The canon’s costs: instruction, boredom, and the incentive for repetition

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a question: is there a similar incentive in the LDS church to retain a small set of canonical scriptures and an often outdated set of instructional manuals?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.


  1. “it is rather obvious that the typical student is not stimulated to further reading and writing by an Austen novel”

    add the expression “….EVER” to the end of that sentence!

    I think you’re conflating scriptural canon with approved Church materials. Church materials (manuals, etc.) tend to be updated with some regularity (by regularity I am talking decades). As to the scriptural canon, I believe the only barrier is receiving important revelation on that level. I don’t think the Church would care about cost or convenience in that respect.

  2. Jonathan Green says:

    I don’t think boredom is a function of canonicity. People can still say boring things about new books. Our prophets manuals have all kinds of unfamiliar material in them, and people still complain about boring lessons.

  3. >…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.

    Actually, as a student, I never understood the institutional obsession with currency and newness in the literature that is taught. Perhaps the material gets old for those teaching it, but for a student who has never read Austen before, Austen is new–no matter how many times the school has taught it. I remain frustrated and occasionally embarrassed at some of the gaps in my reading list–some of the most “obvious” books were never covered because everybody assumed they were worn out or what have you. I understand it’s a balancing act, but the imbalance can go both ways.

  4. Interesting. I think Mormons tend to update cannon fairly frequently compared to the rest of the world religions. I also think the Church does a decent job with updating its Priesthood Manuals. Where your critique is most evident is CES (now SIR or whatever). Their materials are an embarrassment.

  5. Eric Russell says:

    Take your Austen hate elsewhere, Steve Evans.

    Natalie, one thing to keep in mind when we critique correlated material is that it’s being translated into a hundred languages and being taught to many new members worldwide. We may be using the same Sunday School manuals as years before, but most people have either joined the church in the last four years, had a calling that took them out of SS four years ago, or just weren’t paying attention the last time.

  6. Well, I am embarrassed by what gets kept in Church manuals. There’s not too much to complain about, but I do feel that manuals provide a way to remove false doctrine from repetition. For example, I’d suggest that whenever OD2 is taught, the words of President Kimball in 1954 (“What a monster is prejudice!”) and the first part of Pres. Hinckley’s talk in the priesthood session of April 2006 be taught. I hope that both of those statements will be supplemented soon by a clear statement of what is NOT doctrine–which also would need to be repeated as often as lessons on chastity.
    As for the literary canon, BYU’s English department has sometimes had the concern that we were focusing too much on ancient and old literature and not enough on the contemporary. There have been meetings where the discussion has included the possibility of deleting Shakespeare from the required reading of English majors. Absurd! Good contemporary writers almost always are well-grounded in the traditional canon. A woman here did a thesis on a contemporary novel called _Hermione_ and didn’t realize that Hermione is a famous character in Shakespeare’s _The Winter’s Tale_, and so wouldn’t realize that the author might have paralleled or mirrored the two characters.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    I was stimulated to further reading by an Austen novel, though not in high school, but later. I absolutely love Austen, so I help to counterbalance Steve’s contrary opinion here.

  8. Have you ever read through the core knowledge books and the thesis? A canon has its place in cultural literacy.

  9. Regarding teaching the same way and paying up in order to change materials and methods: Preach My Gospel gives me hope. If and when Sunday School lessons or SIR materials are ever going to follow suit is another question.

    1,2, & 4- agreed.

  10. Someone once asked President Kimball, “What do you do if you find yourself caught in a boring sacrament meeting?”

    President Kimball thought a moment, then replied, “I don’t know; I’ve never been in one.”

  11. So much of contemporary thought is simply a rehash of old thought. Modern literature draws on themes from old literature. If we delete old literature for new, we might mistakenly think we have read something original, some new idea, without realizing that it is the same idea presented by Dickens, Hawthorne, Hobbes, or others. We might not realize that the consequences of those ideas have already played out in history. We might not realize how these ideas have trickled down and influenced society over the generations.

    In other words, providing a historical context for our contemporary worldview requires that we read old literature. I firmly believe that.

  12. My mind is as shallow as my five o’clock shadow, so it should come as no surprise that I couldn’t pick The Winter’s Tale from a list mixing Backstreet Boys and Shakespeare titles, but I do enjoy Ms. Austen’s works.

    Jeff T: What is so original about Messrs. Dickens, Hawthorne, Hobbes et al. that we should bother reading them and not, say, cuneiform tablets?

