Education, Not Excuses


We Can’t All Be Brilliant But We Can All Be Excellent

During the first semester of Roberta’s junior year at college, her mother died. Roberta had been close to her mother and besides, was the oldest child. Everyone would have understood if Roberta had asked for special consideration, but she didn’t. She missed no assignments and made no excuses. She continued to do her work well, even though she traveled several hundred miles on weekends to help out at home. She asked only one favor—that her student teaching assignment be near her home so she could take better care of her brothers and sisters.

I have been at Brigham Young University for eight years—four as a student, two as a teacher, and two in between as both. I guess I have known about a thousand Latter-day Saint students quite well. Some of them have been brilliant. But more importantly, some, like Roberta, have been excellent.

Latter-day Saints should be the best students in the world. They have a plan for perfecting themselves revealed by God through scriptures and inspired leaders, and they have the gift of the Holy Ghost. Though they cannot all be brilliant any more than they can all have brown eyes, they can all be excellent—and they ought to be.

Why bother to be excellent? Because we are happiest if we are. The Lord knows that from experience. He is most excellent (perfect), and he wants us all to be like him. For us right now, excellence doesn’t mean perfection, but it means to be traveling toward perfection at full speed. Many of us, unfortunately, are not even in gear, though we know well where the road is. A primary symptom of lack of excellence in college students is excuse-making.

For instance, vivacious Maxine came to me, confident I would understand that getting engaged is reason for missing class and not handing in assignments. But Maxine’s engagement is not the reason for her academic problems. She never did perform very well, and now she merely has a good excuse. The reason she failed academically is that she came to the university to get married; so now her university career is over.

Determined Harvey lets me know that he has never been good in English, but he has to pass so he can get out and start making money. It is up to me to see that he passes, since he has already failed the course twice because he didn’t get along with his instructors, and this is his last chance.

Smooth, handsome Jason tells me that to fail a course would disgrace his family, since his brothers are all successful professional men, and he is the last in line. Though Jason has been skydiving a lot so far this semester, he really regrets it now and wants to make it all up in the last three weeks of the term. If I will just promise to give him a B- to keep his father happy, Jason will promise to come to class every day and hand in all the papers he can. (Notice how Jason attempts to bargain, to reward me with his papers.)

Getting married, making money, pleasing Dad, and having fun can all be significant by-products of a college education. But when they become motives and ends, they produce wrong choices. Possibly Maxine, Harvey, and Jason made wrong choices when they decided, or let it be decided for them, that they should come to a university. Of course, their motives may change as they grow up. But in the meantime, they should take a hard look at who or what is running their lives.

Reluctantly, I had to decide that Maxine, Harvey, and Jason were making excuses, not giving me reasons. I say reluctantly because I am sometimes intimidated by the expectations of students who have learned to demand more than they earn. And I understand late papers, having recently been on the other side of the desk myself. Besides, since I cannot be certain about motives, the excuses may actually be reasons after all.

Reasons cannot be predicted or prevented (you break a leg, wild dog eats paper). Or reasons (having your appendix out), in the grand scheme of things, are more important than English 212, or reasons (lack of aptitude) make passing impossible.

The difference depends on motive. Right motive gives a reason; wrong motive gives an excuse. My missionary is leaving. My missionary is coming home. Someone tore my articles out of the periodicals. I’m getting married. My roommate is getting married. I couldn’t decide on a topic. I can usually tell, once I have made a decision in which justice must preclude mercy, whether or not the student had a reason. A student with a reason will accept the consequences of his actions, if he thinks I have been fair. The student with the excuse makes the fuss and expects the favors.

Why do we all make excuses at one time or another? Because we are fallible and weak; because we want to think better of ourselves then we might deserve at a particular moment. But most often, we are just out of touch with ourselves and our improper motives deceive us into making choices we cannot live with.

Getting in touch with ourselves is the first step toward excellence. From the Lord’s point of view, “… every man hath his proper gift of God.” (1 Cor. 7:7.) “The greatest lesson you can learn,” said Brigham Young, “is to know yourselves. … You have come here to learn this.” He warned that “you cannot learn it immediately” and pointed out that self-knowledge comes by practical experience, not philosophy. But the rewards are rich. Knowing yourself, “you will then begin to learn more perfectly the things of God. No being can thoroughly learn himself, without understanding more or less the things of God. Neither can any being learn and understand the things of God, without learning himself; he must learn himself, or he can never learn God.” (Journal of Discourses, vol. 8, p. 334.)

Acquiring self-knowledge, then, is a lifetime occupation; and it is absolutely essential to excellence. It is the only way to discover, step by step, what the Lord would have us choose to do. It is important to remember along the way that we don’t all have the same gifts; and we cannot all develop our gifts in the same way. In other words, we do not all belong in one college.

