A Changing Stance on Education
This mentality continued through the coming decades, with a range of reasons provided for avoiding a higher education.
Over 40 years ago, young followers were told that a college education was pointless, as the system of things will likely be finished before they graduate.
Jehovah’s Witnesses that followed this advice in the 1960s, and relinquished opportunities to pursue an education and successful careers, are now at retirement age. Comments on Internet forums identify many from that era as financially unprepared for retirement, having worked in low pay jobs, or spending years in voluntary service to grow the Watchtower organization. A short-term view of the future is of no benefit, and has proven to be detrimental to many Witness families over the last century.
Twenty years later the same misguided advice was given.
I came under criticism for commencing a Bachelor of Commerce in 1987. I was told that accountants were not going to be required after Armageddon, and should learn a trade. This is in line with Watchtower comments, such as the Awake! 1969 May 22 p.15, which had stated, “trades such as carpentry, plumbing, and others, will be useful not only now, but perhaps even more so in the reconstruction work that will take place in God’s new order.” Witnesses in my district complained to local Elders and the Circuit Overseer. Since I was a regular pioneer and assisted with quick-build kingdom halls whilst at university, the elders found it difficult to be overly critical of me, when I was so obviously putting the Organization first, more so than most of those leveling the criticism. The result is that I now have a fulfilling career and comfortably provide for my family.
1992 saw a brief respite to the Watchtower’s criticism of Jehovah’s Witnesses attending university. It was acknowledged that in many countries a higher education was needed for jobs that could support their families. Better-paid jobs meant less overtime, and more available time for meeting attendance and preaching. Watchtower also required educated brothers to fulfill roles at Bethel. Attending university was considered acceptable, provided motives were pure and courses selected with care.
Barbara Anderson worked in the writing department at the global headquarters, Brooklyn Bethel, during the 1990s. Anderson recalls that Governing Body member Lloyd Barry, who himself had a university degree, was behind this new stance on education.
“Lloyd Barry was empathetic towards the low-paying job plight of Witnesses as expressed in personal letters received at headquarters, and from Jehovah’s Witnesses branch office communiqués from around the world. … Due to difficult economic changes in a world that Witnesses could not escape from, Lloyd Barry, along with the rest of the Governing Body, authorized the November 1, 1992 Watchtower article that changed the view of Witnesses towards higher education.”1
Anderson provides a second reason for the change.
“Interestingly, another Governing Body member, Dan Sydlik, shared with a friend that the Watchtower Society was finding itself in a difficult position because this mammoth publishing company needed skilled technical people but couldn’t find them in the Witness community.”2
During this period, advice was still given about the dangers of university, such as that if “a Christian is considering pursuing additional schooling, he would do well to examine his own motives to make sure that selfish, materialistic interests are not the driving force.” (Awake! 1998 Mar 8 p.21) However, the articles were more balanced, concluding, “such decisions are of a personal nature. Christians ought not to criticize or judge one another on this matter.” (Awake! 1998 Mar 8 p.21)
Likewise, Watchtower 1999 Sep 1 p.17 provided warnings about bad associations on campus and that “the time left is reduced,” but vetoed that:
It was not until October 2005 that pursing “Higher Education” was again specifically discussed in the Watchtower. Once more, criticism against higher education started to be released regarding the cost, immoral environment, time pressures, and lack of spiritual focus.
Anderson provides an explanation for this back flip.
“A decade later, it was observed that “upon graduation, they were not working part-time and pursuing full-time service goals anymore.”3
Another possible explanation are falling growth rates since 1995. (See jwfacts.com/watchtower/statistics.php) The Governing Body possibly attributed this to higher numbers of Witness children graduating university. Whilst university attendance may have affected growth, other factors have also been at play, such as freedom of information available on the Internet, and the growing irrelevance of the generation4 and 1914 doctrines.
Since 2005, there have been regular articles against advanced education.
A Watchtower outline for Meetings of Circuit Overseers with Congregational Elders and Ministerial Servants for the period March through August 2008 explained that promoting higher education could result in demotion.
Part One of this series: Jehovah’s Witnesses and Higher Education
Part Three Coming Soon!