  13. Some instructional manuals are far more current than other ones. For exmaple, the Young Women’s manual is full of outdated content even if the book itself is reprinted newly. Another example is the hymn book – hasn’t changed in a really long time. And, the content of the Sunday School lessons also has seemed pretty much the same to me for my entire life, because tend to recycle the same teaching paradigms and General Authority quotes. We are trained to approach topics in certain frameworks, and we rely on the same content, and changing these I think does “cost” money and retraining. It socially convenient to stay the course, because, as you point out, as we get bigger and have new members we want to graft them in to a common culture.

    The fact that we have to start producing this content in different languages is part of my point – we are so large that we start tending towards consistency.

    While agree that there is value in knowing the canon, my point is that when it is being exclusively taught that it doesn’t work pedagogically at the secondary and general curriculum levels if the goal is to produce a body of students interested in and capable of reading and writing. Sure, people who decide to major in English enjoy these books, but not every student does. People on this site are likely somewhat exceptional in that they have high literacy skills manifest by the fact that they are writing here.

    The student who don’t naturally enjoy literature are the ones that need the most help. Students who struggle to read are turned off by Shakespeare, Hobbes, and other hard to read texts. And then they don’t read or turn to cliff notes. These same students become significantly more engaged when they can write about contemporary, even non-literary events. I would also argue that another real problem is that many students enter college having only read textbooks or novels – they haven’t learned how to read other kinds of documents, which are the kinds that will matter most to them. Is there a place for canonical literature – absolutely. But, I don’t think it is good strategy to exclusively teach it.

  14. One more historically interesting point to add:

    Last year, I spent a fair amount of time reading about the history of book publishing. When mass literacy spread and early circulating libraries demanded books, publishers responded by creating sets of books that these libraries would buy. Often libraries and schools only had these publisher’s books, so they became the ones that were widely read. These sets – and the kinds of anthologies used in schools that also hit the market – tended to include what at that time were older works (our eventual classics). The biggest reason was that these books were out of copyright and therefore could be reprinted more cheaply. So, canon formation does have a lot to do with market incentives, about what people can afford to buy and pass on, even if we also place other kinds of value on this literature.

  15. Rameumptom says:

    I don’t think it is an issue of the age of our manuals and canon, rather it is an issue of having poorly trained and schooled teachers. What causes some people to love Shakespeare and Austen, and others to hate them? It invariably comes down to whether the teachers instilled in the student a love and desire to know more. It means the teacher must be an expert, and a lover of the written word.
    We just don’t see that in our Sunday School classes. There is no passion, when the teacher has spent all of 45 minutes preparing a lesson, and teaches it in the same way they look at cooking their morning oatmeal. If the teacher is casual about the lesson, then the student has no reason to become involved and excited and thrilled, whether it is “Pride and Prejudice” or the Isaiah section of 2 Nephi.

    What we really need to do is have our teachers study the televangelists. See how much emotion, care, and consideration they put into each and every sermon. As Elder Holland noted in his Gen Conf talk “Teacher called of God”, we must set our pulpits on fire again.

    We all know who we love to listen to in our wards and stakes. And we also know which High Counselors we dread to hear. Again. You know the one, when he begins talking, you either spend the time counting the number of times he says “ummm”, or wish you had an electric drill to push through your ears, so you wouldn’t have to hear anymore?

    A good teacher can make old material seem fresh and new. Shakespeare is centuries old, yet still has an audience BECAUSE someone has shown how relevant and inspiring his works still are.

  16. What causes some people to love Shakespeare and Austen, and others to hate them? It invariably comes down to whether the parents instilled in the student a love and desire to know more.


  17. I agree that a lot of our reading preferences come down to parents and good teaching, although I also think that free content on the Internet is changing that dyamic. But, I really do think there is economic issue here as well. So I am going to try one more time to illustrate this point since I sense that many people disagree with me.

    Let’s think for a moment about where pre-Internet children get their reading material. One source is school. The other source is in the home. Kids see books on their parents shelves, books that their parents typically inherited from their parents and their schools, and so when they are browsing for books those are the ones they are most likely to read. If you think about all houses in aggregate, then children tend to have access to and to read the kinds of books we pass on – The Little Engine that Could, Narnia, Jane Eyre, Homer – and so these classics books continue to have a certain currency. But not necessarily because they are “better” than contemporary books. We are less likely to buy any given contemporary book, because it takes work to learn about them and because they have a much higher price tag. For a number of institutional and economic reasons, we are far more likely to have access to certain “classics” that thereby get perpetuated. I think this applies to Mormon culture, too. Parents tend to have scriptures, Mormon Doctrine, The Work and the Glory, etc., lying around for their kids. We have incentives – ease of access, cost – to return to old material.

