“LEARNING HOW TO LEARN”
By Suzanne Lundquist
(Drawn from an interview with Charlotte England)
I was in an interdisciplinary team-taught class with Gene from 1980 to 1984, through that year. The way I came to teach that class was quite miraculous and part of my testimony of the answer to prayers. My husband and I had been fasting all one day. We were at BYU and teaching part-time. And at the time we had five of our six children, with little income, and so we decided to fast a day. We were going to break our fast at five and pray about getting a job that would support us so that he could finish his education. At five o’clock, when we got ready to break our fast, the phone rang. I answered the phone and it was Gene. He asked me if I’d be interested in accepting a job in the honors program to teach this course he was designing called “Learning How to Learn.” There was another position open as an assistant to the program, an administrative assistant. Of course, I was quite interested in the teaching position, and so I accepted it on the phone. That was the beginning of our friendship that has lasted beyond his death.
It became an introduction into interdisciplinary education and what it could really look like when teachers pull together from various disciplines to make a difference in the lives of young people. The original team was John Gardner from Physics, Bob Bennion from Psychology, Gene from English, and I came on and represented a third-world position. I am white and a woman, but my background was in Native American Studies and Third World Literature. Gene was interested in whatever interdisciplinary topic was at hand; that I could offer some text that the students could engage with that would expand their consciousness and give them a sense of being citizens of the global community; not being raised as arrogant, privileged young people, but people who really understood the gospel of Jesus Christ and the mission to the world.
That was an incredible experience for me. The course was “Learning How to Learn,” and we would jokingly say that our class wasn’t “Answers to Gospel Questions,” but “Questions to Gospel Answers.” We would try and help the students find a testimony that was grounded not only in scripture, but in what had been revealed and imagined and discovered by human beings over time. The course was six credit hours a semester; 12 credit hours for the entire year. There were around a hundred students every semester who took it. Each of us took a fourth of the students one day a week, and we would process what they were learning, help them to get to know one another, answer their questions and try and build community.
The “Learning How to Learn” program was based on Walter Gong’s “Three Person Problem,” the idea that you need to learn how to understand people. The first process was to capture what you’re learning; that is, know what the purpose of an article or a text or a philosopher was, what his main ideas were, what the arguments were that would support those main ideas and then to discover what the value of the contribution of the author or scientist was to the world’s body of knowledge and to our own understanding of who we were as citizens, in not only the Mormon community, but the community at large.
What became so interesting is the cross-disciplinary conversations that would arise. There were inevitably difficulties between those positions, and those difficulties would arise out of our interpretations of one text. I clearly remember a discussion between Brian Best and Gene on the Book of Job, for example. Brian Best taught the Bible as literature, but Gene had a different agenda in teaching Job. Their two interpretations were very confrontational and a little bit combative. What we found from that kind of discussion in front of students was a kind of liberty for them to be accountable for an interpretation, but to understand that there were multiple ways that were intelligent ways of viewing a text.
Gene, bless him, was so involved—I don’t know that you would call him an iconoclast, but certainly we talked about iconoclastic thinking with the students: looking at their idols and breaking some of the idolatry down so that they would be open to expanding who they were in profound ways. He would become so zealous in teaching something. He was especially keen on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It had been a paper that he had built in his undergraduate or graduate years, and it was based on the ideas of Johan Huizinga, the great Dutch Philosopher: the idea that we are organized after the pattern of games, in our religions, in our societies and so forth. He would show that pattern. We had to read the articles, and he would show the game being played out in Sir Gawain’s life. He would get so caught up in helping them see and become conscious of their role as a pawn in the game scheme—that they would not be controlled by being in the game, but be conscious players. He was assigned the first hour, for example, of a discussion of principles like the law of symmetry from John Gardner’s point of view and what the principles of the universe were.
It was all inter-related with this idea of game and can you find the patterns in the world in different disciplines, and how can we understand those patterns well enough that we can become not determined by those patterns, but agents to live within those patterns and move around in them in more fruitful ways. I recall Gene taking perhaps fifteen minutes of John Gardner’s time or such, and it would cause a little bit of anxiety and maybe even hostility. We’d have these meetings after and decide what we were going to do and how we could meet the students’ needs. I think one of the ways that Gene and I became such dear friends is that I would be telling Gene, “We need to have a meeting. I think you stepped on John’s toes or on Bob’s toes.” And so we’d have a really frank session of how to respect each other’s ideas and present things.
When Gene was here in the home a couple of months prior to his death, I came to visit him. He talked to me about his overzealousness, wishing that he could go back to people and talk to them about that, and wondering about offending people. It was a very interesting time, because we had been able to talk about all those things over the years. We were so frank and honest with each other as friends, that I felt honored that prior to his death that he would be willing to sort out and review his life and his concerns with me.
