Additional Resource

Elder Cook at Stanford University Convocation — Full Transcript

The transcript of Elder Quentin L. Cook's remarks at Stanford University on October 27, 2015.

Stanford University Convocation 
October 27, 2015
“The essential role of faith and moral values in the quest for knowledge”

I express appreciation for the exceptional music renditions and the marvelous messages we have heard. I am grateful to be on this beautiful campus and in this historic Memorial Church. My three years at Stanford Law School were a seminal time for me.

Growing up in Logan, Utah, I planned on attending Utah State. I briefly had an interest in attending Stanford as an undergraduate.

I mentioned in a general conference address that in the spring of my senior year, our high school football coach informed me that the Stanford football coach wanted to have lunch with me and Merlin Olsen. He had watched both of us play in a state championship game in Utah. Those of you who are younger may not know Merlin. He was an incredible All-American tackle on the Logan High School football team where I played quarterback, safety, and returned kickoffs and punts. In high school Merlin was recruited by most football powers across the nation. Merlin ultimately played in an amazing 14 consecutive Pro Bowls. He was inducted into the pro football Hall of Fame in 1982.[1]

The lunch with the Stanford coach was at the Bluebird restaurant in Logan, Utah. After we shook hands, he never once made eye contact with me. He talked directly to Merlin but ignored me. At the end of the lunch, for the first time he turned towards me but could not remember my name. He then told Merlin, “If you choose Stanford and want to bring your friend with you, he has good enough grades and it could probably be arranged.” This experience confirmed for me that I should follow my Dad’s wise counsel who did not want me to play college football.

When I decided to go to law school, Stanford was my first choice. Mary and I loved the school, the peninsula, the people, and the weather. We lived in the Burlingame area for 33 years, where we raised our family. We enjoyed Stanford football games on Saturdays in the fall. I believe we would still be in California if I had not been called as a General Authority.

Our daughter Kathryn, her husband, David, and our son Larry, who are all here tonight, received their undergraduate degrees from Stanford. David also graduated from the business school, and my wife, Mary, did graduate work in education. My brother’s grandson, Thomas Cook, is here now working on his PhD in chemistry. Tyler Johnson, who welcomed us this evening, is the grandson of my mother’s sister. So Stanford has had a remarkable influence in our lives, and we are grateful for the wonderful education and all of the other opportunities which it has provided to us.

I can remember how impressed I was the first time I drove up Palm Drive and viewed the Memorial Church. In those days the law school was essentially next door. The law school and the Memorial Church seemed to complement each other. I appreciate in particular that Leland and Jane Stanford went to such great effort to place this Memorial Church at the center of the entrance to the campus.

I have always felt that Memorial Church is not only the architectural center and crown jewel of this beautiful campus but also, that as Jane Stanford intended, it has great symbolism: a memorial church at the heart of higher learning. Elder Lance Wickman spoke here last year; we have been friends and colleagues for over 30 years. He expressed beautifully my own feelings and predilections. He said, “We live in a day when secular education on the college campus reigns supreme. Universities pride themselves on academic prowess. They grade one another on the credentials of their faculty and the intellectual gifts of their students. Among such, Stanford University has few peers. And yet, in such a day as ours, it is well to remember that this university has a different, even a special heritage … not just as an institution of secular learning, but as a place of spiritual development as well. Few universities of today were founded with such a rich legacy for both the mind and the soul.”[2]

This is a wonderful backdrop for the principles of “light and truth” I wish to explore with you this evening. My emphasis is the essential role of faith and moral values in the quest for knowledge.

In a recent essay by Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth, he articulates the concern I have about the diminished role of faith, moral values, and religion in the modern era. He states:

If there is one thing the great institutions of the modern world do not do, it is to provide meaning. Science tells us how but not why. Technology gives us power but cannot guide us as to how to use that power. The market gives us choices but leaves us uninstructed as to how to make those choices. The liberal democratic state gives us freedom to live as we choose but refuses, on principle, to guide us as to how to choose.

Science, technology, the free market and the liberal democratic state have enabled us to reach unprecedented achievements in knowledge, freedom, life expectancy and affluence. They are among the greatest achievements of human civilization and are to be defended and cherished.

