November 1, 2019, 9:00 AM – 12:00 PM
Location: University of Utah, Marriott Library, Rm 1150
Panel: 9:00 – 10:30 AM
A University for Utah: The Great Issues Forum 1952-1974
Panel discussion with John Nilsson, John Bennion, Bruce Landesman, and L. Jackson Newell evaluating the University of Utah Philosophy Department’s Great Issues Forum and the idea of the university.
Two years after the University of Utah’s centennial commemoration (1850–1950), Waldemer Read, chair of the Philosophy Department, in partnership with the Extension Division (now Continuing Education) looked to the school’s future by launching an annual lecture series open to the public. The Great Issues Forum featured the work of local, national, and international scholars on topics of contemporary relevance ranging from the nature of truth to civil rights to the freedom of the press and the war in Vietnam. The participants were committed to a broad view of the university, a center of intellectual leadership and service, benefiting the entire state. The forum endured until the professionalization of philosophy, specialization within the academy, and the secularization of the university combined to make the topics narrower, the faculty scarcer, and the attendance sparser. This panel discussion involving former forum participants will address the evolution of the idea of the university: although all-embracing events like the Great Issues Forum are relics of the past, in the twenty-first century are we coming full circle to this earlier idea of the university?
Presentation: 11:00-12:00 pm
Richard Saunders, “Placing Juanita Brooks among the Heroes (or Villains) of Mormon and Utah History.”
Presentation originally delivered as the thirty-sixth annual Juanita Brooks Lecture at Dixie State University, March 28, 2019
At midcentury the gulf between the history produced by academics and that consumed by the general public was narrower than it now is. The practice of Utah history was largely one-dimensional, emphasizing a single cultural perspective, common values, and identities over class conflict, social divisions, and circumstantial complexities. Richard Saunders takes a lens to Juanita Brooks, the giant of a historian most readers will be familiar and even empathetic with, and asks the seemingly innocuous question: Why do we consider Brooks great?—in her contemporaries’ words, heroic. The answer requires looking at not only what Brooks did, but even more at the cultural and intellectual waters she swam in leading up to publication of her classic work, The Mountain Meadows Massacre (Stanford University Press, 1950). By midcentury a new way of telling the history of Utah and Mormonism was emerging from the 1930s and 1940s. At the forefront of this transformation was Brooks and her young mentor, Dale Morgan, who employed what Saunders calls a documentary approach that valued evidence over theology or cultural solidarity. Brooks was part of a sea change that brought Utah history into professional and academic ranks and changed public understanding of the past.
TRANSCRIPT FOLLOWING JOHN NILSSON’S PRESENTATION
Nilsson’s article is published in the summer 2019 issue of Utah Historical Quarterly. Bennion, Landesman, and Newell’s comments at the Nov. 1 symposium are reproduced here for the first time.
JN [John Nilsson]: So. Now, I’ve said a lot. But this is just based on research. [laughter] You three have lived this experience. So John, I don’t know if you want to take it from here and provide your reflections. Thank you. I’ll just stand here.
JB [John Bennion]: I was an undergraduate at the University of Utah right during the heyday of the Great Issues forum. First from 1953 to 1955. Left for a couple years to be a missionary for the LDS Church in Germany, and then again in ’59 and ’62. So that was during the time when the Great Issues forum was very, very visible, and for me very exciting. And I’ll give you just a little autobiographical data here to indicate why it was so exciting for me, and such an important part of what I think was my undergraduate educational experience. As was indicated by John, my grandfather, Milton Bennion, and E. E. Erickson, were the first to teach philosophy at the University of Utah. My father, when I was growing up, for a time was a supervisor of the LDS Seminary and Institute system, and that was at a time when that system was very open to scholarship outside of Mormonism. The Church supported, in a number of cases, Institute teachers going back to the University of Chicago to get their doctorates in religion and to study with people like Goodspeed, a very notable biblical scholar at that time back there.
