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On Liberal Arts Ed: Why I Assign Seven Story Mountain

In my general education honors course I assign Seven Story Mountain, the religious autobiography of the brilliant and passionate Trappist monk Thomas Merton. A masterpiece now available in more than twenty languages, it describes Merton’s conversion to Christianity in the modern West dislocated by mass industrialization, class formation, urban growth, world wars and radical nihilistic ideologies.

In addition to its historical significance, this book is required reading since the process of understanding it, and the knowledge, skills and virtues that readers acquire from it, corroborate the wisdom of a Christian liberal arts education.

Reading Seven Story Mountain is hard work. Merton’s prose is layered with theological, philosophical and historical meaning. Students find them by turns ironic, satirical, witty, offensive and paradoxical. To understand them, students must craft self-control, patience, humility and trust as intellectual skills.

Page after page, readers must bridle their minds and methodically concentrate on the narrative and conceptual thread. When students come to a word or idea they don’t understand, they must consult a dictionary or assent to an intellectual authority. Since our minds aren’t large enough to grasp all knowledge, we can be comforted in our smallness.

Just as liberal methods of learning can instill virtue, professors can encourage the same by modeling a life of persistent general learning, contemplating and practicing the important things in life. They can guide students through layered meanings of texts, helping them become intellectually broader and more tolerant of diverse ideas. They can assist students with rightly ordering knowledge to create a rationally-consistent Biblical worldview.

In professor Mark Van Doren’s Shakespeare class at Columbia University, Merton was encouraged to view all truth as God’s, and therefore to understand the beauty of verse, meter and sound as consonant with God’s elegant and ordered creation.

The end of a Christian liberal education is wisdom manifested in the love of God and neighbor in our local churches, workplaces, schools, neighborhoods and communities. The means include acquiring broad knowledge through reading, writing and speaking, learning technical methods of scientific investigation and incarnating them in acts of charitable service.

At PLNU, the liberal arts appear in our general curriculum that sharpens intellectual skills while imparting knowledge about God’s revelation in Scripture and the world, providing contextual background for major study, and preparing students for the many roles they’ll play after graduation. Faculty hope to produce good church members, board members, colleagues, neighbors, spouses, parents and friends.

But wisdom is practical in another way–students who can read text, subtext and context, evaluate subtle ideas and put them together, weigh competing points of view and express their position clearly, are those who will get hired. They will solve messy, interdisciplinary real-world problems, and learn new things on the job to be promoted or to simply keep up with an ever-changing economy.

Last week The New York Times published an article entitled “Six Myths About Choosing a College Major,” confirming the competitive earning power of liberal arts graduates, particularly those who majored in English and History.

As for Thomas Merton, his last book was The Wisdom of the Desert, a fitting end to a life devoted to knowing the eternal Logos through the Christian liberal methods of reading, writing, speaking, contemplating and practicing Biblical virtue. Maybe I’ll assign that book next semester.

Ben Cater, Ph.D. is the Associate Dean of General Education and Director of the Humanities Honors program at PLNU.

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