December, 13, 2011

Student Ownership

BYU students today have ample opportunities to lead and take active ownership of the university. Not to mention the 13,000 students employed by the university each year (1). But this principle of student involvement is not new to BYU. Its roots go back to Karl G. Maeser’s plan for Brigham Young Academy.

Through divine inspiration, Maeser’s plan included several points where responsibility would be given to students. In fact, Maeser believed, “whatever can be done by the pupils, the teacher should never do himself” (2). Students were engaged in maintaining department or classroom order, recording student performance, mentoring younger students, or occasionally directly leading a class lesson.

Each week, each departmental theology class would divide into small groups. An older student leader (called a “repetitor”) would then direct a discussion of what the students had learned. An instructor commented that, “A free-for-all discussion now took place which did more to arouse interest and rivet conviction than ten times the amount of passive listening would have done” (3).

Maeser also instructed faculty members to identify students who needed help in anyway (not just academically). Rather than take care of the problem themselves, the faculty members were to assign a competent student to work with the students in need. This system became known as the “monitorial system.” It was designed to help students become “responsible for something … outside of their own individual concerns, but … essential for the comfort and well-being … of the little community (the school or class) of which each of them form[s] a part” (4).

And so we see how BYU’s aim for an education that’s spiritually strengthening, intellectually enlarging, character building and leading to lifelong learning and service is in part fulfilled by Maeser’s initiation of student ownership.

  2. Karl G. Maeser, “The Monitorial System,” Juvenile Instructor 36, no. 5 (March 1, 1901): 153.
  3. N. L. Nelson, “Theology in Our Church Schools,” Improvement Era 3, no. 11 (September 1900): 850
  4. Karl G. Maeser, “The Monitorial System,” Juvenile Instructor 36, no. 5 (March 1, 1901): 153. In this reference, Maeser stated that although he called his system by the name commonly used among educators, he altered his version of the system to discourage student abuses, such as bullying and tattling, and to encourage “cultivation of a public spirit among the pupils.” In James E. Talmage, “The Brigham Young Academy,” Contributor 2, no. 9 (June 1881): 272–73, the system is described, though not named. Talmage’s reference to the “Emulatory Method” refers to the system of discipline within Maeser’s version of the monitorial system.