up their belief in superiority if they would begin to repent and develop spiritually. To prove that this is possible, he tells the story of Melchizedek converting an entire city!

Thus Alma makes clear that he is not coming to teach because he believes himself superior in spiritual things. He is not trying to exercise power or authority over anyone. So what is he left with? Only persuasion and long-suffering. Alma believes he can still be a priest without a hierarchy of spiritual capacity to justify his calling and stewardship. He uncouples his position of responsibility from any hierarchy of spiritual capacity. And he points to Melchizedek as his role model: a man who had faith and then successfully preached and encouraged his people to also have faith.

Does it work for Alma? Well, though not everyone likes what they hear from him, we do read that “many of them did believe on his words, and began to repent, and to search the scriptures.” That last detail, I think, is particularly striking. Those who feel the force of Alma’s words begin to trust less in the interpretations of the Ammonihah priests and more in their own capacity to understand the scriptures. And it’s worth noting that a few verses later, the Ammonihah priests choose to burn those very books of scriptures during their horrible massacre.

This whole story perfectly illustrates what I hear in the words of D&C 121, clarified with reference to Ranciere. I think the same can be said of the text of D&C 84. Obviously less narrative in tone, here I’ll choose to be briefer.

D&C 84 teaches that those who hold the priesthood, perhaps especially those holding it in a full or more complete way, receive some remarkable blessings. But D&C 84 also teaches that these same blessings are available to those without the priesthood. For example, verse 35 says that “All they who receive this priesthood receive me,” but the next verse adds “he that receiveth my servants receiveth me.” There’s thus a kind of arbitrariness about stewardship, one that undermines any coupling of a hierarchy of stewardship with any spiritual hierarchy. Similarly, further along, D&C 84 states that both priests and non-priests can receive a knowledge of heavenly covenants. Verse 40 says those who receive priesthood receive a specific oath and covenant. But verses 47-48 say that “every one that hearkeneth to the voice of the Spirit cometh unto God, even the Father…And the Father teacheth him of the covenant which he has renewed and confirmed upon” those who hold the priesthood. Here again a certain spiritual equality is clearly assumed precisely in the context of some being appointed stewards and others not. Further, the covenant in question, which I take (in light of textual links to the letter to the Hebrews) to be the Abrahamic Covenant, is given, according to the revelation, “not for your sakes only, but for the sake of the whole world.” So while some receive heavenly blessings in connection with their place in a hierarchy—that is, as priests—others receive the same blessings in connection with a rather different place in the same hierarchy—that is, as those who receive such priests. The hierarchy of stewardship is, it seems, arbitrary, and certainly unrelated to any spiritual hierarchy. Like Alma, the priests of D&C 84 are sent to persuade, bearing testimony and calling people to repentance.

What I think these two texts display is the possibility and the productivity of interpreting D&C 121 in a Rancierean vein. They demonstrate one powerful way of understanding what it means to “suppose” that one has authority, in such a way that unrighteous dominion follows. And also, these two texts demonstrate that it’s possible not to “suppose” one has authority, even as one remains in a position of stewardship within a hierarchy. In our context—not only in the context of our secular age, but also in the context of practical matters in Mormon culture – both daily lived applications and also heated and complicated debates over universal access to priesthood hierarchy—I believe getting clear about the nature of hierarchy and stewardship is a place to begin.


New MSH Paper! In progress…

“We have learned by sad experience,” says Joseph Smith in what is now D&C 121, “that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.” These sobering and troubling words were written to the early saints while Joseph himself lay oppressed in a small jail cell. Why is it that this happens? Why were the saints so quick to exercise unrighteous dominion?

Certainly this is a potential problem with hierarchies in general. We can look back through history and find abundant examples of kings who oppressed their subjects, masters who oppressed their slaves, parents who oppressed their children, and those of higher social and economic status who oppressed the poor and needy. Quite frankly, it is easy to look around and see examples of oppression everywhere.

But Mormonism calls for something else. A chance, at least, for a hierarchy to not turn out this way. D&C 121 says that somehow, it is possible for someone to receive some stewardship over other people and not treat them wrongly. But even D&C 121 says it’s hard. Almost impossible even. But still, it claims it is possible. So, how is it possible?

The answer, I believe, is more than just simply “being a nice person.” In this paper I will argue that the problem addressed in D&C 121 most likely stems from tying to justify a hierarchy with claims to superiority of one kind or another. After explaining how this justification comes about, I will also show that there are scriptural examples of those who didn’t feel the need to justify their position, and show how that influenced their success. Finally, I will look at several scriptures that explicitly call for an eye to equality even while still functioning within a hierarchy.

