Do Mormons Prefer To Be Underachievers?

From a long time back I have observed that Mormons are so competitive that they want to have a superlative Mormon version of almost any kind of achievement that secular civilization manifests. Thus we have repeated calls for a Mormon Michelangelo, a Mormon Tolstoy, a Mormon Nobel laureate, and so on. Underlying these calls is the faith that, along with having native intelligence and extensive training, Mormon scientists, scholars, artists, and writers can expect to be inspired by the Holy Ghost. However, it is apparent that the call for superlative achievement among the Mormons has gone unanswered.

I would like to call your attention to an article recently published in Dialogue that attempts to explain why Latter-day Saint culture has not produced high achievement in a wide variety of civilized endeavors. The authors of the article are John M. and Kirsten N. Rector. (“What Is the Challenge of LDS Scholars and Artists?” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 36, no. 2 [Summer 2003]: 33-46.) I hope you will take a look at this article on the Dialogue website by clicking on Excerpts in the left pane menu. Go to Dialogue Website. In the following paragraphs, I will summarize this article. I would welcome your opinions as to whether high achievement is something Latter-day Saints should hold themselves to as a people. The Rectors have agreed to visit this blog and perhaps respond to concerns or questions you might have.

The Rectors open their article by quoting Orson Whitney, Pres. John Taylor, Pres. Spencer W. Kimball, Pres. Joseph Fielding Smith, and BYU clinical psychologist Allen Bergin on the inevitability of Mormon achievement given the inspiration of the Holy Ghost to which Latter-day Saints lay claim. Sadly, say the Rectors, results do not support these optimistic predictions. The Rectors show that “non-LDS scholars and artists are responsible for the overwhelming majority of the world’s significant advances in the fields of knowledge.” The majority of prize winners are not religious. Those who are religious are usually Protestant or Jewish. Neither Mormonism nor Catholicism appears to produce high achievement.

Having opened their article in this manner, the Rectors devote the rest of it to an explanation of the forces within Mormon culture that discourage achievement.

The first factor they list is “a lifestyle oriented towards familial relationships and ecclesiastical duties, which may not be conducive to achieving a high level of artistic or scholarly prominence.” In particular, they find that â”artistically or academically gifted LDS women are even more likely to experience these priority conflicts than are their similarly gifted male counterparts.”

The second factor they cite is the value that Latter-day Saints place upon “conventionality, orthodoxy, and adherence to authority.” The Rectors remind us that “from Shakespeare to Hemingway, Newton to Einstein, Galileo to Hawking, Mozart to Gershwin, and Rembrandt to Picasso, history’s great innovators have had a significant impact upon the world in large part because they have pushed the envelope of convention.” The Rectors urge Latter-day Saints to similarly push the envelope of convention.

A third factor which the Rectors emphasize is dogmatism, or close mindedness. “Dogmatic individuals,” they declare, “do not question their assumptions and, as a result, are highly unlikely to push back the frontiers of knowledge.” Even when such persons believe in the truth, their “knowledge of the truth will remain partial and static.”

The fourth factor is the custom of the Latter-day Saints to think of the operation of the Holy Spirit only in an ecclesiastical context. “As evidenced by the innumerable academic and artistic accomplishments of ‘gentile’ society,” write the Rectors, “the Spirit works in a wide variety of contexts, with a wide variety of individuals, who have a wide variety of life-experiences. Yet we Latter-day Saints don’t often acknowledge that the Spirit is actively involved with people who are not members of our church, many of whom have lifestyles incompatible with our religious ideals.”

I am personally ambivalent about the Rectors’ article. On the one hand, I recognize the unhappiness that derives from severe competition. On the other hand, I believe that human beings are most likely to be happy if they engage energetically in a wide range of civilizing activities.

Although contemporary Americans extol competition, they blithely ignore a built-in reality about it: there is always a loser. In modern America, a loser is by definition inferior. Contemporary Americans also tend to ignore the fact that the endemic stress from which they suffer derives from competition. I for one recognize, and often long for, the peace that comes when human beings accept their mediocrity.

I wonder whether the call for Mormon Shakespeares and Einseins derives from a subliminal inconfidence regarding their own faith? Is it possible that Mormons seek to authenticate it by besting non-Mormons in all endeavors. That strikes me as a bad reason for extolling achievement.

Finally, however, I come around to agreeing with the implication of the Rectors’ article. Human beings are valuing creatures. They are fated to choose. Agency is built into their genes. According to Mormon doctrine, agency is built into the fiber of their eternal spirit. So I come down on the side of achievement. I hate stress but I can’t evade my own habit of competitiveness.

I will add that I believe Dialogue, in which the Rectors’ article appears, encourages achievement among the Latter-day Saints. Dialogue serves as a forum where all sides of controversial issues in Mormon studies are aired. Admittedly its dedication to Mormon topics means that Mormon scientists and scholars will submit their work on non-Mormon topics elsewhere. But they can, and do, hone their discipline and research on Mormon topics for which Dialogue is an appropriate outlet. Mormon scientists, Mormon scholars, Mormon poets, Mormon story writers, and Mormon painters publish in Dialogue. It gives them a place to compete, an arena, a playing field. It places referees in the arena and on the playing field.


  1. These are some interesting things to concider. As a terribly gifted high achiever mormon (he-he-he) I agree that family presents a conflict to “high achieving” but I must go with McKay’s “no other sucess compensates for failure in the home.” There is just such high achieving in the home that isn’t measured by the outside world (not even your own children will recognize it for years to come ;) And I have friends who are “high achievers” who have sacrificed family for it and told me that if they did it again would never have chosen that path. And my motto is “time and season”, there is time to be a high achiever in the worlds eyes after the kids don’t need me.
    Thanks for getting me thinking

  2. Jonathan Green says:

    My first reaction was that the article sounded like a bunch of nonsense. Now that I’ve read the article, I’m tempted to call it something less flattering.

    To cite but one sentence: “In spite of inspired teachings which assert that the discovery of all truth comes from the same divine source and that ‘all truth can be circumscribed into one great whole,’ non-LDS scholars and artists are responsible for the overwhelming majority of the world’s significant advances in the fields of knowledge.”

    Cute. First they raise the rhetorical stakes as high as one can in Mormon discourse, then they follow up with an utterly ridiculous comparison. Who writes this stuff? Who edits it?

    The article assumes that Mormons are by nature dogmatic, conventional, devoted to orthodoxy. Who says so? The majority of members today are converts who cast aside family tradition and majority culture to join the Church. The authors treat orthodoxy in an LDS context as if it were somehow the equivalent of Orthodox Judaism. There’s more, but this is enough.

    Look, I understand the tension between professional achievement and church and family commitments. The authors discuss issues that concern me and frustrations I’ve felt. But the article strikes me as a great personally essay morphed into a shambling mess of a sociological study.

  3. To some extent, I agree with the Rectors. I would add that much of the great art in the world was inspired by a level of suffering that isn’t really encouraged in our society. We prefer our saints to be well adjusted rather than tormented.