That was shut down pretty much when J. Reuben Clark came in as a member of the First Presidency of the Church. And my father was very glad to get out and had the opportunity to become Superintendent of Schools in Salt Lake City at that time. He was friends of Sterling McMurrin and Obert Tanner particularly. They were in a study group together, and when I was a teenager my father would invite me to come in and listen to their discussions, which were always quite philosophical and always interested in church issues as well. I was fascinated with those discussions, and so when I started studying at the University of Utah, I was immediately attracted to taking philosophy classes along with other liberal education, general education classes.
That freshman year I had a class from Obert Tanner on the philosophy of religion, Sterling McMurrin on the religions of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, James Jerritt, Introduction to Philosophy. And I was fascinated with those courses. I left high school a year early because I was kind of restless, and hitting philosophy at the University of Utah was just a very different kind of learning experience than I’d had in high school. And to me it was intellectually very fulfilling. I was there at the time when Sterling McMurrin and Hugh Nibley gave their famous debate. It was in the then student union building, which is now the music school building, in the big ballroom there. It was absolutely packed. And there was an air of great excitement. Both were very articulate and giving very different points of view on the relationship between history and religious faith. To me that was more exciting than the BYU-Utah football game. I think many students felt the same, at least those that I knew who were studying in the humanities and in the social sciences. I was also there for the topic of, “Does philosophy destroy religious faith?” I think Obert Tanner was on that panel as well, and had a paper on it.
And so I, after I got back from Germany, was very much inclined to major in philosophy. Which I did, and got a minor in English, picked up a teaching certificate. And when I was teaching out in Granite School District in English, my teacher/mentor found out I was a philosophy major and she asked me if I was interested in maybe doing a little unit on introducing students to philosophy, which I did, and I found them very interested. And it was a very good experience for me. So when I graduated, I went to Granite School District and proposed that I teach an introductory course in philosophy to high school seniors on an experimental basis. And unlike Salt Lake City at the time, they agreed and allowed me to do that. So I taught courses both at Granite High School and Olympus High School, and wrote my master’s thesis on teaching philosophy to high school students whilst working on a master’s degree in the history and philosophy of education.
Waldemar Read was my mentor and my advisor on that thesis. He was very, very interested in what I was doing, and what I was learning about teaching philosophy. I found many high school seniors quite ready and eager for a very different kind of study that philosophy represented, than what they typically were getting in high school. A little anecdote about Waldemar Read. When I was a senior I got involved in student government and was quite busy doing that. So that frustrated Waldemar a little bit. He thought I was too involved in student government and not studying philosophy enough. So he told me one day, he said, “You know, I think you’re overly ambitious. I think you would like to have your statue on a pedestal in the Park Building there across from John R. Park.” That still hasn’t been filled, by the way. That’s still there. [laughter] And I did not succeed in doing that, it was not my ambition, but he chided me a little bit for deviating from the focused study of philosophy.
I look back on those years with great appreciation. My study of philosophy was of great advantage to me, I think, when I got into educational administration. And I’ve appreciated very much my interest in ideas all my life. At that time the university, when I was going through as an undergraduate, was more parochial than it became. There were about ten thousand students. Most of the student body were LDS students. And there was a lot of interest in this interplay between religious faith and academic learning at the University of Utah, a lot of interest at the university, and a lot of interest, at least in parts of the larger community. And to me as a product both of the LDS faith tradition and a strong tradition of learning, which I also was imbued with in my growing up years, those Great Issues Forums that in many ways sort of dealt with the interplay between religious faith in general and LDS faith in particular and the university’s focus on exploring truth claims and pursuing knowledge empirically and through rational processes.
At that time my uncle, Lowell Bennion, was director of the LDS Institute of Religion, and he had gotten a doctorate degree at the University of Strasbourg, following his LDS mission, in sociology, and did his dissertation on Max Weber. So when he was teaching classes at the Institute, he was very much at home both in the world of the LDS Church and faith and the world of philosophy and humanities generally. And he was very helpful, not only to me but to a lot of people like me, who were struggling some and they hit the University of Utah and a very different way of looking at the world and trying to understand the world, to sort of bridge the world of their faith and the world of their academic learning and the different methodologies that were involved. I’ve had people tell me that they stayed in the Church because of Lowell Bennion, because he just helped them bridge that and they came to feel that you can live in both worlds and, in fact, both worlds can enrich one another.