To start, I want to look at D&C 121 verse 39 a little more closely. I think there is a key word in this verse: “suppose.” “As soon as [the saints] get a little authority, as they suppose” then “they will begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.” They suppose that they have authority, and then begin to oppress. They assume they have authority. Well, do they or don’t they? D&C 121, after all, is talking specifically about men who have had conferred on them the “rights of priesthood.” What is wrong with them supposing they have authority?

A tangent here might be helpful. Jacques Ranciere, a contemporary French philosopher, wrote a book called The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. While he was looking at oppression and emancipation within the hierarchies of education, I think his ideas can be helpful to answering our question.

Ranciere claims that there are almost always two hierarchies present when a teacher is instructing a student. The first is the obvious structure of teacher over a student; that is, the teacher has authority to do things like give assignments and hold students accountable by grading them. But the second hierarchy is a bit hidden: the teacher assumes to have a higher intellectual capacity and the student assumes to have an inferior intellectual capacity. Why would the teacher be able to step in and explain the material to students if they were able to understand the material on their own? It can’t necessarily be proven that teachers have greater intellectual capacity than others, but it is an assumption that helps keep the order functioning. And so, Ranciere says that we have two hierarchies in education that are usually merged together: the hierarchy of teacher and student, and the hierarchy of superior and inferior intelligence.

I wonder if Ranciere’s theory might be helpful in thinking about the word “suppose” in D&C 121. When teachers “suppose” that they have greater intellectual ability, it helps secure their position in the hierarchy. But it can only be “supposed” because it’s never proven, declared, or usually even stated. It is an invisible hierarchy that supports the visible hierarchy of teacher over student.

Perhaps Joseph Smith’s letter is warning about something similar. When a man is given the responsibility to function as a priest, or whenever a member is given a stewardship over another member, this puts him in a hierarchy over those to whom he ministers. This language of “over” immediately makes us squirm, because of the examples of oppression we may have seen or experienced. The problem here perhaps might be similar to what Ranciere observed about teachers. That is, perhaps sometimes these priests or other leaders “suppose” that there is a second hierarchy – a hierarchy of spiritual capacity – that serves to hold up the priest or stewardship hierarchy.

But in this, I think they would “suppose” an authority that is not given them, and not stated in scripture. Quite the opposite is stated in fact. Scriptures often put forth the idea that we are actually all equally capable of understanding spiritual things. Scriptures encourage everyone to pray and seek personal revelation. Scriptures direct that all members receive the gift of the Holy Ghost after they are baptized and D&C 46 says that everyone receives spiritual gifts. King Benjamin says we are all beggars before God and Ether 12 says that God gives to every human being weakness. And all the same, we also claim the hope that everyone on earth has the potential to be exalted! That’s not to say that we all equally act on our potential, or do so in the same ways or with the same experiences. But we all have the capacity to understand spiritual things. And no one can prove that they have a greater capacity than someone else.

Ranciere calls the realization of one’s intellectual capacity “intellectual emancipation.” I think we might call a realization of one’s spiritual capacity “spiritual emancipation.” With education, this is usually the result of a teacher who believes in students’ intellectual capacity, such that the students are redirected away from the teacher and towards the material itself. That is, these teachers eliminate or at least ignore the hierarchy of intelligence and replace it with a hierarchy of will. These teachers are the ones constantly persuading and pushing students to work harder and pay more attention to the material.

Leaders in a hierarchy of stewardship can treat those under them in two different ways. When leaders justify their position on superior spirituality, then they will be less likely to trust those under them to receive their own inspiration. They will be more likely to micromanage others’ callings, explain how to live a commandment in every detail, and basically try to ensure that no one is going to mess things up. At least, according to their understanding. On the other hand, when leaders don’t feel the need to justify their position, they will be more likely to trust others’ spiritual capacity. They will be more likely to point others away from themselves and to God, trusting that they can also understand things of the Spirit. And this trust, frankly, is vital if a person is going to grow spiritually – to, for example, recieve answers to prayers, to trust that God loves them, or simply – to repent. That is, we could say that “spiritual emancipation” is possible when a leader replaces the hierarchy of spiritual capacity with a hierarchy of will. As D&C 121 puts it, one’s real power or influence over anyone can “only” come this way: “by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned.”

But is it really possible for someone in a hierarchy to claim that they are equal to those under them, and still retain their place in a hierarchy? That is, is it possible, as I have claimed, to disentangle the hierarchy of stewardship from the hierarchy of spiritual superiority? Let’s take a look at two passages of scripture that I believe explore this very question.

