Thomas Merton on Education

 

Thomas Merton’s hermitage.

Very salutary readings for a rainy Sunday morning at the SACS-COC conference in Atlanta, Georgia. This is the first time I’ve attended this annual meeting. Higher education is my vocation, so you wouldn’t think I’d have culture shock here–but I find I do. Perhaps that’s a first-timer’s gift. I must practice gratitude!

Here are some of Merton’s thoughts. These come from a man who had been educated in France, England (graduating from Cambridge), and the US (graduating with an MA from Columbia University). For a short time, he was a professor of English at St. Bonaventure. So he knows whereof he speaks.

“The danger of education, I have found, is that it so easily confuses means with ends. Worse than that, it quite easily forgets both and devotes itself merely to the mass production of uneducated graduates–people literally unfit for anything except to take part in an elaborate and completely artificial charade which they and their contemporaries have conspired to call ‘life’.”

“The least of the work of learning is done in classrooms.”

“Anyone who regards love as a deal made on the basis of ‘needs’ is in danger of falling into a purely quantitative ethic. If love is a deal, then who is to say that you should not make as many deals as possible?” [One can substitute “learning” for “love” and reach the same conclusion.]

“[A publisher asked me to write something on ‘The Secret of Success,’ and I refused.] If I had a message to my contemporaries, I said, it was surely this: Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success. … If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted. If a university concentrates on producing successful people, it is lamentably failing in its obligation to society and to the students themselves.” [Particularly bracing words given the buzz here–and in my own title at work!–regarding “student success.” Who would wish that our students would fail? Yet too narrow a view of success may be the most insidious route to failure of them all.]

And finally, in words that I would love to see above every classroom door and on the cover of every learning-related conference (my editorial material is clumsy but I want to present Merton generously):

“The purpose of education is to show a person how to define himself [or herself] authentically and spontaneously in relation to his [or her] world–not to impose a prefabricated definition of the world, still less an arbitrary definition of the individual himself [or herself].”

Source: Love and Living.
h/t @rovinglibrarian, @graceiseverywhere

4 thoughts on “Thomas Merton on Education

  1. Neat post! Interesting to grapple with the concept you noted in…

    “Particularly bracing words given the buzz here–and in my own title at work!–regarding “student success.” Who would wish that our students would fail? Yet too narrow a view of success may be the most insidious route to failure of them all”

    …with the concept of “failing forward”, as noted in http://upstart.bizjournals.com/resources/executive-forum/2012/10/02/fail-forward-succeed-sooner.html

  2. Great Post, Thomas Merton stands as one of the outstanding thinkers the world has ever known and too often is pigeonholed as just a religious thinker, when he was so much more. His work can consistently be turned to for fresh insights to many of today’s problems and the depth of his work is so profound that each word or phrase he uses requires careful examination as it can be interpreted on a variety of levels.

  3. I think he’s also speaking to the illusory quality of the mirage of success…that we might better serve students by preparing them for the inevitable “full catastrophe” of life and how to design a response to it by living.

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