Because the university was much simpler then and far less diverse, these forums were among the few such lectures and gatherings at the university. Now you can, almost every day, go to a lecture on this and that, sponsored by the Hinckley Institute and many other colleges and departments of the university. But in those days, there was much less of that. So these Great Issues Forums really stood out and were very well attended by a wide variety of people, and especially those times when they would bring a person out from BYU to interact with a professor here. So you’d get a different kind of interplay than you would if it were just two people at the University of Utah. And I think that it played a very important role, at least at the time I was there. And I look back on it with great satisfaction and appreciation for the kind of experience it was and represented, and how it added to my education. That has been a great benefit to me to this day.
BL [Bruce Landesman]: I think I’m going to stand up. Shall I come over there? You can have my seat.
JR [Jedediah Rogers]: Thank you.
BL: I arrived at the University of Utah to join the Philosophy Department in the fall of 1968. One of the first things I learned was that the department sponsored a set of symposia during the year on matters of both public and philosophical interest, called the Great Issues Forum. I was intrigued by that and made it clear I would be happy to participate, and I did so a number of times. Now I joined the university after the heyday of the forum in the 1950s and early 1960s, when as both Johns [Bennion and Nilsson] have told us—two Johns here—the forum was a notable event on both campus and in the city, attended by students, faculty, and non-university people. That was still the aim of the forum when I arrived: to involve students and a wider audience in discussion of significant issues. I remember the forum as drawing reasonably sized crowds during my early years at the university. Unfortunately the size of the audience diminished over time, and by the end, about 1973-4, the crowd size was embarrassingly small. It was time to end the forum, and the department did so in 1974.
So I’d like to express a few opinions about why the forum was so successful during its heyday, and here I think I’ll be echoing things that both Johns have said, but also why I think it lost its audience as time went by. The Philosophy Department in the 1950s was led by people we’ve heard about, in particular Waldemar P. Read, Sterling McMurrin, Obert Tanner. I did not come so late that I missed them. I knew all of them, although not all that well. These people, as we know, were members of the LDS Church and had deep roots in the culture of Utah. They were also notable members of the wider community, well known in this city. And they were all quite interested in the connections and conflicts between philosophy, science, and religion. And they put together Great Issues Forums that dealt with those connections and conflicts. In particular they put together programs that would be of special interest to students and others who were religious but wondering about how their religion fared intellectually in a world of developing knowledge.
The forums thus appealed to students and faculty, who, at that time, as far as I understand it, were to a large degree members of the LDS faith, a point that John Bennion has just made. I think this accounts for a lot of the popularity of those early forums. And I’m also guessing, and John has said this too, that there were not many other public lectures going on at the university during that period. If so, a Great Issues Forum lecture would be a major campus event, having few other events to compete with. In sum, I think the topics chosen by the Great Issues Forum in that period were of special interest in this community, and there were few other events going on on campus to compete with on the evenings that they occurred.
So why did things change? Why did the forum lose its audience and ultimately have to be shut down? Well, let’s think about the late 1960s when I came here. This was a time of great political ferment. The civil rights movement was well under way, and there were rising protests of the Vietnam War. During the year I arrived, which was 1968, a memorable year for those of you who remember it, in that year Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy had been murdered, and there was a presidential election in November that led to an enormous schism within the Democratic Party, involving significant protests during the nominating convention held in Chicago. And many things related to those events were happening on campus. This isn’t in my paper, but there was an event in which something like eighty-two students sat in in the Park Building as a protest of the Vietnam War. Some of you may remember that. They were called, if I got the number right, the Utah Eighty-Two. They were all arrested, but given the beneficence of our community, it was all done very peacefully and kindly. And there were also changes occurring at the University of Utah, making it more of a national and less of a local university. Faculty from all over the country were being hired. And my guess is that there were more and more students also coming from out of state. So the predilections that gave the Great Issues Forum such prominence in this community were changing, as the university developed and political issues dominated the news. The forum I think was a victim of these changes.