What a great honor to find a male friend who respected my intelligence. I don’t think BYU is ever going to understand the female human being who is intelligent. To have that kind of experience with someone of Gene’s intellectual reputation and talent was a real gift to me. It’s hard for women to feel appreciated or understood within a patriarchal system, but Gene knew how to do that.
We would speak frankly on so many topics, even to the point where he would share his concerns about his children and their needs. He asked me one day, “Do you mind if Charlotte comes and sits in on one of your classes?” That opened the way for Charlotte and me to become very dear and lasting friends, because she came and sat in on English 105 and Research English. I was teaching the Old Testament. We would inevitably after class spend time in the hall, or we’d meet each other at the bank and just stand and talk.
After that we organized a group of women to meet for lunch. We would meet regularly and share our lives. That kind of invitation from someone so dear to me, to share who I was with his wife and his children; you don’t come across those kinds of friendships very often
I think a lot of this came out of looking into Gene’s soul and seeing what he was concerned with. I think more than anything, he wanted students to understand the brilliance and the integrity of the Restoration. He didn’t want them to worship a false god. His research into the issues concerning blacks and the priesthood, or women in the Church, or any number of things were so caught up with the question, “Who do you think Christ is? Who do you thing God is? Do you really believe this about God? Why do you believe in this kind of God that would privilege these children above those children?” He would go meticulously through the Book of Mormon and show students the issue. I think that’s why he was interested in Native American ideas, too. That was my specialty: How do the Native Americans in the United States and throughout the world fit into the restoration of the gospel?” I was able to talk about mythology and use Eliade’s ideas, and Jung’s ideas in talking about great sacred texts and how they relate to our psychological development. Gene would ask me questions and say, “Can I have an article about that?” We were colleagues, not only friends. Whatever I had, he would listen to and use and incorporate.
The same with Bob Bennion. He wanted to work with Bob because of his reputation as a healer. He wanted to work with John Gardner because of his reputation as a physicist. But both of those men were men of profound integrity and concern for the people that we taught. I remember very clearly a time when students were having enormous difficulty understanding calculus and quantum mechanics and the topics that John Gardner was discussing. We’d break out into sessions, and what Gene and John and Bob told the students was, “If anyone in your group fails, you all fail. Learning is really communal. You’re crazy to feel like the glory of God is individual. It’s a communal situation that we learn together.” We watched students become not protective of their grades, or “I’m smarter than you,” but to enter into sincere camaraderie with ideas that would make a difference in the way they related to each other; the ones who understood calculus and physics taking the ones who felt like dummies and saying, “This is how it is done.” Trying to help them see. It was marvelous to watch.
There were a lot of wounded students. We had students who were suicidal. John Bennion’s approach with George Kelly’s philosophy was that he would take personality profiles of the students and then he would recognize who was at risk, who was in trouble and he would say, “This person in your group, be attentive to them.” There was that kind of degree of care with the students. I remember Bob Bennion coming to me. There was a young student, who has since died. But I think Bob Bennion kept her alive for a couple of decades because of this relationship that we were able to establish. He said, “She always wears long sleeves. Can you check and see if she’s cutting herself?” Sure enough she was, and he took over and worked with her. She was in my group for a while and became a clinical psychologist, went to Harvard. She had an enormously good reputation, but had emotional illness that put her in hospitals.
I remember going to visit her when she was much older. She would talk about the ideas she learned in Colloquium. It was a couple of decades after. Invariably I’ll meet students that had those classes, and they said that it changed their relationship with this earth and with the gospel, and that it gave them an integrated way of seeing the world that they have never forgotten. It laid a foundation like no other could.
We have faculty at BYU now who had those programs, and they recall them to me and talk about them as being the basis of the way they teach now, the way they reach out to students, and how they see of role of education in the development of the well-being and happiness of not only the Church, but families.
Part of this getting to know this whole “Learning How to Learn” approach to education, and the care of the learner, the psychological well-being of the learner, expanded to our understanding of the needs of us as faculty members. Gene and I and Charlotte organized a faculty group of people who felt estranged from the mainstream. We would meet regularly at someone’s house, and often at Charlotte and Gene’s cabin, and just talk through issues, whether it was what was happening to George P. Lee, or attitudes towards Native Americans.
We went through an enormous upheaval at BYU because of the fear of the ideas that feminism raised. There were faculty members who were going through very difficult times because they wanted mutual respect, recognition of the female human being. Most of the women didn’t want to become male-identified faculty members. They didn’t want to have liberty as “imitation males.” They wanted to say, “Listen to the female voice.” “Listen to our contribution.” “Listen to the experiences of women in marriages, in a patriarchal society.” It was very threatening. There were lots of faculty who just saw the whole movement as undermining the Restoration, and that kind of thing.
