By John A. Tvedtnes

Part 1:  Learning in the Lord’s Way

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a five-part series that will teach LDS students how to study and learn – from a spiritual perspective.  Look for part 2 tomorrow in Meridian.

This information is a very personal thing. It is like a lengthy letter from me to you. I have written many books and articles, using a very impersonal style, but the message I have for you is so important that this one must be personal. What I want to demonstrate is how an average student learned how to achieve beyond his wildest dreams. It is my story, and for that reason it also must be very personal.

Over the years, as I have taught both university and high school courses, students have frequently inquired as to how I have been able to learn so much. It is difficult to explain except in very personal terms, and consequently some of what I will have to say may seem like bragging. But given the topic, it is important that I illustrate the principles in this way. I will be describing a system that has worked for me. And it is because I am convinced that it can work for others that I have decided to write this brief essay.

1.  A Personal Story

Study and learn, and become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues, and people. (D&C 90:15)

Before turning to the system itself, let’s examine some of its results.

Based on my high school GPA (grade-point average) of 2.57 and on the results of my college entrance exams, the University of Utah predicted, in 1960, that my college GPA would be 2.15, a “C.” (GPA or grade-point average is based on the following: 4 = A, 3 = B, 2 = C, 1 = D and 0 = E or F.)

Little did the Testing Bureau know that I had, since graduating from high school, found a system that would bring me greater success – a system that I have improved over the years. My first quarter at the university showed a GPA of 3.5.  By the time I graduated with my bachelor’s degree, I had achieved an overall GPA of 3.97, a nearly perfect “A.” I continued to employ my new-found system through other university work and managed to earn a Graduate Certificate and two master’s degrees, then went on to doctoral work.

I found it very difficult to learn French well in high school, but did well during the year I studied that language at the university before going on to serve a mission in France and Switzerland and gained near-native profi­ciency in that language. In the following years, I went on to study a number of other languages. Though only a “C” student in high school English, I have since had eight books and over 200 articles in print, with many more in preparation.

What enabled this average high school student to jump to an “A” level? It can be briefly summed up in the Lord’s admonition to “seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118; 109:7, 14) and his promise that an individual can gain intelligence “through his diligence and obedience” (D&C 130:19). It was through diligence and obedience to the plan presented herein that my scholastic abilities improved.

So effective is this system that I was able to complete each of my master’s degrees in four quarters (one year) of work – including the writing of the thesis. Each thesis was accepted as I wrote it, without alterations by the professors on my two committees. Meanwhile, I taught university courses in eight different fields for seventeen years, and have presented dozens of papers at archaeological and linguistic symposia.

I have a firm conviction that the system used successfully in my life can work for others. Consequently, in this series I propose to provide a detailed discussion of each of the factors that I consider important in becoming a good student.

2.  Intelligence

The glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth. (D&C 93:36)

This scripture has long guided the educational pursuits of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A tradition of excellence in education began with Joseph Smith’s founding of the School of the Prophets in Kirtland, Ohio, and of the University of Nauvoo, Illinois.

Since that time, the passage quoted above has guided the establishment and conduct of Church seminaries, institutes of religion, schools and universities. It has also led to extensive curriculum devel­opment for the priesthood quorums and auxiliary organizations of the Church, as well as the publication of news­papers, magazines, books and conference reports.

The Intelligence of God

The subject of God’s intelligence is also found in Abraham 3:19, where we read that no two spirits are equally intelligent and that the Lord is “more intelligent than they all.” While this may, in fact, refer to some “native intelligence,” nevertheless it is clear from other passages of scripture that intelligence can be acquired, “for intelligence cleaveth unto intelligence” (D&C 88:40).

To the Latter-day Saint, intelligence and knowledge are not merely means to earthly wealth and fame. They are the very eternal principles that guide our brief stay in mortality. With divine insights into the eternal nature of mankind, Joseph Smith declared:

Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resur­rection. And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life, through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come. (D&C 130:18-19)

When the Lord declared “the glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth,” he warned that this light may be taken away “through disobedience” (D&C 93:36-39).

