For sometime now, I have embraced the view that the idea of a literary canon – the idea that there is a timeless set of literary masterpieces worth continually studying – is theoretically problematic but institutionally convenient. Leaving aside debates about what belongs in and if there should be a canon, it is rather obvious that the typical student is not stimulated to further reading and writing by an Austen novel. In my own experience, students are far more eager to read and write about events that they deem current, and they develop a wider range of skills when reading and writing in multiple, often non-literary genres. After all, one is never evaluated on how well one reads a novel after graduation. But despite the obvious advantages of diversifying the kinds of reading we give students, we still persist (though there are some places where change is coming) in over-emphasizing teaching through the canon in secondary schools and many general college courses. Why? In a cynical moment, I decided that one major advantage to teaching the canon is that it reduces costs in the short-term. (In the long-term, it is probably harmful if we fail to teach basic skills.)
Changing a curriculum costs institutions. It means that one has to purchase new books, reassess outcomes, and retrain staff. If you change the curriculum frequently, then this cost goes up (though boredom levels might go down – are some emotions more “economical” than others?). The literary canon therefore provides a justification for the cost-effective practice of teaching the same set of books, thereby reducing needs for new purchases and retraining. Canonical books are cheap and culturally approved, which leads me to a question: is there a similar incentive in the LDS church to retain a small set of canonical scriptures and an often outdated set of instructional manuals?
In my mind, canonical scripture and instructional materials are added to or changed exceptionally slowly in our Church as compared to in other institutions. Perhaps this is because the program is working, but given the obviously dated feel to many publications and the boredom that people on this site have testified to experiencing at church, is a larger problem that our large growth has produced an institution where the costs of change – in terms of materials and reprogramming our minds – is high? (Though we might argue that less boredom would improve retention and hence bring in more funds.) Despite our premise of continuing revelation and what I see as the expansion of scripture, does our size now make it more convenient to just keep teaching in the same way? What could incentivize us to change more quickly? Will new LDS-sanctioned Internet tools allow for an expanded canon and instructional vision as the cost of producing materials diminishes? BYU is now a leader in online education, so I hope this bodes well for the future on our religious canon.