Gene, with several other faculty members, tried to work with the administration to help them relax that approach. We did lose several very profound, well-educated women as a result of that. That was kind of a purge of the more vocal women. More than anything, I think, what Gene did at that time was go back through the scriptures. He wrote an article called “Bone of My Bone, Flesh of My Flesh,” and tried to look at what has been revealed, and why man can’t be alone, and that woman was essential; but not woman as a mere reflection of man, but as a partner. There’s a word in Hebrew that means “savior.” If you look at the Hebrew account of Genesis, it’s “partner,” and the word is “savior,” equal to Adam.
He and I would work with the idea that there was in the Gospels and in the Bible what is really a male-centered text. It was written by males, about male power, male wars, male leadership, that kind of thing. But there was an underlying message about the role of women as saviors equal to men, in that kind of research. I think Gene’s love of Charlotte and her role in his life, and having more daughters than sons, wanting Charlotte and his daughters to realize the full measure of who they were as women, along with watching his colleagues suffer so for what appeared to all of us as very unrighteous dominion.
I remember working with Gail Houston, for example. I was in charge of the multi-cultural studies section of the English department under Bert Wilson at the time, and so I would work with her. I read all of her letters that she would receive from a BYU official investigating her. He was kind of passive-aggressive in his conversations with her, trying to elicit information, on the one hand, that he would turn around and use against her. He would say, “I’m your friend, and I want your well-being. What do you think of this?” She thought it was a mutual conversation of real learning, but he was trying to catch her in a snare. I saw on a very intimate basis by reading the letters and listening about the conversations that she had. Gene was privy to a lot of that. I think he worked more with Cecilia Farr at that time.
Now, what has happened to those women because of that? I don’t know. I think Cecilia has completely separated herself from the Church. I haven’t talked to Gale recently, but Gale is the chairman of English at the university where she teaches right now. Very successful women, but they weren’t received as full human beings. Their intelligence and their conversation and their insights were rejected out of fear.
We’re losing a lot of our bright women at BYU. They’re leaving in droves because there’s a fear of the questions they ask. Gene was involved in all of that, in trying to get the administration and people in the Department of Religion to understand the Book of Mormon, for example, through different eyes than the traditional way. “What about these scriptures? What about the scripture, ‘All are alike unto God, black and white, male and female, bond and free’?” The dualities that we’ve created and the separations that intellectually we have inherited, of thinking male-versus-female, white-versus-black, or whatever; that Christ crumbled all of that. He overcame that. Gene was incessant in his desire that people not believe in a God who privileged. One of his major themes was that God is no respecter of persons; that He is a father who loves every child with such an abundant love, and that furthermore, the unique experiences of people in various racial settings or cultural settings, that there was a contribution to be made from their experiences; that we ought to seek out their experiences and see what their witness about human life was; that we stood to gain, as members of the Church, from listening to the converts’ voice about “this is the truth that I understand, that I lived through.”
It’s like the Law of Consecration: “What can you consecrate?” “Well, I can consecrate my experience as a black person, or consecrate my experience as an abused woman; that you can learn from me.” I think that that was very much a part of Gene’s approach to education. It made a difference in students. He never wanted disciples or student followings. He was very against that kind of thing; but he was always available for conversations when students had questions.
In the “Learning How to Learn” Colloquium students could ask anything that they were wondering about of any of us. Oftentimes collectively we would talk about our different responses and answers to those questions. This was Gene’s vision of “Learning How to Learn.” It was his idea. He collected the people and we sat and decided what is it that this, that Niels Bohr or Carl Jung or whomever have to teach us, what was their contribution and what can it help us understand about Jesus and God in a way that rids the world of the profound violence. Gene was always up on current philosophers. When Rene Girard came to campus, Gene read his book. I have it. I’m never giving it back. He loaned it to me, Things Hidden from the Foundations of the World. It’s in my library. After Gene died I thought, “Maybe nobody in their family is going to read that,” so it’s in my library now, with his notes in the margins, with his keen understanding of the way that we have read the scriptures that justified violence, that continued the worship of a kind of violent sacrifice of Jesus Christ; and when he would see that insight, how he would use that in his teachings to say, “What is God’s intent?” That introduction to Girard has sent me to the conferences. I’ve been to London and Amsterdam and Canada to the conferences. I’ve spoken at them, just trying to undo this kind of violent arrogance that justifies the slaughter of innocents. That became one of Gene’s themes. He was an eager learner of whatever brilliance was in the world that would make a difference in how human beings treat each other and how they reverence our Father-in-Heaven.
