Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » A Terrifying Proposal

A Terrifying Proposal

By: Ardis E. Parshall - February 17, 2009

B.H. Roberts makes a suggestion in Volume 1 (1907) of his Seventy’s Course in Theology that terrifies me, confident as I generally am in speaking before a group or in directing a class discussion. In amongst the paragraphs on selecting “efficient” teachers and the necessity for class members to study quorum lessons at home before meeting for discussion (it “should be insisted upon”), he offers this proposal, which I have never seen echoed in any other church manual:

Class Critics.

Class critics may be appointed to criticize in kindness and in fairness, but frankly and honestly, the class exercises; not necessarily confining their criticism to defects alone. Excellence may be noted and moderately praised, but benefits will naturally arise chiefly from having defects in matter and manner pointed out to the member rendering an execise, such as awkwardness in bearing, unsuitableness of phraseology, wrong use of words, errors in grammar, mispronunciation of words, misconceptions in ideas, defects in logical treatment, inappropriateness of illustration — let all such things be subjects for fair but frank criticism, and submitted to willingly and in good part, for purposes of improvement, and beyond a doubt such criticism would be very helpful.

If the suggestion of the appointment of the critic be acted upon, a different one should be appointed, say every month, or not less seldom than every two months.

Such a practice makes sense if you recall that, until our generation, seventies were organized not only among General Authorities but on a local level, and that B.H. Roberts was writing for men who could expect to be called as missionaries repeatedly during their adult lives. He was training priesthood bearers to be public speakers, to address street meetings, to engage in debates, to hold their own against highly educated ministers of other denominations. A critic’s feedback, if offered “in kindness” and accepted “willingly,” could have gone a long way toward supplying the experience lacking among farm boys whose formal education may have ended with the 8th grade.

Elder Roberts put it in more powerful terms, as

Being special witnesses of the name of Christ in all the world, preachers (i.e., teachers) of the gospel, and authorized under the direction of the Twelve Apostles to act in the name of the Lord in “building up the Church and regulating all the affairs of the same in all nations” (Doc. & Cov. [107:34]), it behooves them to become witnesses who understand the truth of which they testify, skilled workmen, ambassadors of whom the Master need not be ashamed.

But in today’s context, I admit it, the idea of a class critic responding to my teaching or to the comments offered by class members is nothing short of terrifying.

I hope that doesn’t mean that B.H. Roberts would be ashamed of me, because he is one of my all-time favorite writers, thinkers, and teachers.



  1. It’s not such a bad idea and can be an effective method of improving class lessons if implemented correctly.

    Once upon a time, when serving as Elders Quorum President, my presidency and I were discouraged at the quality of instruction in our quorum lessons. In our presidency meetings, we spend considerable time coming up with what we though would be helpful improvements. After we designed the “ideal lesson” we kindly released all of our current instructors and proceeded with teaching the lessons ourselves, each of us taking turn.

    The members of the presidency that weren’t teaching the lesson would take notes on how the lesson progressed and then in our next presidency meeting, we would critique the lesson in full and make suggestions for the next lesson. We continued to do this for about 4 months until we though we had a good system worked out.

    We then called a few new instructors, but instead of unleashing them on the quorum outright, we explained to them that the presidency would continue teaching for a while longer, and we asked the instructors to critique the lessons along with the rest of the presidency. We then invited these instructors to our presidency meetings where we all went over the lessons. They offered additional insight that we hadn’t considered. They also bought into the teaching method we had come up with by helping to fine tune it. This gaven them direct ownership in the methodology.

    After about a month of this, we worked the instructors into the rotation and resigned to having the presidency only teach the first Sunday lesson.

    After all was said and done, the general consensus was that the Sunday quorum lessons had improved.

    Comment by JM — February 17, 2009 @ 11:35 am

  2. JM: Where do you live? I’m moving to YOUR Ward.

    Ardis: Yeah, I agree. “[B]eyond a doubt such criticism would be very helpful,” but these days, probably only “helpful” in ensuring that the Bishop wouldn’t be able to find anyone to accept a calling to teach. But what an interesting find. And I’m sure Brother Roberts would approve of your teaching, although I can’t vouch for your efforts against “mispronunciation of words.” 😉

    Comment by Hunter — February 17, 2009 @ 11:47 am

  3. I really like what you did, JM – even as I am hesitant about the exact form Elder Roberts suggested.

    I’m going to be thinking about this, Ardis – and looking for a way to bring it up in the appropriate places.

    Comment by Ray — February 17, 2009 @ 11:48 am

  4. Hunter,

    I was released long ago and now live in a different city. My current ward offers the same sub-par teaching found across the globe. No need for you to move.

