Friday, January 8, 2016

Thomas Merton on the Purpose of Higher Education (Reading Notes)

Just came across this letter by Thomas Merton in 1965 to the manager of a university bookstore in New Jersey. In it, Merton describes briefly what he sees to be the purpose of higher education and the role the student has in making the most out of their college/university experience. (Please note that Merton, as was the custom in his day, did not use inclusive language):
It seems to me that a man or a woman goes to college not just to get a degree and a good job, but first of all to find himself and establish his true identity. You cannot go through life as a mask or as a well-functioning biological machine. Man is a being whose reality cannot be left entirely to forces outside himself, nature, society, events. We become real in proportion as we accept the real possibilities that are presented to us, and choose from them freely and realistically for ourselves. This act of choice implies a capacity to judge, therefore to think. It implies some kind of personal philosophy and a personal faith.
The reason why judgment and decisions are so important today is that a person, especially in college, is suddenly presented with such an overwhelming amount of material - ideologies, philosophies and pseudo-philosophies, religions and religious fads, movements in art, literature, politics, and new developments in science and technology - that he has to make a choice somewhere. If he fails to choose, he is lost in a confusion of contradictory notions that end up by meaning absolutely nothing. In which case he can either go crazy, or else become an insufferable square with a few mechanically pronounced dogmas instead of genuine thought.
Therefore, if a man is going to make authentic judgments and do some thinking for himself, he is going to have to renounce the passivity of a subject that merely sits and "takes in" what is told him, whether in class, or in front of the TV, or in the other mass media. This means serious and independent reading, and it also means articulate discussion (Witness to Freedom, 169)
Image above from

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Uselessness of Monastic Life (Reading Notes)

In 1966, an American Benedictine monk wrote to Thomas Merton complaining about what he perceived to be the uselessness of monasticism. Merton's frank response is worth reading, particularly as it touches upon the prophetic nature of monastic life, a point discussed briefly in a recent article in America on why young people are intrigued by monasticism:
There has always been and there always will be a conviction in certain minds that the monastic life is useless. Well, it is. It is not meant to serve some practical purpose. It is not "for" something other than itself. On the other hand, the assertion that "reality" is to be found in secular life only is patently foolish: but people will continue to make it. And in the same breath they will lament the fact that they have no time for anything, that they are always nervous and frustrated, that people get on their nerves...The world has its dignities and heroisms and its servitudes: and for many people life in the world is little more than the latter. The monk should have the courage and patience to keep his life going as a sign of freedom and peace: he should be in his own way open to the world, and he should even to some extent be able to share some of the advantages of his life with people in the world who seek a little silence and peace to restore their perspectives. The monk can also in his own way be effectively concerned with worldly problems: more effectively for the fact that he is not immersed in them up to his neck.
 Picture of Merton above used with permission of the Merton Legacy Trust