    That said, I think that this dynamic changes with free access to material on the Internet. When kids don’t have to ask their parents for money to buy books or make their parents drive them to a library or bookstore, then they are more likely to start developing niche reading practices on the web. They are also more likely to get reading suggestions from peers rather than parents/teachers. GoodReads is a great example of peer-oriented book suggestions.

    So, to some extent, I really do think that the idea of a canon and the current existence of a common body of literature that we teach from has been kept in place by an economics of access and opportunity. As we go more digital, I think that will likely change.

    Interestingly, book publishers now see a much wider market for non-fiction than fiction. I think fiction is in general easier to remember than facts. So, I do wonder if the dying off of the fiction market is in part due to the fact that the ease of searching for information has now made memory a less vauable quality.

    Final point: I agree that a good teacher makes learning come alive. But, a good teacher can make most subjects come alive. I think it is the teacher’s ability to stimulate thought, not the book they are teaching, that matters. I fail to be convinced that all classics are really “applicable” to our lives. I can’t honestly say that Homer has ever meant much to me, although I do enjoy the critical thinking skills I developed through studying it. Can classics illuminate history – yes. Can they teach us to see cultures differently – yes. Are they always relevant – I doubt it.

  18. Even though my experience with students suggests that more contemporary literature is no more relevant to students than older works, I agree that the canon needs flexibility. I would also agree that economics is one factor in limiting that flexibility, although I don’t think it’s the most significant.

    As far as the church goes, I imagine the slow changes in church curriculum and scripture have something to do with economics, but just as much to do with cultural stability, another purpose of the canon. If we change our central texts constantly, then we all loose the thread of mormonism.

  19. I think we can learn from others — there is a school that is building a curriculum around flying and building airplanes. The idea is to take intrinsic motivation (for flying) and build a challenging high school curriculum around that. While still experimental, it illustrates one approach to using intrinsic motivation and then building extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.

    Another example is embodied in computerized “LMS” or Learning Management Systems. Right now, they are underutilized (in every case I know of) but the concept is that modules and examples can be dynamically loaded (think one module to introduce some concept, then a dynamically loaded module with examples relevant to the learner.)

    In addition, there are fields like Game development that are building better models of “boredom” and “fun” with associated approaches to integrate feedback from the learner to modify the approach in real time to try to minimize boredom and maximize fun.

    So, at some point, it may not be a matter of replacing a curriculum. Rather, it may be a matter of updating or replacing a particular module or particular path through thousands of modules.

    The real challenge is our own creativity in creating these systems of learning. It may require a community similar to those in blogs or wikis to create these next generation learning systems.

  20. IMO this is an unusually undercommented-on post, Natalie. I think it is very interesting in terms of how the curriculum of the church affects the members, and how the members affect the curriculum. Economics, culture, language, stability, familiarity, motivation, and so many other factors are involved; I believe this subject should interest most LDS.

    I used to joke that some Christians may be rejecting the Book of Mormon simply because they had yet to really read the Bible, and felt the added homework was not desirable. I think in some ways this mentality can appear among LDS who don’t read JMH, Dialogue, the FARMS Review, BYU Studies, etc. People feel like they can barely find the time to scrape 15 minutes of Book of Mormon reading in each day.

    When it all boils down to it, I cannot force anyone to take interest in learning, though I can try.

    So many thoughts on this, so many directions. I don’t even know where I am going with this, but my mind is reeling.

  21. StillConfused says:

    I have just begun studying Judaism… just begun. It is interesting to look at something for the first time. Where I currently find the kosher rules fascinating, I wonder if over time, they will become boring. Is there a newness that naturally wears off over time?

  22. A few decades ago the writings of JFS2 and BRM were the canon – LDS doctrine, as taught, was what they said, and what they said was extensive. The teachings of the pioneer period were similarly encompassing.

    Now that both of those eras of consensus are gone, we are back to a thin canon. There is no LDS theology on such a broad scope of issues that little “doctrinal” can be said about the average chapter of the scriptures beyond the handful of endorsed takeaway points in the manuals and the dimly recalled folklore of conference talks decades in the past.

    I understand there are reasons why the Church is anti-theological. However, the consequence is that in Gospel Doctrine, there is not enough doctrine to teach. Factual and historical trivia is not doctrine. Talks given more than a decade ago are not doctrine.

    A teacher could trivially cover everything there is to be known about current LDS doctrine in six months of Sunday School classes. Everything beyond that is historical trivia, group discussions, and rhetorical flourishes.

  23. Scratch “dimly recalled folkore…” and substitute “recent conference talks”. Too late to be writing I guess.