A House of Learning


This article is the third place faculty essay winner in a 1983 ASBYU/Ensign essay and poetry contest addressing “The Role of Learning and Becoming a Saint.”

A House of Learning

In a little Aymara Indian village on the plateau above La Paz, Bolivia, Eduardo read the sacrament prayer with great feeling. After the meeting, a Bolivian missionary, Elder Alarcon, told me of his special thrill in hearing Eduardo’s prayer. He had helped Eduardo learn the gospel—and he had also helped him learn to read. Now Eduardo had an important skill that would enable him to become an effective teacher and leader in the Church. He was also more qualified now to become a leader in his mostly illiterate community, where one who can read is constantly sought after for counsel.

Wherever illiteracy is replaced with literacy, lives are enhanced. Wherever literacy is committed to the Lord’s service, society is greatly blessed.

Illiteracy is found in every corner of the world—not just in developing nations. In your own ward there might be someone like my neighbor, Mike, who first strayed away from Church and later almost avoided a mission because he was afraid of being asked to read a scripture, a talk, or a sacrament prayer. He disliked home-study seminary because he had to write; he never read the scriptures, and never considered keeping a journal.

Why was Mike so afraid to read and write? He had suffered a series of discouraging school experiences and never received the special help he needed there. And more importantly, he had received almost no help at home. Assuming that teaching literacy was a function of the schools, his parents had overlooked their own ultimate responsibility for their son’s education.

The Church encourages families and individuals to give careful attention to literacy and education. A standard for this important area of personal and family preparedness has been set by Church leaders: “To the extent of his capacity, each person [should be] able to read, write, and do basic mathematics. He regularly studies the scriptures and other good books. Parents teach these skills and habits to family members, and both parents and children take advantage of educational opportunities.” (Welfare Services Resource Handbook, 1980, p. 18.)

Following are some stimulating examples of how Latter-day Saints have made their homes the basic learning center of their lives. They do not represent any kind of conglomerate ideal, but are meant only to encourage families to discover their own creative approaches.

The Years before School

Much can be done at home during preschool years to encourage a love of learning. Terry and Amy accepted at marriage the challenge from the prophet to prepare their children for Church service and especially for missions, possibly to China. This challenge was particularly significant for them because they are of Chinese descent. From the time their children were born, Terry and Amy did many significant things to teach them language and literacy and to raise them to be bilingual. They used both Chinese and English at home and made home the center for learning things both secular and spiritual.

As their first child, Clarence, grew, his early months were filled with letters, words, and pictures of loved ones. “Jesus,” “mommy,” and “daddy” were the first words he could read and speak. Later, they began teaching him to write, using both alphabet and Chinese ideograph characters. Words and their meanings became very precious to Clarence.

Now Clarence, age six, enjoys helping his parents teach his younger sister reading and writing. He reads the Book of Mormon, with a little help, and is eager to learn more and share it with others. By age eight, the age of accountability and baptism, Clarence will have a well-founded understanding of the first principles and ordinances of the gospel. (See D&C 68:25.) And as he progresses through school, he will likely be able to fully grasp ideas and concepts. The center of his learning, however, will continue to be his home, where mother and father are committed to giving their children the greatest possible opportunities to become self-confident and well-informed in both secular and spiritual education.

A Latter-day Saint father from Korea who moved his family to the United States learned the importance of encouraging learning at home. He initially felt that school alone would take care of his children’s academic needs—and the family continued speaking only Korean in their home. However, when he saw the trouble his older son was having during the first two years in school, he realized that he needed to assume his proper role as teacher. Otherwise, his hopes that his children serve missions, render church and community service, and grow spiritually through effective reading of scriptures might not be realized.

The father instituted a fifteen-minute program each day of teaching his preschool-age son, Steven, to read and write in English. He found that a typewriter made writing easier and faster for his very young child, and he started showing Steven how to type favorite words. Each day, additional favorite words were added. Within a few months Steven was writing sentences and paragraphs without serious spelling or punctuation errors. Steven is now confidently leading his class in school.

Steven’s start was successful because of his father’s love, time, and sacrifice. A special bond was established between them. The typewriter and other mechanical aids were not the essentials; they could easily have been replaced by the least expensive slate and chalk. But a parent’s love, time, and vision can save children from disabling illiteracy.

The Elementary School Years

Most parents recognize the importance of teaching their children during the preschool years. But what becomes of home-centered education when the children start school?

John had five sons, closely spaced in age. When the oldest entered school, John accepted the challenge to assume central responsibility for his children’s education. He made several vital decisions. One was that he would faithfully reserve a block of time each evening to learn with his sons. He knew that this decision might eventually deny him career advancements, since higher positions in his company required considerable travel and evening appointments. But he made the commitment to family education willingly.

Another decision he made was to support school and community programs enthusiastically. He had the attitude that while central learning would always take place at home, he would use those other resources to provide enrichment and additional learning opportunities.

With this in mind, John acquired school texts for all of the grades. During experiences that seemed to the children more like games than work, he studied with each one, and they regularly completed all the school programs at home a year or more ahead of their classroom schedule. He found countless ways to enrich the offerings of the basic school texts. They worked on extra projects together—researching, discovering, and learning as a team. He also helped his boys develop athletic skills, and they enjoyed playing on little league teams.

