Friday, May 22, 2009

The Myth of "the Whole Truth"

Teaching social studies is an exercise in deciding what to teach and what to ignore - whether you are talking about religious history in a church class or any other type of history in a school classroom. In the practical reality of actual classrooms, there is no such thing as "the whole truth". If there was, there would be no need for theses and dissertations and college-level courses. Furthermore, everything that is written comes from some limited perspective; each story is told through the lens of the teller. As a teacher, the only legitimate argument is over what specific part of the "whole truth" to present.

For example, Joseph Smith was commanded to repent in order to continue to be able to translate. Why would I speculate about exactly which sins Joseph had to overcome to continue the translation? He lists various weaknesses and sins in the JSH; he is chastised repeatedly in the D&C; why is it of any value to start listing specific sins when the lesson isn't about that - and when the portrayals we have of him do not come close to presenting him as infallible and sinless? Why do some people think it is critical (or even a worthwhile exercise) to take limited time and spend it trying to cram everything possible into that time?

I have a hard time biting my tongue when the Church is accused of teaching "half-truths" and not teaching "the whole truth". That simply can't be done, especially in one-hour lessons taught once a week. Under those circumstances, those who correlate the lessons and those who teach them simply must choose what to include and what to leave out. There is no other way.

I'm not saying I would craft the manuals the exact same way they are published now. I wouldn't. There are any number of things I would do differently. The reality, however, is that my effort would be my subjective effort - not any closer to "the real truth" than what we have now.


Clean Cut said...

Yes, it is an interesting balancing act, isn't it?

Good, thought provoking post.

Anonymous said...

Amen. As a seminary teacher, with 4 hours every week (the fifth is Scripture Mastery) we still have to pick and choose. So I cherry-pick: I choose what I think is most important and valueable.

Carlos U.

Steve EM said...

Good point. But I hope you're not saying the church doesn't present an overly sanitized version of its short history? To pick and chose for a focus on the more important stuff is completely understandable. Our leaders’ gross lack of candor isn’t. Failure to inoculate the members with stuff they should know has done us great harm and continues to do so.

Papa D said...

CC, yes, it's a balancing act - and one that will disappoint someone (quite a few people, actually) no matter the outcome.

Carlos, that's a perfect example - seminary. With the time constraints, it's impossible to be comprehensive.

Steve, I agree totally that the official presentations in the manuals are "sanitized", and I would write them differently if it were up to me. However, I've written curricular materials, and it really is impossible to write something that will please all and inoculate everyone properly. Ironically, and something that is rarely (if ever) considered by those who scream the loudest, it's undeniable that those same people who complain about not being presented the whole truth are the exact same people who would complain about the "spin" the Church would take (no matter what that spin was) if it tried to address everything.

I want more open and direct acknowledgment of tricky issues (like Joseph's involvement in polygamy and the racism of the early Church), but how someone reacts to the presentation of history often says as much about the person viewing that presentation as those compiling it. In the end, "full disclosure" is impossible in an official, instruction-manual-driven format - and each individual is responsible to decide how deeply s/he wants to dig into everything else. Not everyone wants to have to study it all, and those who do shouldn't try to force it on those who don't. It really is a two-edged sword.