Education is one of the most instrumental facets of society, and nobody knows that better than Neil Flinders. An alumnus and former faculty member of Brigham Young University, Flinders’ expertise involves education’s role in the lives of individuals, families, and communities. He has spent much of his retirement continuing to develop new ideas in the field, but one has become his principal focus. “After eight decades on this earth, you have a different perspective,” he says. “I think we need to pay more attention to Joseph Smith [as an educator].”
Flinders, in fact, published a book, entitled: Joseph Smith: America’s Greatest Educator, and delivered four lectures on the subject at BYU’s recent Education Week. “I am convinced,” he says, “that people living today can learn more about true education by studying the life and teachings of Joseph Smith than they can by studying all the books on education they might find in any library available to them.”
Joseph Smith, though not the recipient of much formal schooling, displayed an immense passion for education throughout his life. Apostle George Q. Cannon once remarked that the prophet “loved learning.” Shortly after his founding of the LDS Church, Smith began educating himself in many different languages, and even presided over a school of select Church leaders. “In knowledge there is power,” he taught. “God has more power than all other beings, because He has greater knowledge.”
This love for learning also manifested itself through Joseph’s revelations. Section 130 of the Doctrine and Covenants, a compilation of revelations he received for the Church, states: “whatever principle of intelligence we attain in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection.” It also instructs us to “seek not for riches but for wisdom” and warns that “it is impossible for a man to be saved in ignorance.”
Virtually all of the doctrine of the early LDS Church, Flinders points out, followed a pattern: Joseph would learn a principle from God, and then teach that principle to his people. Flinders adds that the foundation of the Church “presumes an educational process based on inspired revelation.” Additionally, Joseph taught that part of that educational process was not only hearing and receiving intelligence, but gathering together to sustain and defend it.
Flinders received his undergraduate degree at Brigham Young University in sociology. He later received a Masters in religious education and philosophy, and in 1960 earned an inter-disciplinary doctorate degree. He spent nineteen years with the Church Educational System, including a decade in the Commissioner’s Office of that system, and worked for another nineteen years on the faculty of the BYU School of Education. He also served as president of the Far Western Philosophy of Education Society and published a second book on teaching children using an agency approach to education.
Flinders and his wife served a full-time mission in Nauvoo, spending time on the faculty of the Joseph Smith Academy. While there, Flinders taught a Courtship and Marriage class based on the Family Proclamation. It was there that he began his study of Joseph Smith as an educator.