    But on the other hand, I think that sometimes we overlook just what a good thing our culture has.

    Back in the 1960s, mainstream intellectual thought executed an almost universal backlash and rejection of “old ideas,” “old books,” and “old dead white men.” The idea was that all human acheivement up to that point was just an accumulation of filth that had to be purged away before we could truly behold the human experience.

    It was an idealistic, but incredibly arrogant and shallow movement. Hundreds of years of Western acheivement were left to rot while the new intellectuals set out to reinvent the wheel.

    Our society stills suffers from this “cultural revolution.” I think there is a real intellectual shallowness in our art, philosophy and music.

    It is revealing that the supposed pinnacle of musical acheivement in the USA today is the band U2 (if you believe the Grammys). Now, I like U2 just as much as the next guy. But comparing them with the likes of Beethoven, Mozart and Rachmaninoff is just ridiculous. They aren’t even close to the same level.

    Look at modern art forms as well. Pee in a cup, drop a crucifix in it and you’ve got “really moving art.”

    Yeah, sure …

    As Tom Stoppard said:

    “Discipline without creativity has given us many useful objects, like woven baskets for instance.
    Creativity without discipline has given us modern art.”

    When lamenting the fact that LDS folk aren’t winning any contemporary prizes for their artwork, one should keep in mind that much of modern art is rubbish. It’s not really a club that we should be all gonzo to break into.

    Now, I said that the old things have been discarded and rejected by our intellectuals and our society.

    This isn’t as true at BYU (yes, conversations on this topic must inevitably bring up BYU). BYU still holds a great deal of respect for the “old things.” The classics are still held in high esteem there.

    Furthermore, there is a vast amount of musical talent on the Wasatch Front that I think simply doesn’t get enough credit.

    A while ago, my wife and I were comparing high school experiences. I told her about my participation in an “acappella choir” in my Utah high school. At my school, that choir was one of the most popular extra-curricular offerings around and attracted a wide range of people from various social groups. There were three full choirs at my school and we did a lot of performing and sounded pretty good (for high-schoolers). Regional competitions showed that similarly good choirs were at every single high school on the Wasatch Front.

    I remember, as a teenager, getting together with my buddies and heading over to the house of one of the girls we knew and having little “jam sessions” of various choral pieces with all four parts. One of the girls was inevitably an accomplished pianist (often the guys too, though not as often). It is never hard to find an accomplished pianist in Utah.

    Then my wife told me of her high school in California. While they had a good marching band, choir was pretty-much unheard of in the entire Sacramento area.

    None of the “gentile kids” were interested in choir. They all wanted to “do solo,” be the next Mariah Carey, or whatever. But the underlying discipline and skill and vocal training they could have gotten in a choir was absent.

    Another high school outside of Utah did have a choir. One of my friends was helping with it. He reported that, at one point, each vocal group split up to practice their parts (bass in one group, altos in another, and so forth). He was with the tenor group. He asked the young men if anyone in the group could play the tenor part on the piano. They said “no, we don’t have any Mormons in our group.”

    There really is a strong, and vibrant musical tradition happening in Utah that I think the original post is not giving due consideration.

    To wrap up a long an meandering post:

    We may not be “cutting edge,” but that doesn’t mean we have no talent. On the contrary, I think my people are extraordinarily talented.

    But our society may not be inclined at present to recognize this talent for what it is.

  4. There are some holes in the premise.

    Their argument reduces to this:

    1. Family and Church callings don’t provide time for genius to emerge.
    2. Mormons don’t push the envelope.
    3. Mormons are close-minded and dogmatic.
    4. Mormons don’t use the Spirit in their daily lives outside an ecclesiatical context.

    My thoughts on their arguments:

    1. Family and Church callings. That’s a red herring that is code for “I can’t believe Molly, who is such a gifted singer, gave it up to be a SAHM” (and bad code at that). Successful LDS businessmen have always had Church and family callings. Marriott was a stake president, and his son was a stake president, etc. The CEO of Dell is LDS. Many of the current Twelve were eminent scholars and businessmen and legal minds. I’m sure they gave time to family and Church callings. The original premise reduces to one where an individual has to suffer through a 100-hour-a-week life to achieve true breakthroughs and success.

    Yes, LDS women are traditionally underrepresented in these successes. But “traditional” LDS women are underrepresented in the workforce at a whole, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t celebrate the successes of LDS men. But wait a generation. Look in 20 years how many of today’s 20-year-old LDS women are successful businesswomen at 40.

    2. I don’t see any real evidence that Mormons don’t push the envelope within their respective domains. There are scores of successful young LDS scientists who are pushing conventions in their own fields.

    3. So to be a successful playwright, a Mormon has to eschew dogmatic convention? A Mormon artist has to give up her fundamental beliefs? Which dogmatic conventions? Does believing in gay marriage make Sally a better painter? Do they honestly believe that people who believe in a certain set of dogmas do NOT question assumptions in a non-religious context?

    4. I think they are completely wrong here.

    I would add a few thoughts:

    1. What domains are we to consider? Mormons have already made their mark in business, government, medicine, engineering, and athletics. Do those not count? Or are we only counting arts, literature, and non-LDS religious studies?

    2. Have they taken into account the relative percentage of LDS in any subpopulation relative to the whole? For every LDS insurance agent who hasn’t picked up a book in 20 years, how many Catholic or atheist insurance agents are there?

    3. I’m not sure using a popularity contest such as the Nobel Awards is an adequate basis for comparison. I think there’s a very GOOD reason why no Catholic or Mormon has won (and I haven’t perused the list, I’m going off what is cited above). The University of Chicago traditionally produces great economists (note, though, that economics is NOT a Nobel prize), but I wonder if that is partly due to inbreeding.

    4. Oft times, there is a huge gap between production and recognition. Are the high achievers in full gear now but won’t be recognized for another decade or two? That’s very frequently the case in the arts and the sciences.

    5. I think that a big issue here is that Mormons traditionally have not gone into the arts or soft sciences as a career. Insofar as their premise extends to this criticism, I agree. One aspect of Utah Mormon culture is the overarching focus on fiscally rewarding careers (the pioneer ethic did reward industriousness). But I think really think that this is changing, but it’s not an overnight change. Are Mormons more represented in arts, literature, and acting than they were 30 years ago? Yes. Has the success rate been staggering? No, but I think it is improving. The problem is that we listen too closely to guys like Dutcher who decry the commercialization of any LDS artistic effort, when it is precisely those people who will end up succeeding. There will be a promient, famous LDS producer making a blockbuster movie before there will be a blockbuster LDS-themed movie.

    The problem, as always, with these arguments is that the debate focuses more on the paucity of the obvious LDS content than the reputation of the LDS producer.

