Seven Story Mountain: Can the Monastery Provide Lessons for the Classroom?

I listened to Thomas Merton’s Seven Story Mountain, which is a memoir that traces his path from globe-trotting youth to Columbia University all-star student to Trappist monk. It seemed kind of short–am I the only one who mistrusts audiobooks that claim to be unabridged?

I don’t know if monasteries and classrooms could be more different, especially with the infusion of technology and infotainment into the everyday life of the classroom, but here I go, streeeeetching as far as I can.

His father ended up becoming a well-known painter. I don’t recall that he ever explains why his family had money, but his life was privileged, elite. Not that he had a lack of hardships (hello people, for the last time, privilege doesn’t mean no hardship), but he seemed to be in the jet set, back and forth between Europe and the U.S. His youth coincided with the world wars, which form a backdrop for his story. One of the turning points for him was the discovery of Catholic philosophy, which, over time, propels him into his life as a monk.

When I got to thinking about his story and the classroom, I focused on the ideas of transformation and the setting of a monastery.


Merton’s transformation, as I see it, began with intellectual pursuits in philosophy. He accidentally picked up a book on Catholic philosophy, and although he had been kind of anti-religious in his life, he was inspired by the definition of God he finds. He knows that he needs more than an intellectual orientation towards religion. It takes great courage and the prodding of mentors and friends and a lot of time, but he eventually does a one-week retreat at the monastery he ends up in. He also sees the pure love of God that children exhibit in Cuba, which he finds inspiring.

In current and past research I’m fascinated by language students use when they have a transformative learning experience. In recent work students say things like, “the veil is lifted,” “I felt free to learn,” and the more literal but no less interesting, “this course has changed my life.” But what freedom is there in a course (of any kind)? You don’t sign up to learn something in an institution if you want freedom. Merton doesn’t study Catholic philosophy for a class he was taking at Columbia. Yet it was, at least, tangential to his studies. And for him, some kind of veil was lifted. I like the “Amazing Grace” imagery of transformative learning. Things are revealed to us powerfully at times and they can animate new degrees or kinds of purpose.

Can teachers plan for this? In Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Cafe she describes how Hannah Arendt wrote about Martin Heidegger as a teacher: “Thinking has come to life again; the cultural treasures of the past, believed to be dead, are being made to speak…There exists a teacher, one can perhaps learn to think.” This was a teacher that changed lives…maybe I should read this article on his teaching. If only I had SpringerLink access…

Anything from a random fact shared to a caring action can be things teachers do to launch a transformation of an individual student. Teaching in some consistent manner (even if the consistency is inconsistency) may inspire. But these are insufficient answers in insufficient time. Since books and books have been written on the topic of transformative teaching, this brief section of this medium-length blog post doesn’t provide much insight.

God is far from classroom…

But only rarely have I felt more of God’s presence than at the end of a course in quantum physics. The course took place over a 4 week period. At the beginning of each week, I would be sunk, again, deeply into confusion and despair. Often by the end of the week I felt better about wave equations or collapsing integrals. I never knew if I was simply growing accustomed to the state of confusion or actually learning. Some time near the end of the course, we conducted some calculations that were quite complex. The professor said (simply), and that’s hydrogen. We had just calculated a mathematical proof of the most fundamental element. It was a moment of light shining down from heaven through dark clouds. It was creation and I felt it revealed.

I’m not saying we want a religious experience for students in the classroom, necessarily. But I do want what Merton describes in his monastery. A collective, meaningful pursuit of powerful truth that can inspire awe and fellowship. In teacher education, I try to bring students together under the banner of moving from student to professional. If the final goal is teaching music or mathematics or elementary or high school, the general concept of the professional teacher is an aspiration on what to become. Working on becoming a teacher is technical work, but it’s also soul work.

I used to like the idea of a classroom with glass walls. I wanted to tear down the schools and have an outdoor classroom. I was inspired by a story in an Adbusters about a class that fused all the typical subjects like math, science, history, and language arts through focus on a river. Students would live the river and apply the theories of the subjects. It sounds so romantic!

What sounds less romantic is the current breakdown of the four walls: students can hop on their devices in class and be transported to whatever their heart desires. Maybe that’s part of why school is so boring for so many.

But still, four walls offer some kind of protection. Schooling is developmental, and walls allow for a segmenting of authentic experience that allows easier entry to the topic at hand. How overwhelming it might be for a student to hear a teacher say, “here’s our curriculum,” as she points to the river. The real world has chaos in it that classrooms can offer protection from, or at least mitigate. A monastery, likewise, is a space where single-mindedness is more possible.

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