Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Self Instruction

Instructing yourself has, perhaps, never been easier than it is today. Perhaps the greatest library every assembled, the Internet, is available to us every hour of every day, providing unrivaled resources to anyone with a smart phone or laptop. And supplementing these resources are a growing body of courses, many free of charge, on subjects as broad as any school. In comparison to the situation in early Utah we have riches of knowledge indeed.

The admonition to obtain education is basic to the gospel, so this admonition to self-instruction in the Juvenile Instructor is no surprise. But in this essay the author, known only as “A.,” makes an statement about what the audience of a play should be doing.


Self Instruction

by A.

THERE are some persons who are in the habit of asserting that it is impossible for those to gain a good education who have to work hard for their living by manual labor. Past experience has, however, proved to the contrary. Many names, might be mentioned, well known to the student of history, who have gained the greatest renown and honor, as rulers, or law givers, as philosophers or writers, who have had to till the ground, to labor in the workshop, or dig in the mine to support themselves and those depending on them. But this excellence was never attained by these men in a few days or weeks, for “There is no excellence without labor.” It required time, patience and perseverence to bring about the desired end.

There may be some in our midst who have neither the time nor means, to attend school. Such can open school for themselves, and when once opened never let them close it. Never let an hour pass idly by; but improve every spare moment, every unoccupied hour, and there are many such in the course of a year in almost every one’s life when their studies would interfere with no duty. Of course a few books will be required, easy ones on the branches that may be studied. Added to these a dictionary to learn the meaning and application of words that may not be thoroughly understood. Then, again, to aid in acquiring a good hand writing, to keep a journal, neatly, cleanly will be found a great help.

If we cannot read, write and speak correctly, we are not fit to mingle with many classes of society and do business with them. Nor is this all, we should observe and think, and strive to be well-mannered, polite and pleasant, and notice the ways of those who have been well trained in these things. In going to the theatre we should not only be merry but observing. There we have opportunities of learning of things as they are now, and as they were in times past; still we must use our judgment, as actors and actresses are apt to go to extremes.

We are instructed in the Doctrine and Covenants to study the laws and customs of nations, and learn words of wisdom from the best books. Thus gradually progressing we may aspire to be useful, and act in any capacity in which we may be called to fill, and secure respect and influence wherever our lots may be cast. Our good moral conduct, faithfulness, and understanding of the principles of the everlasting gospel should be the foundation of all our accomplishments, then our success is sure, although the road may not always be smooth, nor unbroken with difficulties. Some people have the vulgar objection “that if you give your mind to study your work will surely be neglected,” or “too much thought will bring on disease of the brain.” Perhaps in the world some students may study so excessively to excel others, that they may injure their brains; but the study we have been talking of will not weaken the brain, but strengthen it; will not fill it with disease, but make it more healthy and powerful.

Juvenile Instructor, v2 n15, August 1, 1867, p. 118


I’m intrigued by a lot of what is said in this essay, from the direction to “improve every spare moment” (much more possible now than it was when this was written, as I observed above) to the suggestion that keeping a journal is a way to improve handwriting, to the response to worries that excessive studying or thought might damage the brain! But what gave me pause was the statement about the theatre:

In going to the theatre we should not only be merry but observing. There we have opportunities of learning of things as they are now, and as they were in times past; still we must use our judgment, as actors and actresses are apt to go to extremes.

Of course the idea that theater and other literary genres can be or ought to be means for self-instruction seems obvious to us, who are proponents of literature, but other times genres and even literature as a whole are seen as merely entertainment. Given the frequent condemnations of “light” literature at the time this was written, it is refreshing to see statements that imply that not all theatre (and by extension, other literature) is simply for our amusement.

2 thoughts on “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Self Instruction”

  1. Being degree-less (at least in the field of literary arts) I appreciate this article and your discussion of it.

    It is interesting how lately there seems to be a movement for education outside of the conventional classroom. BYU-I, where my husband works, is pushing this. Instructors from all over the US give distance courses and students who are living all over the US (and in other countries around the world) can take them. Your discussion here takes this idea even further–the thought that education isn’t about a degree at all, or a classroom, or a certain text. That we are capable of educating ourselves. As a homeschool mom, I appreciate that. Thomas Jefferson’s life is a shining example of this.

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