    6. The final argument at the end of the post ends up as a plea for more publication to Dialogue. OK, that’s great. I’m a Mormon with a (so-far) very small star shining in the field of artificial intelligence and linguistics, and I hope that star burns more brightly once I finish my dissertation. So I’m just waiting now for the special issue of Dialogue: Studies in Graph-Theoretic Algorithms to appear. I’ll even guest-edit, if you want. [Oh wait, you don’t want scientific articles in Dialogue? You only want Mormon studies and the arts? Phooey on you.]

  5. Re #4 and U2:

    I was in Ireland a few months ago and on a CD of “traditional Irish muzak” playing in a store, one of the songs was a U2 song (mingled with the traditional Celtic music).

    U2 has become a punchline to their own joke in the last few years. Their success in recent years says more about the hole that is modern music than anything about their talent. It’s analogous to what happens with NFL Pro Bowl voting with offensive linemen — once you’re voted in, you’re almost never voted out and succeed on reputation (witness Larry Allen). [Yes, I’m a football fan, and yes, that’s probably the first time anyone has linked U2 to the NFL in the Bloggernacle.]

  6. Levi Peterson says:

    Dear Queuno:

    You say in a comment above: “So I’m just waiting now for the special issue of Dialogue: Studies in Graph-Theoretic Algorithms to appear. I’ll even guest-edit, if you want. [Oh wait, you don’t want scientific articles in Dialogue? You only want Mormon studies and the arts? Phooey on you.]”

    I assumed that you would prefer to be published in a specialty journal. Also, you likely agree that the average Dialogue reader couldn’t read your article. Certainly I wouldn’t be able to. What would be fascinating is a personal essay from you on the relationship between your faith and your mathematical knowledge. The articulateness of your comment above suggests that such an essay would be a very competent one. If you ever write it, send it to us.


  7. Last Lemming says:

    The University of Chicago traditionally produces great economists (note, though, that economics is NOT a Nobel prize), but I wonder if that is partly due to inbreeding.

    It is truly saddening to learn that Milton Friedman, Robert Solow, Paul Samuelson, and at least 35 others were lying on their resumes for so many years.

    I am still puzzling over the inbreeding comment.

  8. Eric Russell says:

    I just thinking that maybe “non-LDS scholars and artists are responsible for the overwhelming majority of the world’s significant advances in the fields of knowledge” because non-LDS people make up the overwhelming majority of the world’s population.

  9. My thoughts exactly, Eric (#8). The percentage of Americans who identify themselves as Mormon is what? 1%? Is the percentage of American high achievers (how one would define this, I don’t know) who are Mormon significantly less than 1%? Without these data I don’t know how you can make a case that Mormons are underachieving.

    I have problems with other elements of the Rectors’ argument as summarized in Levi’s post but they do highlight some of the tensions that I experience as an academically successful (so far) Mormon. I have thought a lot about what I should aim for and what I should expect of myself in my professional endeavors, and I have found that my Mormon ideals do impose some limitations and they do influence my professional goals.

    Success in academic science is a lot easier to achieve if you’re single into your thirties or if you have dogs instead of kids. In biological sciences, at least, the system is set up so that you don’t make enough money to support a family until nine or ten years after you graduate from college. I made the choice to be married and have a family at a young age, not because that’s what was expected of me, but because having a family was/is more important to me than being a prominent scientist. So when I get my PhD within the next couple of years (I hope) I’ll have to choose between either enduring four more years of near poverty and all the stress and anxiety that that entails or taking an easier path that will pay more money quicker. At this point I doubt that I’ll ever be a prominent scientist. But it doesn’t really matter to me because I’ll be content with being financially secure and having time to spend with my family. So in some sense I might be an example in support of part of the Rectors’ argument.

    I do have to dispute the assertion that Mormons are dogmatic and therefore less likely to question assumptions and advance knowledge. I don’t think being a Mormon is an intellectual handicap in any way. If there’s real evidence to the contrary, I’d like to see it and analyze it. In the absence of such evidence, making that assertion is just insulting.

  10. John Mansfield says:

    Last Lemming, the economists you’re thinking of received the Bank of Sweden Prize. “The Economics Prize is not a Nobel Prize.” The 2004 winners, Kydland and Prescott are indeed claiming Nobel Prizes, however, perhaps for the sake of brevity and clarity.

  11. Jonathan Green says:

    The part of the article that annoys me most is the fourth section, “We may not use the Spirit as well as we could.” To which I respond, yes, absolutely, we keep hearing things like that in general conference. And then the authors point out that the Spirit influences all scientists and artists, not just the Mormon ones, and I respond again, yes, absolutely. And then come suggestions that LDS scholars are too prideful (we all are, right…?) and that churchgoing Mormons compartmentalize the spiritual aspects of their lives (…?) and suddenly we’ve arrived in Bizarro World, where atheist scientists are more sensitive to the promptings of the Spirit than Mormon scientists (rather than merely, say, a hundred times more numerous).

    I think the Rectors also overlook the significance of serving missions as an obstacle to Mormons entering the elite of some fields (because the elite is what the article is about–Nobel-prize-level accomplishment, not about mundane things like writing a Newbery honor book, and certainly not about a preference for underachieving). In some fields of science and the arts, the ages of 19-21 are when future stars often make a splash as Wunderkinder, and if you disengage from your field then, you may not get another shot at it. Call it the Shawn Bradley Dilemma.

  12. I agree with Eric and Tom, statistically Mormons probably do much better than presented here. The examples used are men of the past, before the church was even restored, Newton, Bach, etc. What about those who have accomplished so much, so with recognition some none…because of who they are.

    Joseph Smith, what did he accomplish?, Brigham Young, (humanitarian – spiritual) Henry Eyring, Philo Dibble (scientific), many other scientists including ones who developed the artificial diamond, co-ox(spelling) pain inhibitoretc. Give us a break!!

  13. a random John says:

    The following is not meant to start a flame war. Really.

    Could one reason for this be that we encourage out best and brightest youngsters to go to BYU while other communities encourage them to go to the best academic schools?

  14. Interesting post, for sure. While I agree with several of Levi’s points, I disagree with his main premise that we don’t already have an abundance of LDS ‘overachievers’ in the U.S. I live and work in New York City and know of several prominent LDS “overachievers” who are well recognized in their fields: the arts, graphic design, photography, finance, business, etc. And while these people might not be household names, they are certainly known and respected within their fields of expertise. So until I see hard stats that show me otherwise, I’ll assume we as a people—in terms of achievement—are statistically the same as any other religious group in America.

  15. arJ,

    I doubt it. Kids who go to BYU and then go to graduate school somewhere else usually do well and have no problem competing.

  16. Interesting. I was reffered to that article once when I wrote a piece on my reasons why Mormon’s will never have their “fair share” of greatness in the fine arts.

    My major criticisms: In my doctoral research, I overturned a century of thought in my little aspect of research. The gospel and the spirit helped me do it. If I had to guess, I think that the Rectors are saying the same thing I have heard Quinn state elsewhere: that Mormon’s are not taught to think critically, they are taught to obey. Meh. While I agree that you won’t find the cutting edge thought being championed in some departments at BYU, the statement as a generalization goes contrary to all that I have experienced.