But they do not answer the three questions that every reflective individual will ask at some time in his or her life: Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live? The result is that the 21st century has left us with a maximum of choice and a minimum of meaning.[3]

This articulates in a beautiful fashion the essence of my message. I am deeply concerned that faith, accountability to God, and the religious impulse are so often seen as antithetical to serious academic pursuits. I am equally concerned that the foundations which have historically supported faith, accountability to God, and the religious impulse are increasingly being marginalized in a secular world and derided and even banished from the public square. One humanities department dean has pointed out that in a single generation, “the books we loved became fodder for deconstructionist theory and politicization while the writing … grew ugly.” She argues for “a curriculum of serious reading that conforms to what Matthew Arnold called ‘the best which has been thought and said in the world.’”[4]

David Brooks, in an essay in the New York Times earlier this month, titled “The Big University,” articulates some of these same issues. He notes that “many American Universities were founded as religious institutions, explicitly designed to cultivate their students’ spiritual and moral natures. But over the course of the 20th century they became officially or effectively secular.” He continues, “Administrators and professors dropped spiritual language and moral prescription either because they didn’t know what to say or because they didn’t want to alienate any part of their diversifying constituencies.” He also indicates that part of the problem is the “pressure” for career training. He then suggests several options that seem to me to be a good starting point for remedying the situation. His first suggestion is to reveal moral options. He emphasizes four moral traditions that have blessed civilization: the Greek tradition, the Jewish tradition, the Christian tradition, and the scientific tradition.[5] He believes these traditions should be taught as options for people to find meaning in their individual lives.

I believe many institutions have lost their way. They have abandoned the basic moral high ground that gives meaning to this life and has guided civilizations for centuries. It is the heart of the message I am conveying this evening.

But first, we must acknowledge that the entire burden for training and teaching young adults is not the responsibility of academia, particularly in areas of moral values, faith, and accountability to God. Many families and society as a whole have largely abdicated their responsibilities to assist the rising generation with the moral values that have been the foundation of civilization for the last several hundred years and in some cases even millennia.

In 1976 Daniel Patrick Moynihan was running for the United States Senate from New York.[6] He expressed concern about a number of issues. The one I remember best has not been reported in recent years. [7] Moynihan almost tongue in cheek quoted a Princeton University demographer who had referred to those between the ages of 14 and 24 as “barbarians”: “Every society throughout history has been invaded by barbarians. Even barbarians were invaded by barbarians.” He called that age group from 14 to 24 the barbarians. They are people who don’t know how to behave in society. And the older generations must go through a process of teaching them.

His argument was that this is a particular problem when the percentage of the population between the ages of 14 to 24 is very large compared to older generations. Moynihan noted that this occurred throughout history to the Chinese, the Germans, the Hindus, the Romans, and the Huns.

I fully realize that Stanford attracts only the best and the brightest students who are looking to make a positive difference in the world. Any inference that they are barbarians would simply not be true. I am also pleased with our young people in the Church, including the approximately 230,000 who are currently serving or who have served as missionaries in the last five years. They are both morally grounded and intellectually capable. They epitomize being virtuous, lovely, of good report, or praiseworthy.[8]

Nevertheless, in looking at society at large, the teaching and training of the younger generation—the rising generation—is a primary responsibility of the family. Every family must address the challenge of how to take young people from the children’s table to the adult table, thus overcoming the status of being the so-called “barbarians” that Moynihan described. Part of this is acquiring good manners; part of this is gaining knowledge. But regardless of how knowledgeable or how accomplished one’s intellect may be, becoming morally civilized in order to move to the adult table is a different matter. It depends on transmitting the serious moral values required in any civilized society. These values include being grateful for the sacrifice and goodness of one’s forebears, being humble about what one does not know, and trusting in a higher power than one’s self. For Latter-day Saints it means having faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and His Atonement. It should be noted that for hundreds of years a combination of good books and teaching provided a clear path to achieve most of these objectives.

The dramatic changes that have occurred in the communications world have created unique issues with respect to achieving this important goal. On the one hand, it is miraculous that this smartphone that I am holding in my hand, when skillfully used, can provide much of the information housed in the magnificent Green Library located here on the Stanford campus or in thousands of libraries around the world. On the other hand, the overwhelming emphasis of social media is transmitted to the child’s table. This is done in childlike terms using simplified concepts that do little to prepare the recipient for the adults’ table. This is of great concern to me. I worry that the role of history, Judeo-Christian heritage, other faiths, and the humanities—speaking broadly—have played has been significantly diminished. Simplified sound-bite headlines are provided to the child’s table often without the deep background, moral clarity, and analysis that would move them to the adults’ table.

I am prayerful that my concern will be short-lived. In some ways we are in the early years of the communications revolution. I am hopeful that those who understand the technology will be determined to utilize it to move the so-called barbarians to the adults’ table.

Latter-day Saint doctrine is unique and unequivocal about the role of intelligence and the importance of education and knowledge. In section 93 of our Doctrine and Covenants we are taught that:

  1. Truth is independent—it “is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come” (D&C 93:24).
  2. “The glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth” (D&C 93:36).
  3. Exercising our agency, our right and power to choose, to find light and truth is essential.

Faith and knowledge require equal effort and commitment. We cannot expect to have both light and truth at the center of our lives if all of our efforts are expended on entertainment, amassing wealth, sports, or other pastimes.