For many years, western society has depended on “IQ” (intelligence quotient) tests to determine the native intelligence or learning ability of students. It was generally believed that intelligence was mostly determined by genetic factors. However, subsequent research has shown that environmental influences play a great role in the development of intelligence and that one can – by altering the environment – actually enhance the IQ of an individual. In the United States, numerous programs, such as Head Start for students from educationally-deprived families, have been initiated to take advantage of this fact.

Learning Factors

My own experience of living in different cultures has led me to believe that systems of logic are determined principally by four factors:

1. Physical environment

2. Language

3. Social structure

4. World view (based mostly on religious beliefs)

Altering any one of these factors should then lead to a broadening of one’s perspectives. But from an eternal perspective, it is important to realize that God, because he is the most intelligent of all beings, must of necessity have the very best system. It remains for us to discover what that system is and to integrate it into our lives.

No matter whether one agrees with the concept of “native intelligence” for individual spirits or not, it is obvious that no one human being lives up to his full divine capacity as a child of God. One of our major goals should be to improve upon our current status and past achievements.

Some Axioms

You may doubt these statements of fact at first. But in the end, the individual who tests them out will find them to be true.

1. There is no such thing as a “dumb” person unless there has been serious brain damage or an unresolved psychological problem.

Obviously, there are people whose mental capacity is limited because of the factors mentioned here. But even they have the ability to progress in knowledge and in various skills. Often, they are held back by the limited expectations of family and friends. Let me illustrate.

Several years ago, while I was living in Israel with my family and teaching in the Brigham Young University semester abroad program, our faculty was enhanced by one of BYU’s well-known religion professors. He had brought his wife and children and a group of students to live and study in Jerusalem for a semester.

My (then) three boys immediately took a liking to the professor’s son, who was in their general age group. As I noted this in a faculty meeting one day, the father cautioned me that his son was retarded and had Down syndrome. I hadn’t noticed, and neither had my children. I determined not to tell them and my decision proved to be justified. Over the next six months, the “retarded” boy participated with equal skill in the Boy Scout program and in church learning activities with my sons, who never once suggested that he was different. At length, I told them what the boy’s father had reported to me.

The reaction of my sons was unanimous. They were certain that I was wrong. The boy was perfectly normal as far as they were concerned – just as smart, just as capable as they. There was a small miracle in this. The children treated the boy as if he were perfectly normal, so he behaved in a perfectly normal way!

2. As children of God, our potential for learning is, in the eternal scheme, infinite.

Our purpose in coming to earth is threefold: to gain a body, to prove ourselves, and to learn through experience. If we truly believe this, how can we doubt that our Heavenly Father has endowed us with the capacity to reason and to learn? One of the best ways for an individual to become a good student is to realize that he or she is a child of God. He did not set us up to fail – though some of us will do so by choice.

Our success on earth becomes the success of our Father as well. He is therefore willing to assist us in our quest for knowledge.

3. Every human being is capable of improving both his knowledge and his learning skills.

Various estimates have been made by scientists of the capacity of the human brain. Some have said that we use only a small percentage of our thinking abilities. Even if we used most of our capacity, there would still be room for improvement. The existence of courses in speedreading, “superlearning,” memory and study skills, etc., testifies to the fact that everyone can learn much, much more.

4. Negative experiences of the past can be overcome and lead to growth that will astound even those who know us best.

The principle of repentance applies in all walks of life.  Given enough determination and time, we can attain any and all of our righteous goals.

3.  Communications Skills

Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying. (Ephesians 4:29)

Only the true hermit finds no reason to communicate with other human beings. For the masses of humanity, communication one with another is one of the most important and most enjoyable aspects of society.  Without communication, there would be no learning, no cooperation, no progress. It was writing, more than anything, that enabled mankind to develop civilization, and it is through the written preservation of knowledge that it continues to progress. It is essential that our communications systems be attuned to those of our fellow man.

The Wisdom of Age

A child acquires speech from adults and other children with whom he or she has contact. If he wishes to develop his speech patterns to the fullest, it is important that he always keep open the lines of communication between himself and his elders. This remains important even as one grows older.