    Queno states that our apostles are great examples of excellence. Sure they are very successful; but, out of the ballpark extraordinary they are not…now Henry Erying – he was out of the ballpark.

    The reason that I think that we will not have our “fair share” let alone an abundance of stars in certain areas are twain. First (and I trained operetically), to be a great singer, for example, you pretty much have to “consecrate” all that you have for it. Mormons have other things that they are committed to. Second, we are pragmatists. As Tom said, we want to have families, which complicates decision making for selfish endevours.

  17. J.,

    My problem with the Rectors is the idea that if you are not out of the ballpark extraordinary, that makes you an UNDERachiever. I don’t buy it.

  18. Just as an aside, J. reminded me of this: when I was in my first year of grad school I was using the flourimeter of a really old scientist in my department. When he found out I was a Mormon the first thing he asked me about was Henry Eyring (then he asked me about evolution, then alcohol). This is a guy who has spent his entire carreer in a biology department on the East Coast and he knew about Henry Eyring. Yeah, he was out of the ballpark.

  19. John Rector says:

    This is my first visit to a blog site. Heady stuff… I appreciate Levi’s intriguing question (“do Mormons prefer to be underachievers?”), his inclusion of our article in the discussion, and his providing a nice summary of our article. I also appreciate all the differring sentiments regarding the article and the ideas we bring up, even the individual who says the article is “nonsense at best.” Well, maybe so. However, this same individual did acknowledge that the article addresses “…frustrations he’s felt” and “issues which concern him.” We never claimed to be writing a sociological study with this paper. Rather, we were simply advancing opinions based on our own observations, thinking, and life experiences. Let me say just a few more things about the article and its contents, and then I’ll step back.

    The article’s genesis goes back to my graduate school days when I read Dr. Allen Bergin’s paper entitled, “Bringing the Restoration to the Academic World.” Dr. Bergin (a noted psychologist in his own right) asserted–and he referenced numerous LDS luminaries in doing so–that all knowledge comes from the same divine source, and that because we as Latter-day Saints are in unique possession of the gift of the Holy Ghost, we should surpass our non-LDS counterparts in achievement and the discovery of scientific truth. It seemed to me self-evident that this had not occurred (nor do I believe this has occurred ten years later). I started to wonder why, and our article is the fruit of that wonderment.

    It’s not that we Mormons don’t achieve significantly at times in our respective academic and artistic fields. Certainly we do. But I don’t think anyone would dispute the fact that Mormons have not made the sort of big “dent” foretold by our spiritual leaders. In other words, we are not leading the world in the arts and sciences. If anyone out there seriously disputes this claim, I would be very interested in seeing the evidence to the contrary showing that we Latter-day Saints really are the world’s leaders in things scientific and artistic (the world just doesn’t realize it yet, I suppose).

    If one were to attempt to lump together in a sort of stereotypical way one religious group as being responsible for much more than their fair share of world-class advances in the arts and sciences, it would have to be the Jews, who have only two-tenth-of-one-percent of the world’s population (interestingly, roughly the same proportion as Mormons), but account for more than 17% of all Nobel and Pulitzer prizes awarded. Perhaps a more meaningful paper and attending discussion might focus on attempting to explain just why this is the case…

    Now a note on why include the Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes in the analysis… While recognizing their limitations as a way of attempting to measure world-class achievement in the arts and sciences (e.g., political intrigues, who knows who, who’s been able to get all the funding for research, etc.), we decided to focus on the Nobel and Pulitzer lists simply because these are the most well-known, well-documented, and well-respected hallmarks of world-achievement.

    Let me also respond for a moment to the question of whether or not Mormons are dogmatic by nature. If Mormons are “by nature” dogmatic, they are only representative of the larger whole. While there are individual differences, I do think that human beings are by nature dogmatic, and that dogmatism is an aspect of most of our natures which is very difficult to overcome (even for those of us who really try). Regarding Jonathan Green’s allegation that Mormons do not tend to be dogmatic due to the fact that many of them converted to Mormonsism from something else, many times in the face of adversity and opposition; I believe that often, what this amounts to is simply exchanging one set of dogmatically held beliefs for another. This is a comment not on the quality or veracity of Mormon beliefs, but rather, a comment about human beings who tend to tenaciously cling to explanations of the universe in order to deal with core, existential issues. It has been my experience that our Mormon culture does not encourage the questioning of numerous of our Western cultural perspectives and practices, let alone Mormon-specific doctrines and assumptions. This has many benefits for us as members of the church. But I think it also has some fallout, such as our inability to yet live up to the inspired vision of our past leaders with respect to the issues we address in our paper.

    In closing, let me clarify “the record” about Catholic Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners:

    Individuals from Catholic backgrounds have actually won many Nobel and Pulitzer prizes (incidentally, for those who haven’t read our article, we found no Mormon Nobel winners unless you count Paul Boyer who had his name removed from the records of the Church years before he won his prize, and 4 Pulitzer winners, including Stephen Benson who was excommunicated before his prize). What is interesting, however, is that Catholics are substantially underepresented in Prizes based on their numbers in the population at-large, while individuals of Protestant backgrounds have won a proportion of Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes roughly equal to their numbers in the population. Why might this be the case? What might it be about Protestantism and Catholicism which might help explain the differences?

  20. While I disagree with the generalizations of the article, I do feel huge conflicts about artistic production as an LDS woman artist. There’s this sense that unless I am stellar, it’s not “worth” the sacrifice of family time, church time, etc. to become accomplished, not to mention the pressure to “not work” in the first place.

    There’s also this sense that the visual arts are superfluous/ not serious/ non-essential. Well they’re essential to me! But I still feel selfish whenever I devote significant amounts of time to studio work.

    There’s the additional sense that LDS artists “should” be producing religious work in a way that professionals in other fields are not pressured, IMO. I’m not interested in illustration, so I wouldn’t be adding to the distribution center’s resources.

    Some day I’ll paint again. But I doubt I’ll ever have the time or energy to become “great.”

  21. I have noticed in my academic career that most of my colleagues who are not devoting time to church and/or family to the extent that active Mormons might be are filling their time with other non-academic endeavors. For example: bird watching, sports, travel, wine-tastings, various community activites (city council meetings, etc). Additionally there is the impact that alcohol consumption (a very real issue among many academics that I know personally)has on the ability of persons to dedicate themselves to their careers (not everyone is Ernest Hemingway). Academics with families typically spend better quality time, and usually at least as much of it, on their scholarly work as their less family-church inclined peers.

  22. The second factor they cite is the value that Latter-day Saints place upon “conventionality, orthodoxy, and adherence to authority.”
    A third factor which the Rectors emphasize is dogmatism, or close mindedness. “Dogmatic individuals,” they declare, “do not question their assumptions …”

    I don’t have many data points about factors #1 and #4. But I totally agree with factors #2 and #3.

