News Story

Mormon Students Counter Drop-out Trend

At a summit this Friday, America’s Promise Alliance will contend that high school drop-out rates are increasing. The group, founded by former Secretary of State Colin Powell, has gathered data that was announced today at a press conference and will be more deeply discussed on Friday, according to the New York Sun.

Despite this and other reports describing the challenges faced by many teenagers, there are examples of exceptional teenage commitment and accomplishments across the world. One illustration is how seriously many high school-age Latter-day Saints approach education. Many Mormon youth are not only staying in school; they are also taking extra classes. 

Both secular and religious education have been emphasized in Latter-day Saint doctrine and culture, since Joseph Smith wrote in the 19th Century, quoting scripture: “The glory of God is intelligence,” “seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books … seek learning,” and “study and learn, and become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues and people.” 

President Henry B. Eyring, first counselor in the Church’s First Presidency, emphasized the link between religious and secular study in a speech to Church educators in 2001. 

“Remember, you are interested in education, not just for mortal life but for eternal life. When you see that reality clearly with spiritual sight, you will put spiritual learning first and yet not slight the secular learning. In fact, you will work harder at your secular learning than you would without that spiritual vision,” he said.

This love of learning showed up in a report by The National Study of Youth and Religion, which described Latter-day Saint youth as excelling in religious knowledge and devotion in a time when church attendance and religious study are at an all-time low. The study was conducted at the University of North Carolina and was published by Oxford University Press in Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.

Researchers interviewed more than three thousand 13-to 18-year-olds across the United States and discovered that a high percentage of Latter-day Saint youth have no or few doubts about their religious beliefs and feel they understand those beliefs, and that Latter-day Saint youth are less likely than other teens to use drugs and alcohol and are more likely to abstain from premarital sexual relationships.

John Bartowski, who helped with the research, said that Latter-day Saint teens have their own problems, but they’re more knowledgeable about and more committed to their faith and have more positive social outcomes associated with their faith, as compared with their counterparts across the country.

The results of the study have caused many to wonder what it is about Latter-day Saint culture and doctrine that helps parents shape dependable, educated and well-adjusted young people.  Part of the answer goes back to the emphasis on learning and an important rite of passage for most 14– to 18-year-old Latter-day Saints: graduating from what Church members call seminary.    

Seminary requires young people to meet five days a week, generally from about 6:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m., for four years to study the scriptures and discuss how scriptural principles can be applied in their daily lives. All this happens outside of regular high school classes and works out to be approximately 1,056 hours of religious education.

Attending seminary requires a tremendous amount of commitment and sacrifice for students who live in areas where there are not large populations of Latter-day Saints. 

Take Lisa Kell for example. She leaves her New York City home at 6 a.m., takes the subway across the East River, catches a bus, and walks through Central Park to make it on time at 6:30 a.m. 

When asked how she does this five days a week during the school year, she replied: “It’s just discipline. You just have to say, ‘ I’m going to attend seminary every morning.’ If you say, ‘Maybe I’ll attend,’ it won’t happen. You have to make a really strong decision and make it a priority. It takes a lot of self-discipline.”

Consistent self-discipline then begins to turn into confidence and character, and it shows in other aspects of these young people’s lives. 

Johannes Malzl, an early-morning seminary student in Salzburg, Austria, explained his seminary experience this way: “For me, being in seminary gives me power. When I go to school and all my friends talk about all kinds of stuff, it’s good to have some spiritual strength in the mornings.”

One of the reasons for this early morning dedication comes from the teachings of the Church. President Gordon B. Hinckley, 15th president of the Church said: “This Church came about as a result of intellectual curiosity. We believe in education, and we spend a substantial part of our budget on the education of our young people. We expect them to think. We expect them to investigate. We expect them to use their minds and dig deeply for knowledge in all fields. If we have a motto, it is this, ‘The glory of God is intelligence.’”

At public school in Ireland, all students are required to take religion class. Even though they may go to early-morning seminary, Latter-day Saint students are not excused from their school religion requirement. But their study has paid off. Louise Byrne, 17, said: “We have Franciscan friars that visited our school. When they were asking questions, they would point to me and put their fingers to their lips as if to say, ‘Shhh, don’t answer the question.’ They know I can answer it.”

Elaine O’Farrell, 15, has the same story. “I always get A’s in religion class. If my teacher asked what a word means, like covenant, I would answer. He knew I would know the answer no matter what he asked.”

More than 350,000 high school students are enrolled in seminary, 230,000 of whom attend in the morning. Seminary classes may be held during the day where there are large populations of Latter-day Saints in Utah, Arizona and Idaho. 

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