How does the Lord want us to find ourselves? He tells us that we do not do it in isolated brooding; we find ourselves by giving ourselves away in loving service. Of all the gifts, charity, the pure love of Christ, is the most desirable. And charity is more than action—it is emotion, feeling, reason for action—it is the most divine of motives. Some seem to be gifted with it; others of us have to ask the Lord fervently for it. But it is the necessary second step to excellence. This is the motive upon which all choice, all action must be based. Without this motive, without love, we are nothing, even if we were prophets and Ph.D’s both.

Having come to know ourselves and our own special gifts, having cultivated the divine motive that will give purpose to our lives, we can begin to make the choices that will help us achieve that purpose.

We have been making Choices for a long time. We once fought to preserve choice as our inherent right, and one reward is this mortal existence where we can be taught and tested and perfect our abilities to choose correctly. Only by learning this can we become as our Father is, always making the choices that increase freedom, knowledge, power. It is important to keep control of our ability to choose, never surrendering it to influences that undermine our freedom—not to drugs or alcohol, not to excuses.

But with the limited knowledge we have here, how do we make right choices? First of all, we have our good minds, the reasoning ability the Lord has blessed us with. Also, we get help from others who know—parents, friends, teachers, counselors, Church leaders. And we can follow the guide of the law until we acquire a constant divine companion to aid us in the choices we have been schooled to make. This special tutoring by the Holy Ghost might be thought of as a sort of spiritual higher education. The trouble is that we so often pretend to be doing postgraduate work when we have not even been through the elementary or basic grades.

Living the law requires strict obedience and discipline. Both of those may be unpopular ideas to some in our culture, which has conditioned us against the idea of doing things right just for the sake of doing them right. Such conditioning produces excuses: What difference does it make if the paper is late, as long as I get the work done? Grammar and punctuation and spelling and precise diction are just somebody’s made-up busy-work rules. Tithing and chastity are just general guides for the weak—I can handle my own variations of them.

But those who officiate and participate in the ordinances of the Church, from the sacrament table to the temple, know that for some reason the Lord requires us to learn certain things letter perfect. And some of these things, in themselves, don’t really make much sense. Perhaps the Lord wants us to show our perfect mastery over a few things—so that he can make us rulers over many things.

But the real reason for obeying the law perfectly is that it will lead to faith in Christ. Faith will bring power, “power to do whatsoever thing is expedient” in Christ (Moro. 7:33), and this power will bring the companionship of the Spirit to help us make right, responsible choices.

These three—self-knowledge, right motive, and discipline—are prerequisites for excellence. Achieving them brings freedom. Of course, this takes wisdom as well as hard work, and the way is not always clear for a Latter-day Saint student. A colleague of mine told me of a student who was taking only religion classes and reading the scriptures, expecting that the rest of what he needed to know would be “added unto” him. His problem was a conflict between work and work, a sort of motivational overlap between good motives and better ones, confusion about which way excellence lies.

“Every accomplishment, every polished grace, every useful attainment in mathematics, music, and in all science and art belongs to the Saints,” said Brigham Young.

“And they should be diligent and persevering scholar[s].” (Discourses of Brigham Young, p. 252; Journal of Discourses, vol. 10, p. 224.)

When I tell Brenda that sewing roadshow costumes is not a reason for turning her research paper in late, I am telling her that I think excellence, in this case, lies in putting school work first. But since I don’t know her motives perfectly I must leave her with her conscience and the consequence of her actions. Is the roadshow an excuse that is keeping her from excellence, or a reason that will help her achieve excellence in living the gospel? Ben decides Rhoda needs a home teacher right now more than he needs to do well on a chemistry test. Each of us must make and accept the consequences of such decisions according to our own understanding of what excellence is. Sometimes the decisions are so difficult that we are tempted to stop choosing and just do everything—or nothing. But an excellent person is in touch with his motives, and he can use his own judgment along with the counsel of good leaders and of the Holy Ghost to help him make his choices.

I remember when my undergraduate friends and I would tell ourselves that we needed to be “balanced individuals,” and that we would remember good times together more than whether we got A’s or B+’s on zoology tests. Well, maybe some very rigid people need to remember something like that. But most of us need to remember that we ascend to perfection step by step, and that lulls and missteps are costly, because we are really infants and can easily forget what we’re doing.

This doesn’t mean that college, any more than any part of life, is a depressing grind. This doesn’t mean that we should be rigid, unhappy, and tired all the time. We need to tax ourselves, surely, but at the same time, “how delightful this [is], and what a boundless field of truth and power is open for us to explore!” (JD, vol. 9. p. 167; Discourses of Brigham Young, p. 255.)

“And this I pray, that [our] love may abound yet more and more in knowledge, and in all judgment;

“That [we] may approve things that are excellent; that [we] may be sincere and without offense [without excuses] till the day of Christ.” (Philip. 1:9–10.)

Photography by Longin Lonczyna, Jr.

Donlu DeWitt Thayer, a teacher and homemaker, now lives in Provo Seventh Ward, Provo Utah Stake.