So I’ve given you a bunch of hypotheses about the change in the university and the change in the times. I’d be happy to be told that I am wrong about it. But before I end I want to say a few words about the idea suggested to some degree in John’s paper that the forum died because the Philosophy Department changed in a way that made its members lose interest in it. I don’t believe this is correct. It is true, however, that the department changed. Sometime in the early 1960s, with the encouragement of the administration I assume, the department expanded and added faculty members who came from far and wide. I grew up in New York City. In New York City nobody believed there really was such a place as Utah. It was part of an interesting story to make life interesting for us to live east of the Hudson. Others came from the University of Washington, University of Texas, the University of Colorado, and the University of Southern California. None of these new faculty members were members of the LDS faith. About that time Waldemar Read and Obert Tanner had retired, and Sterling McMurrin had moved to the History Department. It was a very different place from the place that both Johns have explained to us.
The new members of the department were educated in the ongoing tradition of what has come to be called analytic philosophy, which started its development not in the 1960s but in the very early part of the twentieth century, with such figures as Bertrand Russell, G. E. Moore, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. It had a special spurt in the late 1940s and Fifties, with work done by such people as Gilbert Ryle and J. L. Austin. This mode of philosophizing was increasingly technical and specialized. It was very different from the modes of philosophy that the people we’ve been talking about—Read, Tanner, and McMurrin—were comfortable with. So the department changed as its personnel changed. In fact, it became much like other philosophy departments in the country, including those in large state universities like the one I attended, the University of Michigan. In effect, the Utah Philosophy Department, and maybe the University of Utah as a whole, became more typical of philosophy departments and much less of a place with a largely local character.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the department lost interest in the Great Issues Forum. In fact, almost all the new members of the department were politically engaged, and caught up in the movements of the time. And just a comment extemporaneous from what I’ve written here, relevant to John’s first paper, many of the people who joined the department’s main interests were in ethical and political philosophy. There was lots of interest in metaphysics, in epistemology, philosophy of language. But for a very long time the specialties of the philosophy department were the practical issues about how to live your life and what is a good and just society. So for the new people who were politically engaged, and many involved in the kind of philosophical issues that warrant public engagement, the Forum seemed to be an excellent arena for bringing to the community careful thought about the questions of the day facing our nation, and the topics of the 1970s reflected that. What went wrong is that times change. The university was bigger and more cosmopolitan, much more was going on including frequent public lectures on all sorts of interesting topics. The Forum was just one of many things and had to compete for an audience. So in conclusion, as I have said, the Forum I think was a victim of the changing times, but one should realize times always change. Disciplines change. Universities change. And what was highly popular at one time is less successful at another. And so I think in conclusion that rather than lamenting the end of the Great Issues Forum, and I’m not claiming anybody is really lamenting in some fundamental way its end, but rather than doing that we should celebrate it for what it was, when it really meant something special on this campus and in this community. Thank you.[applause]
LJN [L. Jackson Newell]: Well, thank you, John Nilsson, for a well-researched and provocative paper, and to my two former panelists, senior to me. I was the latecomer in the group here. I arrived at the University of Utah in 1974, but I don’t take responsibility for killing the Forum. [laughter] I came here as the whippersnapper Dean of Liberal Education, now we call it Dean of Undergraduate Studies, and at that time offices like this were housed in the Park Building, so I was on the second floor of the Park Building. The Dean of the Graduate School was Sterling McMurrin. His office was on the third story of the Park Building immediately above mine, and my relationship with him developed over time. My earliest encounter with him was, within a few weeks of my arrival over here, I was interviewed by the Salt Lake Tribune about the nature of liberal education, the liberal arts and sciences. And I said something to the effect that this was the most important thing that students could possibly study at the university, and I got what I call my “Well now, young man” letter from Sterling. Instead of coming down to see me he wrote a letter, and his secretary delivered it to my desk, and it said basically, “Don’t ever make the mistake again, I advise you, of pitting liberal education against professional studies and the professional fields of endeavor, because these are essentially complementary and should never be pitted against one another. Liberal education enables somebody to become a much more wise and effective person as a doctor, a lawyer, or whatever they may choose to become, and in return these professions provide an educational value to those who imbued with the liberal arts and sciences which enriches their lives, and these things continue to interact very positively.