    I’ve often found that people in leadership positions of bishop and higher can usually (not always) think outside of the box. But among rank-and-file mormons, conventionality and only doing what you’re told is way too common.

    Things like: “we haven’t been told (or trained) to do that” or “we haven’t been given authority to do that” or “that’s not in the current program.”

    I totally agree with the Rectors on those two points. #2 is timidity, and #3 is arrogance. Both show a lack of faith, and both are common. One might think people like that could be in the camp of those whom the Lord condemned in Joseph Smith’s first vision, as “having a form of godliness [Mormonism], but denying the power thereof.”

    That said, I don’t think Mormons are poorly represented in the arts and sciences. refer: aka

    We need more Richard Dutchers. Go see his movies. Buy his DVDs. Help sponsor bringing his latest movie to your town.

  23. Pardon this interruption but I just posted (blogged?) to a Molly Bennion (comment, blog, posting?) at this site and much to my delight, discovered a link immediately appeared. Not only that, but Levi showed up here in my bed! How propitious! I don’t know how a stumbled upon this, but it was just after posting a Backslider review at Amazon. (They may not broadcast it since I indiscreetly bragged about being its first publisher.)

    Hi, Levi. Still a devote.

  24. Hey Scott Kenney,

    We hope you stick around. I still remember an essay or two of yours from years back with some fondness…

    Aaron B

  25. Jonathan Green says:

    John Rector: This individual would be pleased if you called me Jonathan. Welcome to BCC, I hope you’re enjoying the experience. I’m glad you read my two comments so far.

    While I agree that you’re looking at an interesting problem, I think your initial assumption is flawed. Yes, Mormons have been encouraged to excel in the arts and sciences. We have also been told to have perfect faith. Few or none of us have achieved perfect faith, but perfect faith is still worth striving for, and still worth encouraging people to seek. Likewise, a Mormon Shakespeare is a worthy goal. That we haven’t seen one yet is not a grand failure in the project of Mormonism.

    I disagree with your methodology. The fields in which a Nobel or Pullitzer prize is awarded are a very limited spectrum of human accomplishment, and the prize winners are a very small subset of the leaders in a field. I agree you’re working on a difficult problem, but I don’t see what the Nobel prize data, particularly, is going to show you. It’s an impossibly high but also arbitrary standard that doesn’t give you useful results. So no Mormon has won a Nobel for literature. Neither did Tolstoy. What does that tell us?

    I don’t think that most of your hypotheses are at all appropriate to the problem you’re working on. I agree that marriage and family patterns might be a factor, but otherwise you’re not looking at institutional issues (which I think are far greater factors) but rather at habits of mind, as if there is something about the way Mormons think that prevents us from being world-class leaders in our fields. Frankly, I find that notion insulting. I don’t like how the article takes your subjective impressions–which you are entitled to–and generalizes them into statements on how all Mormons tend to think and act. If you find that everybody tends to be dogmatic, then dogmatism loses it’s explanatory force for Mormon underachievement, no?

    If you’re going to try to tie a purported failure of Mormons to achieve at the highest elite levels to the character of Mormonism, then you can’t ignore the Mormon discourse on worldly honors and the praises of men, which seems more directly relevant than dogmatism and conventionality.

  26. Paul Ramsell says:

    While LDS people are indeed just a blip on the world’s population map, so are Jewish people. But one interesting thing is that while Mormon’s and Jews are both disproportionately represented in odd places like the U.S. Congress, Jews have an amazing and vastly disproportionate record of performance in science, arts and finance.

    My quick google revealed that Jewish people — which account for less than .5% of the world’s population — account for high percentages of Nobel Prize winners:

    Economy: 40%
    Medicine: 28%
    Physics: 26%
    Chemistry: 18%
    Literature: 11%
    Peace: 8%

    Maybe we are underachievers.

  27. a random John says:

    Mark IV,

    I hardly see how that makes for an open and shut case. Surely you thing that the situation is a bit more complex than that.

    Wouldn’t encouraging our best to settle for a third tier school for undergraduate education send a message about achievement in general?

  28. Jonathan Green says:

    Sorry, arJ. According to US News & World Report, whose rankings are as use[less|ful] as any out there, BYU is not in the third tier. It’s #71 on the list of national universities, an entirely respectable place for it to be. The third tier starts at #121. Of course, you might define tiers differently than USN&WP does. BYU grads go on to earn advanced degrees in numbers that rival or surpass the largest flagship state universities and Ivies, which is a pretty good indication that BYU’s undergrads are being well prepared in their fields. For the question at hand about Nobel-level elite performance, I don’t think the undergraduate institution makes much difference one way or another. I know it’s been a long time since the last “beat down on BYU” thread, but you’ll just have to be patient.

  29. R.W. Rasband says:

    Mormons are taught to think of themselves as members of a collective (church and family) first and only secondly as individuals. The hard core of “selfishness” which genius and achievement often requires does not come easily to many LDS people.

  30. The single most important thing LDS parents want for their children is that they remain LDS. Everything else is secondary. Interests, goals and objectives that have the potential to steer young people on a path other than continued church membership are discouraged and sometimes outright forbidden.

    Achieving out-of-the-ballpark greatness often (usually?) requires sacrifice of the very things that LDS are taught that they need to do sooner rather than later. It also requires a single-mindedness that is anathema to how the church functions – 80 hour work weeks don’t leave a man much time to build the kingdom.

    It doesn’t help that the curriculum in the Young Women’s program for 12-18 year olds is focussed on temple marriage and motherhood. Anything else they are taught in YW is an adjunct to achieving those objectives. When 50% (or more) of your faithful young people are actively discouraged from aspiring to greatness outside the sphere of home and family, then it’s no wonder we have so few out-of-the-ballpark notables.

    For the majority of young people, the church’s teachings don’t hinder their achievement of greatness, because few of us have that potential. We all think we can grow up to be President, but the reality is, only 42 men (and no women) have done it in over 200 years.

    On the other hand, if some young Latter-day Saint woman does have that spark of greatness inside, she’d better also have a very strong will, and the focus and desire to achieve that potential in spite of great opposition. Otherwise the church will squash it right out of her.

  31. a random John says:

    Jonathan Green,

    My point isn’t to bash on BYU and I’d rather not focus on that aspect of the discussion. I’ll admit to not having looked up the rankings for my comment. I have a simplistic model that goes like this:

    1. Elite universities.
    2. Research universities.
    3. Universities with some graduate programs.

    In any case, I’m willing to call it mid second tier for the purposes of this discussion, as the point is the same.

    Many LDS place importance on aspects of college life other than academic excellence and thus consider BYU to be the ideal university. Students that are academically qualified to go to elite institutions are encouraged to instead attend BYU.

    In some ways this issue might be considered a microcosm of this entire discussion. Our priorities are different from those of the world and that might make us less likely to achieve some of the accolades of the world.