The first example comes from Alma and Amulek’s preaching in Ammonihah. Remember that the first time Alma preached in the city, they rejected him specifically because they didn’t think he had power or authority over them. In Alma 8 they say, “And now we know that because we are not of thy church we know that thou hast no power over us; and thou hast delivered up the judgment-seat unto Nephihah; therefore thou art not the chief judge over us.” They understood Alma only as a person within hierarchies that didn’t apply to them anymore. They saw no reason that Alma could claim superior authority over them, so they easily rejected his call to repent.

After a walk, a visit from an angel, and a good meal at Amulek’s house, Alma is ready to try again. This time, luckily, he has an opportunity to explain how he sees himself functioning as a high priest. He actually spends most of chapter 13 explaining that he isn’t trying to come as a person of superior rank in administration or a person of superior spirituality. He makes three specific claims regarding equality:

First, he points out that Church administration is only one way to understand priesthood. Priests were ordained long before the creation of the Nephite church. In fact the Nephite Church had only been around for two generations! Alma reminds his audience that the first priests were ordained to teach the very things that angels taught Adam and Eve. While Alma also has a place in the Church administative hierarchy, he puts that aside and instead claims a different sort of role: he is coming to them as a high priest after the holy order, whose only assignment really is to preach.

Second, Alma points out that his role as a priest does not indicate that he is spiritually superior to his audience. Alma claims that every person is on equal standing before God, though, not every person acts in faith or seeks out spiritual understanding.

Third, Alma points out that the gift these priests have received, through their faith, is “entering into God’s rest.” But he then promises the people that if they “humble [themselves] before God, and bring forth fruit meet for repentance, [they can] also enter into that rest.” (verses 12-13) And to prove that this is possible, he tells the story of Melchizedek converting an entire city!

Alma has made it clear that he is not coming to teach because he believes himself superior in spiritual things. He is not trying to exercise power or authority over them. So what is he left with? Only persuasion and long-suffering. Alma believed he could still be a priest without a hierarchy of spiritual capacity to justify his calling. He replaced the hierarchy of spiritual capacity, with the hierarchy of will. And he points to Melchizedek as his role model: a man who had faith and then successfully preached and encouraged his people to also have faith.

Did it work for Alma? Well, though not everyone liked what they heard, we do read that “many of them did believe on his words, and began to repent, and to search the scriptures.” I love that last detail. They began to trust less in the Ammonihah priests’ interpretations and more in their own capacity to understand the scriptures. (And it’s worth noting, that a few verses later, the Ammonihah priests choose to burn their books of scriptures during their horrible massacre.)

A second scriptural example comes from D&C 84. Here the early Latter-day Saints are receiving some instruction about the roles of Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthood holders. After promising some grand blessings to those holding these two priesthoods, perhaps especially to those holding them in a full or more complete way, this section specifies at least three ways in which even these priests are not superior to the rest of the people.

First, D&C 84 claims that these priests as well as non-priests receive the same blessing of receiving God himself. In verse 35, it states that “all they who receive this priesthood receive me, saith the Lord.” But then the section goes on to say that “he that receiveth my servants receiveth me.” And in fact, those who receive servants end up receiving “all that [the] Father hath.” While some receive the blessing after being called as a priest and others receive it by listening to a priest, both priest and non-priest receive the same blessing.

Second, D&C 84 says that priests and non-priests can receive a knowledge of heavenly covenants. Those who receive priesthood receive an oath and covenant. But D&C 84 also says that the “Spirit giveth light to every man that cometh into the world…And every one that hearkeneth to the voice of the Spirit cometh unto God, even the Father…And the Father teacheth him of the covenant.” (vs.46-48). God can reveal the same covenant to everyone, some via the priesthood, and some via the Spirit.

And finally, D&C 84 says that the covenant they have received is for everyone’s benefit. This covenant, which I take to be the Abrahamic Covenant, is given “not for [their] sakes only,” it says, “but for the sake of the whole world.”

 

Where to go next??

 

 


hierarchies that undo themselves

I’m trying to think of examples in the scriptures were there is some hierarchy that is set up that only works if the person doesn’t get proud about the hierarchy. For example, priests in Alma 13 are just trying to help everyone else get what they get. So the hierarchy sort of undoes itself, if that makes sense. A person is only in a position over someone in order that they will become equal.

The other kind of example I’m looking for is like the one in 2 Nephi 1. Lehi is trying to teach Laman and Lemuel that if they respect Nephi as spiritual leader, they get to keep first blessing –which sounds like it might mean leadership of the group. If so, they get to keep their leadership of the group if they respect Nephi as spiritual leader. If not, he ends up with both spiritual and temporal leadership. In other words, If they lose one part (spiritual), they get the other; if they won’t give up one part, they lose both parts. I’m looking for other hierarchies where if a person gives up part of a hierarchy, they get to keep the other part.

So far I’m remembering these but I’m sure there’s more!