Sterling and I became very close friends over time. But I’ve always cherished that very first encounter. “Well now, young man, let me tell you.” He and I were I think thirty-five years apart, occupying those two offices. Let me give you a little background, by the way, on academic freedom and how this incident that John Nilsson described fits into this history. In 1914, there was a sociology professor at Stanford University, which was in its early years, named Edward A. Ross. And he was a highly controversial sociologist, partly because he had decided to investigate the labor practices of the Central Pacific Railroad that was founded and built by Leland Stanford, the founder of Stanford University. He was dead and so was his wife, Jane. But this sense of obligation to the Stanfords was very, very strong indeed. So when E. A. Ross published a paper exposing what could be described only as very shabby labor practices of the Central Pacific Railroad, the trustees took umbrage and decided to take action against E. A. Ross and fire him.
Now academic freedom was something that was percolating all over the country as an increasingly sharp issue, as was highlighted here the next year at the University of Utah. But this seemed to be the issue that finally brought some of the academic leaders of the country out of the woodwork. And in 1915, early in that year, John Dewey, Arthur Lovejoy, and a variety of other very prominent American academics came together and formed the American Association of University Professors. They announced their declaration of the principles of academic freedom, which I won’t go into here. But it amounted to the fact that a professor could not be fired without involving censure by the AAUP for pursuing their intellectual quest within their academic field without any constraints whatever. And the fact that actions would be taken against E. A. Ross at Stanford for opinions that he had—by the way, some of them were racist, and not to be admired at all, which it seems to me adds to the importance of what the AAUP did. I think many members of that AAUP founding group would have been fiercely opposed to much of what E. A. Ross stood for. But they did believe that he had a right to express his opinions, the unfortunate ones, by our language today, it would seem to me, as well as his being censured by the university for what he had exposed about Leland Stanford’s labor practices. So the AAUP had come together. John Dewey was its president, or chairman, and they were ready to look at cases of violation of academic freedom. And as John Nilsson said very briefly, the University of Utah became the first exhibit.
And so it was Kingsbury’s firing of four faculty members, two in English, one in Physics, and one in Communications. They were non-Mormon, young faculty members who had criticized him for his lack of academic freedom and there was no university senate at that time. It was born as a result of this incident. And they were just told that their contracts had been terminated and they would not be teaching at the University of Utah in 1915. This incident occurred in 1914 here. And so they immediately protested, and as John mentioned in his paper, women’s literary clubs, the alumni association—one third of the faculty resigned, by the way, all the major student body officers resigned, and many students dropped out of the university. It was a protest that we could not imagine happening today over anything of the sort. The AAUP was apprised of this.
And here is one of those little loops that it seems to me are extremely important. Remember now, E. E. Erickson, who was the inspiration for the Great Issues Forum, was hired for the Great Issues Forum about 1920, in the wake of these events—no, excuse me, he was hired before this incident occurred, and as John Nilsson mentioned, Erickson had been a student of John Dewey. And so when the issue comes of the University of Utah’s violation of academic freedom, it goes to the AAUP, they decide to investigate it, and John Dewey, no doubt, having been so close to Erickson, was prompted to choose the University of Utah because of this personal link with Erickson. So Arthur Lovejoy came out as the representative of the AAUP and interviewed members of the Board of Regents, Kingsbury, the governor. He was given amazing access to actors in this whole drama at the University of Utah and within Mormon culture as it was then. And he assembled, after his four-day visit here, a massive amount of information, turned it over to John Dewey, and it was John Dewey himself who wrote the eighty-two-page report that excoriated the University of Utah for its lack of defense of academic freedom, its lack of due process provisions for faculty who had grievances with their treatment and the like. So that resulted in the University of Utah taking a strong stand at a very early time on behalf of academic freedom.