    An inability to face this fact might simply be further evidence of it.

  32. arJ: “Our priorities are different from those of the world and that might make us less likely to achieve some of the accolades of the world.”

    I think this is enough to explain any failure of Mormons to achieve proportionally. Any other factors, like a putative intellectual handicap (which I don’t think we have), play a miniscule role in comparison.

  33. aRJ,

    I’m not convinced that BYU is a bad influence here. I have spent time at several universities, including BYU and Stanford. Based on my experience, there are only a very small number of colleges and universities that would likely provide a better undergraduate education than BYU, and BYU is as good or better than most of the institutions ranked above it. I know in some fields BYU is extremely successful in placing students in top graduate programs, but perhaps in other fields not so much.

    Furthermore, I’m not sure that the pressure to go to BYU is all that strong…I certainly never felt that way. Many people go there because it is inexpensive, but these people would likely be drawn towards state universities otherwise, and there are few state (if any) state universities that provide a clearlly better education than BYU.

  34. As far as the topic of this thread goes, I think we may be confusing religion with culture. It is clear to me that there are large differences in “achievement” between different cultures, but I think it is spurious to attribute those differences primarily to religion.

    There is no doubt that jews have been disproportionately successful in many fields (including those that don’t have Nobel prizes, like law and entertainment.) But most of these have been secular jews, or in some cases even jewish converts to Christianity. Catholics in the USA may have achieved less than protestants, but catholics in Italy started the Rennaissance. France is a catholic country, and has probably produced more “achievements” than anywhere else. And most protestant sub-cultures in the USA haven’t been especially high achievers, either. And who knows what groups will produce the most superstars in coming generations?

    I don’t think it makes any sense to say that mormons have under-achieved just because we can’t compete with the jews…who can? Given our small numbers, my guess is that we do as well or better than average. Still, I think it’s fair to say that some of the more outlandish predictions of mormon supremacy in the arts and sciences have not yet come to pass, and to wonder if they ever will.

  35. Eric Russell says:

    I’m now understanding that “underachiever” is intended to mean anything short of the very best of the best.

    In that case, I say Mormons do prefer to be underachievers. I think the article’s reason #1 catches the most of it. Despite a few G.A. quotes encouraging excellence in all fields, I don’t think we believe that worldly greatness is really what the Lord desires most for us. No success can compensate for failure inside the home. Not even Nobel success.

  36. Based on my experience, there are only a very small number of colleges and universities that would likely provide a better undergraduate education than BYU, and BYU is as good or better than most of the institutions ranked above it.

    I agree. As an undergrad top ranked and intense research programs don’t mean that much if the undersgraduate education one gets there is lacking. The important thing to an undergrad is learning the basics. The need for prestige starts in Graduate School and above. The only perk for attending research universities as an undergrad is the fact that your professors will likely be smarter and more committed, and that you might have a chance to participate in research as an undergrad.

    I will also agree that most parents aren’t sending their kids to BYU for a quality education (even if they will get a quality education there). Parents send them there to meet a nice mormon girl/boy and get married.

  37. a random John says:

    Again, my point isn’t to argue the merits of BYU. These protestations that are taking the form of, “Even if it isn’t the best (but it is despite the rankings) it doesn’t influence LDS achievement.” Which is exactly the attitude that I’m claiming is relevant.

    I’m not saying any of this to be critical of BYU. Most LDS would rather get to the Celestial Kingdom than win an earthly prize, which is as it should be. Many see BYU as a way of helping on the path to the CK and that takes priority.

  38. Paul (#26), what percentage of those Jews were practicing Jews? My understanding is that while there are many, many people of Jewish background who excel in both the arts and the sciences, most are at best ethnic Jews but not really religious Jews. If we include them then we can include many Mormons who have a social/ethnic connection but aren’t active.

    I’d add that I don’t think the Nobel prize is perhaps the best way to judge this simply because so few prizes are given out. But I’m not sure of a better one. There was a debate a few years back over whether Mormons produced more scientists. But there is always the question of how to determine who are the prominent scientists and how to relate that to their Mormon background. So there probably will be no agreement.

  39. Paul Ramsell says:

    Clark, I have no answer to the practicing Jew question but you make a good point. There are quite a few highly successful Mormons who have drifted away, and maybe we should still get credit for their achievement.

  40. I can’t help but wonder how much of our view of “what is real?” as well as how different members of the Church should be from the rest of “the world” contributes to any perceived lack of achievement. With our focus on mortal life as being a temporary and short (albeit necessary) blip on the timeline to eternity, it would almost seem to preach a downplaying of worldly accomplishments.

    And if you buy into Nibley’s thinking that the choice between Zion and Babylon is becoming more and more polarized as time goes on, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that those who attempt to make Zion their preferred choice are rejecting the competitiveness that seems to be inherent in Babylon. It’s hard to promote competition in an environment that values the idea of being of one heart and one mind above pretty much everything else.

    Can one be an overachiever in a non-competitive environment? I would hope so, but I doubt that Babylon is ready to shower accolades on those who achieve in ways that go counter to the ideals of Babylon. After all, is it Zion or is it Babylon who gets to decide where the values of world lie so far as achievement goes?

  41. I find this topic interesting as I look back on some of the choices I made in my education and that I make now in my profession.

    I know now that I was naive when I was choosing which scholarships to accept as an undergraduate (I had very good ACT scores). I was intent on going on a mission, and I wanted to be sure that my mission wouldn’t be the cause of losing a scholarship, so I chose BYU. Then, as I was preparing for law school, since I was still unmarried, I wanted to be somewhere that I knew I would have a good chance to find an LDS mate–BYU again. Although my LSAT score was high enough to get scholarship offers from other good schools (and admission with financial assistance to some of the elites), I stayed with BYU.

    Had I been more aware of thriving LDS communities in other universities, I am certain I would have broadened my search. Would I have received a better education? Knowing me, I probably would have, since I would have been more aware of the quality of competition, and would have worked harder to meet it. As it was, there weren’t very many other students that I thought measured up to me. I mean, c’mon, I had a roommate who had a 0.7 GPA the year before his mission because all he did was ski his freshman year.

    And now? I am an attorney working as a civil service employee for the Air Force. I could be working in a more prestigious firm, making a lot more money, but I make enough to pay my bills, have a few extras, and have almost every night and weekend to spend with my family. Maybe I am an underachiever. Luckily, we have Nate and Kaimi (among others) to represent for LDS lawyers, and I can be satisfied with simply doing good work, and having the only cases I lose be ones where the court/board/agency decides to use my case to create new law.

  42. My comments may echo a few others already made – particularly Eric Russel (#35).

    I think to predict that the spirit will inspire mormons to high achievement in worldly pursuits is an unwise prediction. Ultimately the spirit would be our only possible claim to ‘advantage’. And we do not have an exclusive claim. But the spirit’s role is to testify of Christ and to lead us to eternal life. Yes he can lead to all truth, but some truths are more valuable than others.