One of the things that we used to speak about our students was do they come to BYU to be protected from the world, or to be prepared to live in it? Can we help them understand the deeper issues within the culture, within religion, within Christianity? Are you prepared to understand them so that as you go to live an exemplary life, to make a difference, you’re not afraid? You don’t retreat into a cocoon, but that you are able to say, “I understand these issues.” And if I don’t understand them, John Gardner used to say, if you have huge questions, if we’re not able to take you far enough, there’s the theory of tentativity, that there are answers but we don’t have what you need right now. But the answers are there. You have to research and if you can’t find them right now, make it a tentative kind of thing. Put it on the back burner. Don’t let it go. But over time, little by little, you’ll discover ways that are more healing and fruitful in the deeper issues of your life.
And so we talked a lot about that theory of tentativity, too, that as faculty there were some things we were in the process of trying to figure out. We looked very closely, through John Gardner, at the metaphors in science: of the onionskin universe, and of Aristotle, and at Johannes Kepler’s breaking down of the idea of perfect spheres, and looking at the centuries that passed before scientists could say, “This model is incorrect. We were wrong. Here’s the new information. We have telescopes that show us this now, and so our picture was incorrect.”
And so that became a model for us too, that we might have a model or a picture of the universe that’s going to change over time, that we have to be tentative in our idea of truth, that we’ll never be able to answer all of the questions but we can be in the way of understanding them and realizing that it might take a lifetime. You look at President McKay. He had several answers, one of them that came to him maybe two or three decades after he asked the question. He had a horse, Sunny, that he loved, that died. As a young man, a young boy, his prayer was, “Will I see Sunny again? Are animals part of the resurrection?” It became a very tender thing to him. I think it was on his mission that the answer finally came. I remember President McKay talking about the number of years that passed between the initial asking of the question and the final getting of the answer.
Those kinds of examples would be used, that you’re not learning to put the answer in a box that you can pull it out of. That’s why we teased about “Questions to Gospel Answers,” because there will be questions raised, like the worth of women and patriarchal control of women’s lives. Is that our Heavenly Father’s intent? And the issue of a Mother in Heaven, after the Colloquium, became a big issue that Gene tried to understand and listen to women about, and really come to think more of a Mother in Heaven, that if the principles of eternal marriage that we teach are true, then certainly God is an example of that, that his number one relationship is with his wife, as we’re taught; or that Christ was indeed married and had children, and that the early apostles taught those kinds of things. How are we to build up the esteem of women and receive their contributions? Not women who remain ignorant and worship innocence and don’t want an education, but a calling to women, “Who are you as a female human being, and how do you see the world in a way that contributes to the healing that ought to be taking place.”
I’ve taught women’s literature, off and on, at BYU for quite a few years. I remember one class with 14 students in it. Two were older women who were in the grandmother era of their lives. But of the 14, there were only two who hadn’t lived through some profound abuse in their life. That was just staggering to me. Because we were doing women’s autoethnographies as a part, they were given the opportunity to write a chapter of their own. Invariably they would talk about the abuse they’d lived through and how they learned to deal with it, and the role of the gospel in the healing process. Those women’s voices need to be heard. They have to be there if the Church is going to go forward. President Kimball said that in the Last Days, women in the Church would be an example to the women in the world, because of their intelligence and what they had to offer. Unless we listen to what women have to offer, how can we fulfill that prophecy? Those are the kinds of concerns. I think that Gene was involved in talking with Chieko Okazaki and inviting her to come and talk about this vision of womankind, that the Gospel of Jesus Christ ought to be the forerunners, the leaders in the world of helping that out.
Current research on feminist criticism has moved into gender studies, because men have to be healed too. Men who’ve been dominated by an elite masculine paradigm have suffered, maybe not as much as women, but they suffer as well. There’s a lot of abuse of men. Gender studies recognize that if we’re going to heal women, men need to be healed at the same time. There needs to be this conversation. And that’s moved to brain theory, where we now have the instruments to look at the female brain. The female brain and the male brain are utterly different physiologically. Those differences are eternal, and we’ve got to understand what it means to us.
The marriage of male and female is more than just a child begetting possibility. It’s the marriage of so many ideas and so many experiences, the bringing together. It’s like in the Kabbalah, which is a really good example of eternal marriage in the Jewish mystic tradition that sees every body as the complementary of opposites, male and female, as a tree of life. When these masculine and feminine traits within each of us are merged, then we have man in the image of God. But we have divided them so, and made them polar opposites and warring opposites, and men superior to women in our traditions. I don’t know if in my lifetime I’ll see that overcome. Only 13 percent of the faculty at BYU are women. Maybe it’s because women don’t go on for Ph.D.’s. But 60 percent of our clientele now are women. That imbalance is very telling. And we are losing men. The answer isn’t all women at the universities, or the majority of women. That doesn’t help anything either. And so where do we go? Those are all of the kinds of things that Gene had his finger on the pulse of, the wounds that needed healing. He believed that the Gospel of Jesus Christ could heal, that it was there if you knew how to look.