Now, Sterling McMurrin believed that the University of Utah has a more vital awareness and keen defense of academic freedom because of this early experience, and that academic freedom actually thrives at the University of Utah to a greater degree than it does even at most other major American research universities, McMurrin believed before he died, partly because, he said, the LDS Church had its own university to kick around down in Provo, [laughter] and therefore they left the University of Utah some slack. Immediately after the firing of Kingsbury over this incident, and the censure by the AAUP, John Widtsoe was appointed as the next president of the university and John Widtsoe either was at the time or shortly became an apostle of the LDS Church. So, like Kingsbury, he was very much involved and very much connected with the LDS hierarchy and reflective of it. But when Widtsoe left in 1921, and George Thomas became the president of the university, things changed considerably, and it was his influence that resulted in the hiring of many of the foundational faculty that gave the University of Utah status as a legitimate bona fide national institution of higher learning.
George Thomas himself had grown up in Logan, Utah, under extremely difficult family circumstances. He was orphaned at the age of ten, I believe. And a high school teacher identified him as being a young person of great potential and said, “Why don’t you apply for admission to Harvard University?” out of the blue. Thomas did. He was accepted at Harvard, earned his degree there, Magna Cum Laude, went on and earned his PhD at Martin Luther University in Germany, and came back to Utah, first as superintendent of public instruction for the state, but even before that he was involved in reform efforts in education in his hometown of Logan. But suffice it to say, in 1921 he was still a relatively young scholar. He was offered several federal positions of importance and he wanted to become a professor. So he came here. And in 1921, shortly after being appointed a professor here, he was appointed president. So it was George Thomas, then, who launched a major effort to hire ranking scholars and people of great promise in the larger academic world, not necessarily with Mormon backgrounds. And so some of you will recognize names like Walter Cottam in botany, Louie Zucker in Judaic studies, Waldemar Read himself, Syd Angleman in history, Brewster Ghiselin in English. These are names that, at least when I was arriving at the university, were hallowed as professors who had come here and turned our sights to a much higher level.
Now, thinking here of the importance of moving on to our question and answer, let me just reflect on one further thing, and that is in terms of the span of time. So I’ve been at the University of Utah forty-five years, with a decade out to do something else. And I’m still teaching in the Honors College a two-semester course for Eccles Scholars. Thirty of these scholars when they’re freshmen each year. And my aim with these scholars is very similar, I suppose, to what the Great Issues Forum was about. And that is, can I engage them in thinking about what kind of a human being they wish to become, what kind of a society they would like to help build. But their composition, as a couple of our panelists have already said, were vastly different than the students who came to the University of Utah during the era of the Great Issues Forum. So in the course that I’m teaching right now, there are three students with Hindu backgrounds, one practicing Muslim. About half the students embrace no religiosity or religious affiliation whatever. And yet, I still find them interested in many of the same issues as I was reading, the topics of the Great Issues Forum that were approached there. That is, they are earnestly interested in hearing each other’s perspectives on faith versus secular perspectives on life. They are interested in exploring why each other believe what they believe. They are interested in trying to figure out how we arrive at consensus, how we make our society work again, how we make government function positively again. And I would say I owe something of a debt to those who were involved in the Great Issues forum in trying to bring a very different composition of students to a vital engagement with the issues of forming a decent society and trying to prepare students who can lead with common decency in whatever way they choose to do that. Thank you very much, John. Let’s go to the Q and A now.[applause]
MH [Matt Haber]: I’m Matt Haber, I’m the chair of the Department of Philosophy now, so I feel like I probably should say something. Thank you for doing this. I want to echo what Bruce said a little bit about change and the way that we continue to reach people. I would love to have a Great Issues Forum now, but I don’t have a lot of hope that we’d draw a big engaged crowd in that regard. But I think that the way we reach out has changed a lot. So this is an example. This weekend I gave a public talk on philosophy of, for, and in science up in Park City. I had another meeting this weekend about a public event we’re building around February on Charles Darwin’s birthday. The Philosophy Department will be involved in it working with the Leonardo. The way that we’re trying to reach out now, I think, has changed a lot. There is a really fascinating history there as well. So in some ways the outreach has become more focused and smaller, but maybe we’re penetrating in a different way. We’re also—now I think a big challenge in the university as we’ve become professionalized and more like our contemporaries, we see a lot of outreach to other departments, and how are we trying to just break through the disciplinary walls that have grown up around these different departments. And that’s a big challenge across this university, and if we can’t even do that it’s going to be hard for us to reach out to the public at the same time. So I think there’s still a lot of interest, there’s still a lot of appetite for it, but it has changed quite a bit in what that looks like, and I think it’s incumbent on us as faculty to try and keep our thumb on the pulse of what that looks like, how we effectively do it. It’s a real challenge, but it’s fun. It’s great.