    Eternally speaking we may eventally praise the greatness of a few stay-at-home moms more so than the Shakespears of the world. This may seem sappy, but some simple things contribute more to the work and glory of God than others.

  43. Excellent points by everyone. Wow Im glad they wrote this article and started this discussion, my husband and I discuss this frequently and it is great to hear the opinions of others. As far as science, and even literature (though we certainly could be better), are concerned, I don’t think we can be considered underacheivers. Certaintly not in the world of business and law (CEO of Dell etc and multiple politicians could be pointed out). However, what we do seem to be HUGE underacheivers in is the arts. While NYC might be a microcosm of overachieving artists, this is hardly representative. BYU has been discussed, and while it is a great school in many fields – the ARTS is definitly not one of them (though it is improving). Many of the reasons for artistic underachievment have been mentioned by seth above, and allow me to share a few anecdotel examples:
    (1) My best friend from HS was an amazing artist. He won national awards. After hs – mission. After mission- BYU to study pre-law because “no mormon father would allow their daughter to marry an artist” He had to to have a good normal lds job to get a good lds girl. Now, when following that conventional mormon – culture wisdom (instead of using his talents to decide on his occupation)has produced neither happiness or a wife, he is pursuing more artistic and risky endeavors in which he will no doubt be more sucessful becuase thats what hes talented in.
    (2)A piano prodigy and this years valedictorian of a VERY competivitve HS with a grad class of over 1000 is going to Julliard. Well, as this kid is LDS this has caused all kinds of ruccous in the ward as to why his parents would allow him to do such a thing intead of go to BYU. No lie people are outraged.

    So, yes, in the arts as a group we tend to be underacheivers – we fear success means failure in teh home. But David O. McKay never said we cannot succeed in the home AND outside of it. We mangae to succee in business, politics, sports…why not in the art, ertertainment, media where a presence and need is soo needed for altertaive voices and sources? Why not encourage kids to follow their talents (which we teach are God-given) instead of just going to BYU getting a sales job and having a paycheck to feed their kids? Arent they doing their own kids a disservice?

  44. Steve McIntyre says:

    In a First Presidency Message on “The Gospel Vision of the Arts,” President Kimball said,

    “In our world, there have risen brilliant stars in drama, music, literature, sculpture, painting, science, and all the graces. For long years I have had a vision of members of the Church greatly increasing their already strong positions of excellence till the eyes of all the world will be upon us” (Ensign, July 1977).

    He then quotes John Taylor as saying,

    “You mark my words, and write them down and see if they do not come to pass.

    “You will see the day that Zion will be far ahead of the outside world in everything pertaining to learning of every kind as we are today in regard to religious matters” (Sermon, September 20, 1857; see The Messenger, July 1953).

    I really don’t think we’ve gotten there yet. I wouldn’t say we’re underachievers, per se, but there’s certainly room for future growth.

  45. For what its worth, my brother is a very gifted artist and was a fine arts major before he went on his mission. However, upon returning from his mission he announced that he was switching his major to business, primarily because he was concerned that he could not earn a good living as an artist. He was concerned that he would not be able to find a “neat” girl to marry him — no good LDS parent would permit their daughter to marry an artist.

    In the legal field, where I work, my observation is that there are not many super-successful mormon lawyers. My theory is that many LDS attorneys are not willing to make the time and family sacrifices that are (unfortunately) necessary to reach the pinnacle of this profession. I think that is true of many professions.

    But isn’t that a good thing? Personally I am constantly and willingly making professional sacrifices (i.e. less time at the office) in order to have a good marriage and a good relationship with my children. How many of those Nobel prize winners have been divorced multiple times?

  46. Porter, this is exactly what deppresses me about LDS people as they are choosing their occupation – they use something other than their talents to dictate what they will persue in life. There in an undercurrent in the culture that art is a ‘hobby’ and business/law/medicine are professions for good Priesthood holding fathers and husbands. This is so totally false and such a disservice to all those out there who are so unbelievably talented and yet receive the mixed message from family/leaders to hide this type of talent…Sure you may not be able to be a succesful artist in whatever field w/o a good knowledge of business etc, but how is it good advice to pursue a path far removed from the talents we believe come from God. Surely he gives us our talents for our benifit and the benifit of others (including our family). Maybe we would have less mid-life crisis if people chose a career path according to talent and interest instead of according to pay grade and what impressess girls and their parents…

  47. Veritas,

    As much as I hate to admit it, I am afraid a lot of what you are saying is true. In my own case, I was both in the jazz band and president of the choir in high school, and was seriously considering majoring in music in college. I was talked out of it both by my parents and by my high school counselor. Now the closest I get to displaying my music talents or indulging my love of music is as the Primary pianist. I also know a world-class organist/award-winning composer who chose medicine because organists don’t make a lot of money. He is the sacrament meeting organist of one of the branches we used to attend.

    But what is the answer? My parents were doing the best they knew in their limited Utah-centric worldview. If they had been more aware of other options to me, they would have encouraged me towards them. Maybe as it becomes less of a Utah church, those other options may seem more obtainable to members. I don’t know where I would be had I followed my first love, music, or if I had been encouraged to see the more elite (than BYU) schools as realistic possibilities.

    I’m not saying I would have been the Mormon Shakespeare or John Coltrane, or even the Mormon Larry Tribe, but for whatever reason my sights weren’t set as high as they could have been, and I am where I am because of that. I am living a good life, but not an extraordinary one. Do I prefer to be an underachiever? Every decision has its price, and if that’s how you see my choices, then I guess I do, and I’m not alone.

  48. MikeInWeHo says:

    Once in a while this non-member friend and observer just has to speak up with….

    It’s surprising to read you all agonizing over being possible under-achievers. In the U.S., the LDS population is viewed as very successful by the rest of the population. I’d say it’s quite similar to how the Jewish community is viewed. Education is highly valued, affluence is evident, and political clout is out of proportion to your numbers. Outside the U.S., the church is viewed as a gateway to an American-style middle class life (whether or not that’s a good thing is perhaps best discussed in another string!).

    Other than the dubious assertion that Catholics and Mormons are less likely to win Nobel prizes or some-such, I see no evidence to support the under-achieving premise. Anecdotally, it seems quite the reverse to me. One suspects the LDS population has an above-average higher education rate, household incomes, etc. We KNOW you have less lifestyle-related diseases and a longer life expectancy. Perhaps someone else can quote evidence to support this.

    Must admit, this string seems a bit neurotic to me. Does one need a Nobel Prize or Academy Award to be considered an over-achiever? Perhaps what you really need is a few more good Mormon psychotherapists! : )

  49. Personally, I think that much of our society’s currently lauded artwork is a bit overrated.

    Too much of it is motivated by shallow and transient fad ideals of our pop culture.

    We don’t need to cry if Mormons are slow to pick up on our culture’s current selection of rubbish.