The teenager, for example, who cuts himself off from his parents and mingles only with his peers sometimes develops a “hip” speech that, while comprehensible to other teenagers, is often unintel­ligible to others. He may find this quite amusing and feel that he and his group are quite special. But as time passes, he will find himself and some few others isolated from society, unable to fully communicate. In a sense, they will have developed their own language to such an extent that it will be difficult for them to use normative English.

The “generation gap” can therefore be an impediment to the learning process. In its extreme form, it can place the individual beyond the reach of the scientific and cultural knowledge of those who have preceded him. It may make him feel special at a time when he is beginning to assert his independence, but if abused it can cut him off from the society that enabled him to developed the very independence he so cherishes. The wise student will not close and lock doors behind him in his efforts to find a place in the world.

Even when parents and elders are wrong, it is possible to learn from their mistakes. But it would be very unwise to presume to judge one whose experiences in life surpass our own. To second-guess the medical doctor and conclude that his diagnosis is wrong could be dangerous for a sick patient.  Likewise, to assume that an older person is wrong simply because we do not agree with him could be a mistake.

If the younger generation surpasses –  as it most certainly shall – the achievements of its parents, it is in great part because they stand upon the shoulders of their predecessors. These, too, rose above the previous generation by adding new knowledge to what they had been taught. Let us not belittle those who have enabled us to do better than they. Rather, let us praise and honor them and learn from them while they yet remain with us.

One of the principal ways in which former generations communi­cate with their descendants is through written records. The ability to read is therefore one of the more important talents necessary to proper study.

It is best to begin reading at a young age. I had the good fortune to have a mother who had taught school prior to her marriage. When I was four years old, she began instruction in reading, writing, cooking, and other skills. I have tried to follow her example by encouraging my own children in these and other areas.

For my part, because I read dozens of books every year, plus many articles, I rarely have recourse to a dictionary and am almost never caught in a spelling error. The dictionary is essential in one’s younger years, however, and one should never fear using it at any age.

More important than the dictionary is to read, read, read!  And don’t confine yourself to a given field or subject. Rather, read many books in many different fields. My own major interests from elementary school through college passed from American history and biography to astronomy to rocketry to nuclear physics to psychology and finally to the fields in which I received degrees: anthropology, linguistics, Middle East studies and Hebrew.

Eventually, a good student will build up his own library. It will of necessity have small beginnings, but should be constantly growing. Quality books are a priceless treasure. They are generally the first items of personal property confiscated and destroyed by totalitarian governments that seek to control people’s thoughts and actions. Books give us more than information; they provide intellectual freedom.

My personal library now numbers about 5,000 volumes and has, at times, exceeded that number. Some of my friends have much larger libraries, sometimes, including microfilm readers. In my younger years, when I had little money for the purchase of books, I made at least weekly trips to the library.  Some of your best hours can be spent in a school or public library. In recent years, I have acquired additional materials on CD-ROM for use on the computer and have learned much from various web sites.

The Lord has instructed us, “See ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118; 109:14). The quality of books we read determines the quality of our vocabulary and thoughts. Care should be exercised in the selection of books, so that only worthwhile items fill our bookshelves and, consequently, our minds.

The scriptures, of course, should form an important part of our reading repertoire. Jesus counseled, “Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me” (John 5:39).

When I was eight years of age, my mother purchased for me a Bible, which I read before my ninth birthday – whereupon I began reading the Book of Mormon. I read the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price at the age of twelve, having received my first copy – again from my mother – as a birthday present. I have known Latter-day Saints whose parents had them read the Book of Mormon (and sometimes the Bible) before baptism at age eight. During my adult life, I have made it a point to have family scripture reading on a daily basis, in addition to personal scripture study.

Some people find it easy to read novels but cannot get excited about the scriptures. The reason undoubtedly lies in the attitude taken upon approaching these sacred writings. Various excuses are made for not reading them. They are too “dry.”  They are too “ancient” and therefore cannot apply to modern life. They are written in an archaic language and hence too “difficult.” But there are ways to make the scriptures exciting.