[Audience member]: I’m curious whether or not there’s any connection between the Great Issues Forum and a slight predecessor that was formed informally on campus in the 1940s called Mormon Seminar. It would have had to have involved many of the same people at the same. But it drew people from all over the state including a young man by the name of Leonard Arrington who came down from Utah State to present occasionally. And drew people from BYU as well. Was there any sort of connection or cross-fertilization in those early years between those two?
[JN]: I want to get to Matt’s point too. The current E. E. Erickson Chair, Elijah Millgram—the Ephraim Erickson endowed chair—wrote a book called The Great Endarkment, a bunch of essays, and one of the points that he makes in that essay about not just the academy or philosophy in general, but about our society after the Enlightenment, is that it’s difficult to fulfil the original premise of the Enlightenment that we can actually all be rational actors, because our society is too specialized. We are hyper-specialized. We are in essence compelled to not be. We are forced to rely on the experts. In each field we create separate distinct languages, and I think that’s one of the points.
The demise of the Great Issues Forum, I think, is wrapped up with that. There’s a lot of things going into this but it becomes increasingly difficult to speak across these different language worlds of different disciplines. Even just history and philosophy, which are the same general area, have separate languages and ways of approaching things. So I think that’s one of the reasons that it becomes difficult in this society to do that. Also, the lecture format is not the most engaging, and so even though these things had interaction, there were comments from the audience, there was a back-and-forth, there are new ways of engaging each other as human beings right now that we could take a look at. So philosophy wants to engage people; are there other media for doing that that are going to engage more people? And then how do you cut across all these different specialized language worlds?
That, the point that Richard makes about Mormons, and there was also a club called the Swearing Elders, informally. I mention that in the article that’s going to be published, kind of as an aside, there’s no formal link between the two. In essence what the Mormon seminar was, was local faculty gathering people to talk about it including people from BYU and the LDS Institute Program. Like Lowell Bennion would come and discuss, bring in people like Juanita Brooks, who we’re going to hear about very soon, and others who had things to say about specifically Mormon topics. One of the topics was the Burned Over District of New York, and they would bring in someone who had done some original scholarship on that. And I think they would meet in the student union building, where the music building is now, and have milkshakes or coffee or whatever people cared to have. [laughter] And that setting was a very small setting, and then students began to want to come, and the professors were afraid the students were spies. So they had to keep the students out, and BYU professors, and say, “You can’t keep coming,” and students come but they might be spies and you might be fired. [laughter] So that was that kind of thing.
The Great Issues Forum was happening simultaneously. But the Great Issues Forum was addressing things in a much broader ecumenical way. But some of the same topics, the nature of knowledge, these things were happening at the same time with the same personnel. Definitely. Some of the same people were participating in both. This was just abstract in the Issues. They were talking about relating the Mormon seminar to a wider plane of religion in general. This is what’s going on at the time. This was before a lot of independent Mormon scholarly venues, before Sunstone and Dialogue and the Mormon History Association, so before all that stuff. . . .
I was reminded by some of the comments about an early program called Challenge Week, back in the Fifties, Sixties. They were lectures, it was kind of a national program I guess. They were well attended, were held in the union building, and a lot of classes at the university were suspended during this Challenge Week lecture period. It was kind of an exciting time, intellectually challenging. I’m not sure how much of it involved the Philosophy Department but it was kind of a university-wide program, maybe a national program that people were going from school to school across the country.