With such a supportive father and mother, it is no surprise that every child eventually graduated with high academic honors and scholarships. More importantly, each one is now committed to helping others and to establishing a family like the one they grew up in.

Were there any conflicts between the home program and the school program? No—the two enhanced each other. The teachers were delighted to have such able and congenial class members. When the home rightfully assumes its teaching responsibility, the contributions made by school, community, and church programs can be greatly enhanced.

The High School Years

Is it too late to start when the children are in high school? What happens if the family attempts to establish home-centered learning when the children have already reached young adult age?

Walter has always felt his responsibility to encourage learning in his home. But as the children entered the teen years it seemed that each was going his own way. He was keenly aware of the threat contemporary society was to his family’s moral, spiritual, and intellectual values.

Walter decided to ask his family to devote an extra hour every day after dinner for a special family meeting. They all agreed, even though it meant sacrifices for each of the very active children and parents.

Although the specific experiences varied, there was an adventurous and loving character to these after-dinner conversations. Each person in turn presented his most significant experiences or thoughts of the day, and the family explored them together to discover what lessons they had to offer. They discussed ideas, attitudes, experiences, values. Scripture was used and understood. Scientific, artistic, and other creative approaches to knowing and teaching were enthusiastically woven into the discussions.

The years passed quickly. Each family member grew in intellectual and spiritual stature. Great accomplishments followed in the form of highly successful missions, leadership opportunities, and academic honors. Of greatest importance is the unity of love and purpose the family achieved.

The Golden Years

The young family years pass quickly, and only the parents remain in a home once full of children. Formal schooling years have passed. Is home-centered learning over?

Clinton and Vida are crossing the eighty-year mark of life after more than fifty-five years of marriage. Although economic depressions, missions, and family demands interrupted their own schooling after high school, their commitment to home-centered learning has never diminished. It is still an important priority—even though all eight children have long since left to establish their own homes and families.

What is the nature of their home-centered school? It starts with an excitement over ideas. Dictionaries, encyclopedias, and classics in their home are well worn with use. Such resources are frequently brought to the dinner table for discussion. Newspaper and magazine clippings—constantly updated—adorn the bathroom mirror, the refrigerator door, and the telephone table. Lessons from Relief Society, priesthood, and Sunday School manuals are enthusiastically shared days before Sunday. The most often used references, however, are the scriptures, scriptural reference books, and a wide selection of other Church-related books.

Vida and Clinton actively continue to use the knowledge they glean from such sources. With Clinton’s enthusiastic support, Vida studied old deeds and documents, interviews, and written personal experiences—and authored a series of community and family histories during the past decade.

Their home-centered school goes everywhere they go. They learn together at the temple and in visits to neighbors and family. Their school will never close. They are lifelong teachers and learners.

The Challenge to All

What do each of these families have in common? They have each made their home a “house of learning.” (D&C 88:119.) They have accepted enthusiastically the challenge to be personally responsible for their families’ learning. They honor and respect the school, the community, and the Church as institutions that promote learning and faith, but recognize that those resources are to help—not replace—the family. They know that parents can more perfectly match resources to the specific needs and abilities of individual family members. They realize that home-centered learning can start at birth and continue throughout life.

But can parents with limited means and education give educational help and inspiration to children? Of course they can. Joseph and Mary had very modest means and education. So did Joseph, Sr., and Lucy Mack Smith. Nevertheless, they provided homes conducive to learning and to great understanding and spiritual growth.

Where can parents go for help? First, we can seek our Heavenly Father. He has promised that as we exercise faith, he will help us receive essential gifts of knowledge and wisdom. Second, we can explore ways to use the scriptures and our own home-made family history. In Adam’s day writing and language were taught from the family’s book of remembrance. (See Moses 6:5–6.) Third, we can diligently search our community for books, tutors, exhibits, and experiences that can augment our own resources. The Lord gives no commandment without preparing a way.

As we obey the Lord’s commandment to teach our children, we will find that our families enjoy greater unity, more joy in church and school, and increased effectiveness in missions, marriage, and vocations.

“Seek ye diligently,” the Lord said, “and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118; italics added.)

Let’s Talk about It

After reading “A House of Learning,” you may wish to discuss some of the following questions:

1. Why do you think Church leaders are concerned about the literacy and education of members? Why is it one of the six areas of personal and family preparedness?

2. How does your family measure up to the Church’s standard for literacy and education, as quoted in the article? How well are you developing these attitudes, skills, and habits personally and teaching them to your children?

3. The article states, “When the home rightfully assumes its teaching responsibility, the contributions made by school, community, and church programs can be greatly enhanced.” Why do you think learning at home can make such a difference in the development of children?

4. In each of the examples given in the article, certain time commitments and other sacrifices were made by parents to make their home a center for learning. Evaluate the time you spend with your own children. Is it adequate? Could more of it be devoted to learning activities and projects with them?

5. What learning resources are you aware of in your community that could supplement the teaching you give in your home?

[illustrations] Illustrated by Bill Swenson

Harvey B. Black, professor of instructional science at BYU and father of five children, is the high priests group leader in his Orem, Utah, ward.