I have long made it a practice to read the Book of Mormon twice a year and the Bible and Pearl of Great Price at least once a year. The Doctrine and Covenants is not so frequently read from cover to­ cover, though it continually plays a role in the research of scripturally-related topics.

As I read the Bible or the Book of Mormon, I try to set a new goal each time. I search out specific information. One time, I will note facts of geography, another time the chronology, another the genealogy – taking notes each time. Or I will take specific topics, such as discourses and explanations of faith, salvation, atonement, etc. In this manner, an already-familiar book becomes an exciting new adventure as emphasis is placed each time on different aspects.

For the novice in Bible reading, I recommend beginning by reading the historical books, then turning to the prophets and lastly the other writings. This means that, on reading the Bible, you should not adhere to the strict printed sequence of the books, but rather to their chronological sequence. For various reasons (such as their long genealogical and legal lists), you should save the following books for last: Leviticus, 1 Chronicles, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the non-inspired Song of Solomon.

Writing

A great deficiency in today’s American high school and even college students is difficulty in spelling. A proper understanding of phonics could assist in correcting spelling errors, but it is not to be learned by oneself and must be taught. Much more important – and infinitely easier – is a daily reading program. The more one reads, the more one acquires vocabulary and can properly spell.

A student who cannot read well obviously cannot write well either. It is important to develop the two skills simultaneously. In our complex modern society, writing is one of the primary means of communication and recording, whether by hand, typewriter, or on the computer. Along with a daily program of reading, students should take the time to write. I recommend that you read no non-fiction book without taking some notes. Not only does this provide practice in handwriting, but it also gives a secondary review of material read. I have sometimes used such notes to compile an additional index, which I glue into the back of the book from which the notes have been extracted.

I also do not hesitate to advise young people to begin their own research and writing, even at an early age. Every one of us has some thoughts and some experiences that have never occurred to another human being or at least have never been recorded. But it is easy to forget these bits of inspiration. A wise person will write down his ideas. One way to do this is to begin a journal. Of course, a journal that discusses merely how one dressed or what one ate, or one’s daily schedule, is both boring and useless. It should contain substantive material, including thoughts and impressions regarding the various activities of the day. One of the best ways to write an interesting journal, of course, is to seek to have interesting experiences daily, making new friends and helping others. If the experience is not one that you can enjoy reading later or learn from, it is not worth having. Steps you have taken to repent of wrongs may be embarrassing to admit to others, but if you record them in a journal, they may help you as you continue that process. Meditation and reading will also prompt thoughts that can be put to paper.

Special research projects – even of an elementary nature – will give you invaluable experience that will pay off when you get to college or begin working. Above all, remember the admonition of the apostle Paul, “Let no man despise thy youth” (1 Timothy 4:12). Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re too young to write anything important. Many of the things I wrote for my own pleasure in high school have since been published as articles. My first book was published when I was 26 years of age, but I actually wrote it when I was 22, basing it on research I had done at age 18.

Typing

One of the greatest blessings of my academic and professional life has been the ability to type. I took a typing class at the age of fourteen in junior high school. Some of my friends laughed at me because almost all of the students in the class were girls. I wasn’t the best student in that class – in fact, I was one of the worst. But my parents (neither of whom had finished high school or could type) convinced me that typing would be important for college and encouraged me by purchasing a typewriter for home use. Through continual practice and use, I ultimately developed the ability to type almost 80 words per minute on a manual typewriter and about 100 on an electric typewriter. Now I type around 120 on a personal computer and wonder how I ever survived without this electronic marvel.

Typing all of my own materials has saved not only time, but quite a bit of money in typist’s fees. It has even provided me with an income on occasion when I have worked as a clerk-typist and secretary to earn money for schooling. In today’s world, many managerial positions require typing skills, especially where computers are involved. One of my great regrets today is that peer pressure prevented me from also taking stenography while in school, it being considered, in my youth, something that only girls learned. The ability to more quickly take notes in class would have been a valuable skill.