Ever since my missionary service in Great Britain, one of my avocations has been British history. I am cognizant that Western civilization has been under attack for some time, and so has the teaching of it. Western civilization has a strong foundational support from Christianity. Christianity is also under attack; the whole basis of historic education in the United States is in flux.

 “Some criticize western civilization study as narrow, limiting, arrogant and discriminatory, asserting that it has little or no value for those of non-European origins.”[9] I respectfully disagree with this criticism. Let us review a few of the underpinnings of Western civilization.

First for me is the King James Version of the Bible published in 1611; it contains the Judeo-Christian values shared by the vast majority of the citizens in the United States. This Bible speaks to our personal religious beliefs and commitments. It evokes language that speaks to the heart. It is blessed by the enhancement of the English language produced by Shakespeare and the eloquent translations into English by William Tyndale.

Second are the magnificent writings of William Shakespeare, which paved the way for the language of literature and social discourse in the English tongue.

Third is the English Common Law. At about the same time the King James Bible was being translated, Sir Edward Coke, spelled C-o-k-e, but usually pronounced Cook (obviously no relation), produced the consolidation of English law in written form. His work was to law what Shakespeare’s was to literature and the King James Bible was to religion. Many of the provisions of the common law were a foundation for the U.S. Constitution, which is viewed by Latter-day Saints as both inspired and necessary to the Restoration of the gospel.

I am concerned when I see young scholars deconstruct and discard foundations that have been blessed by heaven. Some view our history with a 21st-century lens and can only see the flaws of men while ignoring their own. They are willing to throw away grand and glorious principles and even essential doctrines.

I am also concerned that the basic principles and morality the Savior taught are under serious attack in our generation. Recently a writer asserted that when we talk about happiness, we are usually talking about something else: morality. He believes that what is considered moral has changed. He chronicles the principle of morality through the centuries. Speaking of our day, the writer notes the emphasis on authenticity and self-aggrandizement and then describes “some of the moral values that seem to underlie happiness today: be real, be strong, be productive—and most important, don’t rely on other people to achieve these goals, because your fate is, of course, in your own hands.”[10]

The restored gospel unequivocally proclaims a position completely contrary to this philosophy of morality and the foundations of true happiness. We not only follow Jesus Christ but also rely upon His grace and Atonement. Happiness in this life and in the life to come are interconnected by righteousness. The restored gospel gives us the blueprint of the plan of happiness.

Some of the moral options David Brooks suggested in his essay on the “Big University” are consistent with my message of light and truth. I will use two of my heroes, Hans Sloane and William Wilberforce, to illustrate certain aspects of these options.

Hans Sloane illustrates the moral scientific and business tradition. Many years ago I was visiting London with my family. We stayed in a flat in Sloane Square. There is a statue of Sir Hans Sloane in the center of the square. As a young man in the mid-1600s, Hans Sloane became a physician and then developed a strong interest in botany. The 17th-century physician used herbal remedies. Medications were primarily herbal and not based on chemistry as they are today.

In 1687 Sloane accompanied the Duke of Albemarle to Jamaica as his personal physician. He catalogued the flora and fauna of Jamaica and identified about 800 new species of plants.

In Jamaica Sloane noticed that the people drank cocoa, which he found “nauseous.” Sloane experimented with making medicines acceptable to children by mixing them with milk and honey. He mixed the cocoa with milk and sugar and found that it was delicious. Sloane became wealthy when he sold his recipe for milk chocolate.

What is most interesting to me is that Sloane used much of that money to collect botanical and other specimens that he had become intrigued with as a young physician. He bought people’s collected specimens from all over the world, and he put together an enormous collection. When he died he made provision for his collection to become the property of the British nation. That was the beginning of the British Museum.[11]

I relate this account because it exemplifies the love of learning and the synergism of knowledge. Elder Russell M. Nelson, the president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, was a pioneer in the development of open-heart surgery, which has significantly blessed those who live in our time. Some years ago I asked him about that incredible history and his role in it. We discussed it for some time and then Elder Nelson humbly stated, “How wonderful it is that the Lord who knows all allows us the great joy of discovering certain pieces of knowledge.”

2 Nephi 9:29 reads, “But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God.” Knowledge has always been important, and today we are at the threshold of so many new and exciting scientific and technological advancements. Certainly much of this will have enormous benefits for the Church and for the entire human family. Knowledge, whether old or new, is important.

My second hero is William Wilberforce. He was born on August 24, 1759. No one accomplished more to abolish slavery.

Wilberforce was a major part of a group of devoutly religious Christian Evangelicals who considered themselves ambassadors for God. They were determined to be examples of godliness, holiness, and compassion. “Above all, the Evangelicals felt an overpowering sense of accountability, and a responsibility to God, for their actions.”[12] Wilberforce was educated at St. John’s College Cambridge. He became a member of the British Parliament and was a close friend of William Pitt, the younger, who would later become prime minister. He was a voracious reader[13] and an avid lover of nature. He saw flowers as “the smiles of the deity.”