    But I do think a more in-depth vision of our theology would be a nice motivator for Mormon art. Most of the current offerings of BoM depictions admittedly don’t have that sort of depth.

  50. We may not be smarter, but a new study shows that we are 4.6 pounds fatter than other religions.

    Money quote: “Merrill’s study suggests LDS Church members may be using excessive eating as a substitute for other socially accepted sources of enjoyment, like smoking and drinking, that the church prohibits.”

    Sorry this should probably be its own string.

  51. Ditto MikeInWeHo

  52. A friend of mine is a talented musician. Although he plays many instruments, what he does best and enjoys the most is playing jazz piano. But years ago he decided that the life of a musician – late nights, long performance tours away from home, etc. – did not match up with what he percieved to be a healthy and righteous family life. So he went to law school and became a lawyer. He has never worked in a law firm. He has been a corporate lawyer throughout his career. It has been years since I’ve seen him but on our last visit he seemed satisfied with his life. But I couldn’t help but feel that he was feeling he had compriomised something. He still plays with a jazz trio on weekends and at special events.

    It seems that his example shows what we all know – our lives are mostly about the choices we make. Steve young played football on Sundays for years. I’d be willing to bet that he wished the games were on Saturdays but never-the-less he made that choice. Now he’s in the Hall of Fame. Was it worth it? Only he can answer that question.

    Years ago I was working in a church calling with a young father who had just moved into our ward. He asked me what my profession was and I told him I was an architect. He said that he wanted to be an architect “but BYU didn’t have an architecture program.” So, in this case, he changed his whole life plan because attending BYU was more important to him than following his professional aspirations. This seemed odd (wrong) to me but perhaps to my friend it was just another choice to be made.

    Is a Nobel Prize or Pulitzer Prize the only way to gauge success? Will our lack of Nobel and Pulitzer winners as a religious organization have a negative impact on our perception in the world? Is that what is important to us? It’s all about the choices.

  53. John Mansfield says:

    There was an obituary in Physics Today (I can’t remember whose) that included reminiscence of a conversation. Approximately, “There are two kinds of physicists: those who as a boy had trouble with their crystal set, and those who had trouble with their God.”

  54. Interesting debates and views, and I have only one observation – regardless of whether or not Mormons actually are underachievers or do contribute signifcantly to various advances in knowledge and culture, Mormon society seems to obsessed with trying to prove that Mormons ARE representative of the best. At every chance, any Mormon who has achieved anything newsworthy (not to say newsworthy is indicative of high achievement) Mormons seem eager to trumpet the slightest hint of the extraordinary, and highlight the Mormonness of the individual, where in the views of most people religion would be irrelevant to the particular successes of the individual. I am tempted to psychologize the tendency and say it is a compensation for some sort of collective inferiority complex and the achievements of members of the community wash all Mormons clean of the rejection and derision the religion was subjected to during its history.

  55. It is interesting that the Rectors characterize our inability or unwillingness to access the same energies that inspired secular artists like (my choices) William Burroughs, James Joyce, DH Lawrence, Henry Miller or Phillip K. Dick, as not using “…the Spirit as well as we could” – if I’m not stretching their point by taking as my examples superior and original writers who are nonetheless on the far arms of the galaxy. By that reasoning I think you’d have to say that their definition of “Spirit” is broad indeed, which I would certainly endorse; but it is not a definition with which the vast majority of Saints would be familiar, not to mention comfortable.

    On the other hand, there are now 55 responses on this post and only two or three that suggest their authors understand the place and function of a writer in the modern world, or how anarchical and iconoclastic that kind of person must sometimes necessarily be. As recent history shows, especially BYU history, there is really no place for the literary artist in Mormon culture. It has ever been so, I’m afraid: The reward Maureen Whipple received from her small southern Utah community half a century ago for The Giant Joshua was ridicule and shunning so intense that, by the accounts of some who knew her, it drove her crazy. Were she still alive I’m sure she would empathize completely with any number of writers who have been driven from BYU.

    In our culture the young find little encouragement to think independently or to “examine every proposition” as that genuine treasure, Hugh B. Brown, begged us to do decades ago. From astonishing historical and metaphysical materials we have managed little – “a blip here, a blip there” (to turn a modern aphorism on its head). Going beyond the culture, or even beyond the Gospel in artistic pursuit of truth and beauty carries with it the risk of damnation, or so our leaders would have us believe. But going beyond is, ironically, the only way to make great Mormon art.

  56. I wanted to follow up to #7s rejoinder to my “inbreeding” comment to the UC Econ faux-Nobel thing.

    Let me rephrase – since “inbreeding” is probably not the correct phrase…

    I wonder if the fact that UC has engendered so many Econ prize winners is _because_ they are at UC. Does being at UC automatically boost any new economist into the upper echelon of Economics prizewinner candidates? Like Miami is Quarterback U (sorry BYU) and Penn State is Linebacker U, is the University of Chicago Economist U?

    I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing — but have economists at, say, the University of Montana been excluded because of the newest bright star at the University of Chicago?

    That’s another reason I distrust the premise — what LDS genius is teaching at The Directional Flyover State University at Podunkville that we don’t know about (and hasn’t yet been snapped up by an Ivy)? Are we saying that notoriety is a core aspect of achievement? Isn’t fame anathema to actual achievement?

    Does the Church need to sponsor a mid-conference session report on “famous contemporary Mormon scientists and artists”?

    In response to Levi’s invitation to write my own Dialogue commentary regarding faith and mathematics (or in my case, computer science), I just may take you up on that … as soon as I finish this %^&*! dissertation. I’ll email you privately.

  57. I think the concerns expressed here are real but temporary. I am a convert of 40 years and have seen a lot of growth in the Church in my days. My undergraduate university of Oklahoma went from being a small branch of grad students and one or two undergraduates, to several wards and a Stake center. As BYU can no longer take all the LDS college kids, it has improved its seminary program for other schools, while increasing the standards for BYU. All of this will improve our future chances of success as a people in being a light to the world.

    Steve B. mentions our pride (concern) about those who do succeed in being extraordinary. Steve, what do you thing Jewish families talk about around the dinner table? Why it is the success of their relatives, and impress on their children that they too should be a success in life. It works.

    Step 1 was when we out grew Utah and Zion became where ever the saints gathered.

    Step 2 is when we were accepted into different fields and in turn that field became a respected field in the dinner table talk. LDS got an early foothold in the FBI due to Hoover, and we are still very strongly represented there. Likewise political office is becoming a good field. I look especially at where LDS are elected by non-LDS populations – that is success. The discussion of Mitt Romney as being unelectable (to the office of President) due to his religion has yet to be overcome (Might not be a problem if he was a Harry Reed: i.e. a republican thing).

    Step 3 is when a field is open to us, is respected by us, and we send our talented sons and daughters off to their chosen fields of endeavors charged with the tradition to be the best they can. Then we will be one step closer to our Jewish brethren.

    I think it is just going to take time, and we have so much to offer the world.

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