    Comment by JM — February 17, 2009 @ 11:49 am

  5. JM- Loved the “teacher training methods” you employed. lol I am sure your instruction improved 100%. I always love to have “constructive criticism” when it comes to my lessons. I feel that it provides me with a greater understanding of how to teach with more power. Still, we cannot discount the influence of the Spirit in any classroom situation. After all it is really the Spirit that teaches now, isn’t it?

    Comment by IntheDoghouse — February 17, 2009 @ 12:31 pm

  6. I believe in the Spirit, Doghouse, but I also believe the Spirit needs some decent material to work with in the shape of well-prepared lessons. 8)

    I have a few inelegant, uneducated turns of phrase that no matter how hard I try I cannot seem to strip from my speech. I just know that if someone were listening with the goal of drawing those things to my attention, I would be so nervous that I would use them even more. Suggestions for, say, responding to class member comments, or using more scripture in a lesson, is the kind of critique I could gladly accept, if it’s given “kindly.” Just please, B.H., don’t have a critic there to make public suggestions that would make me more self conscious of my body and the awkward way I might stand or gesture!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 17, 2009 @ 12:44 pm

  7. My former employer sent me to a training class to learn how to give presentations. They recorded our every attempt and played it back on a TV screen in order to give constructive criticism. It was grueling, but the instructor was kind and I learned a great deal. I understand this is done in the MTC now. In 1907, where else would it have happened?

    Comment by BruceCrow — February 17, 2009 @ 2:22 pm

  8. Since you have probably never had to suffer through a lesson in priesthood meeting, Ardis, you must have no idea how truly awful much of what passes for teaching in the quorums is. I say, let’s bring back Brother B.H. from the dead, and see if he can whip this generation of teachers into shape.

    We could try starting here in Brooklyn, where he spent several years as president of the Eastern States Mission. Maybe we could go hold a seance on the street in front of the old mission home, and get him to come to us from the vasty deep.

    Comment by Mark B. — February 17, 2009 @ 2:28 pm

  9. Seriously, I think you’re right, Ardis. Look at his suggestions of things that should be pointed out:

    awkwardness in bearing, unsuitableness of phraseology, wrong use of words, errors in grammar, mispronunciation of words, misconceptions in ideas, defects in logical treatment, inappropriateness of illustration

    Worthwhile, perhaps, certainly idealistic, but put this in more general terms. Many of our PH, RS, and SS teachers were raised in an era where every player on the soccer team got a trophy. We’re a society that thrives on constant reaffirmation of mediocrity. (“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone, people like me!”) Honest but fair criticism? How horrible!

    Comment by kevinf — February 17, 2009 @ 5:30 pm

  10. I’m afraid of the honest-but-fair criticism, kevinf. The certainty of honest-but-ignorant criticism just makes me mad. :(

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 17, 2009 @ 5:50 pm

  11. This is great stuff! I will be conducting a teacher development workshop for my branch in March. I can use BH as an “attention getter”.

    I like the method JM used. In my unit we are always looking for ways to improve the sub-par teaching. We have a number of professional teachers and university professors. Unfortunately, most are in leadership or have stake callings and we can’t utilize their talents.

    I do think BH brings up some good points. I think lesson preparation needs to focus on correcting “misconceptions in ideas, defects in logical treatment.” On the other hand, I can tolerate some grammatical errors pronunciation mistakes if they’re not too distracting. I think most of us are guilty of those things. But I think doctrinal integrity is quite important.

    Comment by Steve C. — February 18, 2009 @ 9:23 am

  12. I mispell wurds when i right them on the chalk bord all the time. it duzn’t seam to be a problim with the class, though.

    Comment by BruceCrow — February 18, 2009 @ 10:40 am

  13. Iff’n ya wuz tuh go out intuh the big world whar the swells talk gooder ‘n you do, tho, it might could be a dang good thing fer somebody what could talk like one o’ them school marms to larn you to talk good. Cuz its allers easy fer folks to make fun o’ ya fer talkin bad, as if yer mountain speechifyin meant that only stupid folks could b’leve in yer religion.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 18, 2009 @ 11:02 am

  14. I would like to call attention to the unsuitableness of phraseology and wrong use of words in paragraphs 2, 3, 7 and 13

    Comment by J. Paul — February 19, 2009 @ 12:43 pm

  15. Also 1, 5, 8, 9, 10,

    Comment by J. Paul — February 19, 2009 @ 12:45 pm

  16. J.Paul – I think you must be on the wrong topic. The decoding of the letters by numbers is on the Enigma post 😉

    Comment by iguacufalls — February 19, 2009 @ 1:01 pm

  17. Sic ‘im, iguacufalls! Besides, J. Paul’s posture was not correct while he was typing his criticism.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 19, 2009 @ 1:18 pm

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