  1. Alma 13 (many high priests have entered into God’s rest; working so that people may enter into God’s rest)
  2. D&C 84 (priests have all father hath; those who receive priests can have all father hath)
  3. 2 Nephi 1 (Laman & Lemuel)
  4. D&C 121 (amen to the priesthood of that man if used in pride)
  5. D&C 46 (spiritual gifts given for benefit of church, not for lust)
  6. D&C 50:22 (those who teach and listen are edified together)

 


One hierarchy (teacher-student) is often actually two hierarchies

When we think about a teacher and a student, we quite naturally assume that the teacher has more knowledge and the student has less knowledge. The job of the teacher is to adequately transfer his or her knowledge to the student. This sets up a hierarchy: teacher, student. (Show slide here.) The better teachers know how to better transfer this knowledge, and in addition the better teachers are regarded has having brighter minds and  being better able to comprehend this knowledge. (Add to the slide: better able to comprehend knowledge.) I think this is a fair description of how we think about a really good teacher.

But this way of thinking about teachers reveals something to us. Rather than there being just one hierarchy – teacher over student – there are actually two hierarchies at play:

Teacher  ———— better able to comprehend knowledge = Greater intelligence

Student  ———— less able to comprehend knowledge = Weaker intelligence

In Jacques Ranciere’s book The Ignorant Schoolmaster, there is a story about a man named Joseph Jacotot who looked more closely at these two hierarchies. Jacotot was a professor who lived at the time of the French Revolution and the series of overthrows that followed it. By 1818 he had left France and was teaching in the Netherlands. He began to explore these very hierarchies – teacher over student, and greater intelligence over weaker intelligence. He found that uniting these two hierarchies often created a problem:

If a teacher believed he was of greater intelligence, then his focus was on creating better and simpler explanations. If a student believed that he was genuinely of lesser intelligence, then his focus was on waiting until the professor found a better and simpler way of explaining something. 🙂 Ranciere calls this problem “stultification.” I’ll also use the word “stagnation.” (Show slide.) Or we might also call it “learned helplessness.” When a student, over many years, gets used to his or her teachers stepping in between the students and their textbooks or whatever materials the class is using, then it is easier for the student to wait to be explained to. This can be simple laziness, but the concern Ranciere has is that many students come to believe they are actually incapable of really understanding the textbook in the “right” way, and therefore believe they must have inferior intelligence.

Maybe you had this sort of experience when you were in school. I remember being in my high school English class and being told that my interpretation of whatever book from our great world literature list was simply “incorrect.” I was pretty sure I had a good reading, but for the sake of a good grade I accepted my teacher’s reading. Fortunately I got a chance to study Humanities at BYU and had the pleasure of looking at many interpretations of great literature.

But many students aren’t confident, and don’t go on, and simply accept that their teacher is better able to comprehend and that they are less able to comprehend.

And maybe you have had another kind of experience. Maybe you, like me, have had classes where it didn’t really matter if you read the textbook or not, because the teacher spent the entire class period explaining what the book had said. Even though you knew you could understand the book on your own – why bother? The teacher was ready to explain it all to you, and it was easier to be lazy.

I also remember taking a math class at BYU with a professor who was not at all concerned with explaining math in better and better ways and we were often left more confused when we left than when we came in! But we had a great TA who taught once a week who clarified the material for us. As you can imagine, it was much easier for me to barely try to understand my professor and wait for the TA to explain it to me.

These moments, where a teacher or a TA comes in between a student and the material, communicate to a student that either they are incapable of understanding the material on their own, or that there isn’t any reason to bother to understand the material on their own.

And this results in “stultification” or “stagnation.” (Refer to slide.) Dictionaries define stultify as “to cause to appear or be stupid, foolish, or absurdly illogical” and “To cause to lose interest or feel dull and not alert” (add these to slide.)

And Ranciere argues that this is the danger whenever we combine these two hierarchies (show slide again). Of course, this doesn’t always happen, but it is a danger for the student.

There is another danger I want to mention briefly, and that is a danger to the teacher. If a teacher assumes this combined model, then what if they find themselves not actually believing they are smarter or more capable than their students? What if they believe this model, but don’t believe they fit this hierarchy over here (point to right side of slide)? Does that undermine their claim to a superior position in the hierarchy? The result is that many teachers compensate by over-confidence or strictness, hoping to cover over their insecurity. You may have had some of these teachers yourselves. They hope that by looking like they fit their position, they can continue to enjoy their place of power in the hierarchy.

Obviously, there are some problems here. Joseph Jacotot, our professor in the Netherlands, offers us a different model to consider.

(Read the next post to learn about Jacotot’s belief in the equality of intelligence.)