Wilberforce, Charles and John Wesley, Hannah Moore, and other Evangelicals were instrumental in transforming a society from “drunkenness, gambling, duelling, the unfairness of the penal system, every form of immorality and the lack of observation of the Sabbath.”[14]

William Wilberforce will forever be remembered for being the principal force for the abolition of slavery. He proposed bill after bill in Parliament and spent his life to put a stop to “the most execrable and inhuman traffic that ever disgraced the Christian world.”[15] After nearly 50 years of promoting measures that would one day lead to the emancipation of slaves, the goal was accomplished in Great Britain the week before he died, July 29, 1833.

According to his biographer, William Hague, who was recently foreign secretary of the United Kingdom, Wilberforce’s great fear was “that religion and morality would go out of the window with political and social stability as indeed happened in France.” Highly educated himself and a champion of education, “Wilberforce continued to believe that the real revolution that was required was in morals and education.” Accordingly, Wilberforce never supported “reform that was antithetical to religion.”[16]

Wilberforce “stands out as a beacon of light, which the passing of two centuries has scarcely dimmed.”[17]

These two examples of Sloane and Wilberforce represent the kind of moral options that both David Brooks and Lord Sacks discussed. They are also at the heart of my challenge this evening. The pursuit of light and truth has never been easy. It was not meant to be easy. The quest for both faith and knowledge must be an eternal commitment. We must be at the forefront of both promulgating and defending light and truth.

I am profoundly aware of the contributions that have been made here in Silicon Valley. The technology developed here has blessed the entire world. Software applications have created new business models that have displaced centuries old business models in a relatively short period of time. Unfortunately, some have assumed that the moral code can be displaced in the same way. There is not an app that will replace basic morality.

I am proud of Stanford’s history. I believe the Stanfords, particularly Jane, would be very pleased that Stanford Law School is at the forefront of defending religious liberty. The Stanford Religious Liberty Clinic, headed by Professor James A. Sonne, is helping to train and instill in the minds of young lawyers the importance of protecting those who feel accountable to God because of its overwhelming significance to the well-being of society.

I am pleased that Bill Mumma, a devout Catholic and president and chairman of the Beckett Fund, is with us here this evening. Under his guidance the Beckett Fund is a major defender of religious freedom.

As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints we must be advocates for religious freedom and defend its rightful place in the public square. Faith and moral values must not be separated from knowledge. The intersection of faith and knowledge is where both wisdom and mercy reside and where great gifts from heaven are most often bestowed.

It is my profound hope and prayer that this marvelous congregation can be a voice and a moral compass for both light and truth. I testify to you that it is essential for faith and moral values to be at the center of our quest for knowledge.

Thank you.


[1] Merlin Olsen was a Hall of Fame football player, actor, and NFL commentator for NBC. He won the Outland Trophy while playing football for Utah State University. He played pro football for the Los Angeles Rams. On television he played Jonathan Garvey opposite Michael Landon on Little House on the Prairie and had his own television program, Father Murphy. Merlin is now deceased (March 11, 2010), and we miss him very much.

[2] Lance B. Wickman, “With All Thy Getting, Get Understanding,” Stanford University LDS Convocation, October 9, 2014.

[3] Jonathan Sacks, “Swords into Plowshares,” Wall Street Journal Review, Oct. 3–4, 2015, C2.

[4] Paula Marantz Cohen, “The Humanities Need a Course Correction,” The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 10–11, 2015, A11 (English professor and dean at Drexel University).

[5] David Brooks, “The Big University,” The New York Times, Oct. 6, 2015, A27

[6] He was very concerned about a number of issues that have proven to be true over the years, such as the tremendous increase in the out-of-wedlock births.

[7] Wednesday, August 25, 1976, Daily News, Bowling Green, Kentucky.

[8] See Philippians 4:8; Articles of Faith 1:13.

[9] Donald Kagan, New York Times Book Review, Nov. 27, 2011, 27.

[10] Carl Cederstrom, “The Dangers of Happiness,” New York Times, July 19, 2015, 8.

[11] See “British Museum-Sir Hans Sloane,” See also “Sloane, Sir Hans (1660-1735): his life and legacy,” www.ncbi.nlm, See also “Sloane, Hans,” The foundation collection of the Natural History part of the entire British Museum came because of the great desire for knowledge from this incredible man Hans Sloane.

[12] William Hague, William Wilberforce, The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner (2007), 92–93.

[13] Ibid, p. 204.

[14] Ibid, p. 92.

[15] Ibid, p. 354–55.

[16] Ibid, p. 445–46

[17] Ibid, p. 515.

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