Why Universities Should Be More Like Monasteries

An illustration of a lush green-and-yellow garden shows through four pink-and-yellow columns, with a pile of smartphones in the foreground.
Credit…Kate Dehler

By Molly Worthen

Dr. Worthen is a historian at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who writes frequently about higher education.

Nery Rodriguez just graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a major in economics, but one of the most significant courses she took there had nothing to do with marginal utility or game theory. When she registered last fall for the seminar known around campus as the monk class, she wasn’t sure what to expect.

“You give up technology, and you can’t talk for a month,” Ms. Rodriguez told me. “That’s all I’d heard. I didn’t know why.” What she found was a course that challenges students to rethink the purpose of education, especially at a time when machine learning is getting way more press than the human kind.

On the first day of class — officially called Living Deliberately — Justin McDaniel, a professor of Southeast Asian and religious studies, reviewed the rules. Each week, students would read about a different monastic tradition and adopt some of its practices. Later in the semester, they would observe a one-month vow of silence (except for discussions during Living Deliberately) and fast from technology, handing over their phones to him.

Yes, he knew they had other classes, jobs and extracurriculars; they could make arrangements to do that work silently and without a computer. (Dr. McDaniel offers to talk to any instructors, employers or relatives who have concerns.)

The class eased into the vow of silence, first restricting speech to 100 words a day. Other rules began on Day 1: no jewelry or makeup in class. Men and women sat separately and wore different “habits”: white shirts for the men, women in black. (Nonbinary and transgender students sat with the gender of their choice.)

Dr. McDaniel discouraged them from sharing personal information; they should get to know one another only through ideas. “He gave us new names, based on our birth time and day, using a Thai birth chart,” Sophie Ouyang, who also took the class and just graduated with a major in nursing, said. “We were practicing living a monastic life. We had to wake up at 5 a.m. and journal every 30 minutes.” If you tried to cruise to a C, you missed the point: “I realized the only way for me to get the most out of this class was to experience it all,” she said. (She got Dr. McDaniel’s permission to break her vow of silence in order to talk to patients during her clinical rotation.)

Dr. McDaniel also teaches a course called Existential Despair. Students meet once a week from 5 p.m. to midnight in a building with comfy couches, turn over their phones and curl up to read an assigned novel (cover to cover) in one sitting — books like James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room” and José Saramago’s “Blindness.” Then they stay up late discussing it. “The course is not about hope, overcoming things, heroic stories,” Dr. McDaniel said. Many of the books “start sad. In the middle they’re sad. They stay sad. I’m not concerned with their 20-year-old self. I’m worried about them at my age, dealing with breast cancer, their dad dying, their child being an addict, a career that never worked out — so when they’re dealing with the bigger things in life, they know they’re not alone.”

Both courses have long wait lists. Students are hungry for a low-tech, introspective experience — and not just students in the Ivy League. Research suggests that underprivileged young people have far fewer opportunities to think for unbroken stretches of time, so they may need even more space in college to develop what social scientists call cognitive endurance.

Yet the most visible higher ed trends are moving in the other direction. Rather than ban phones and laptops from class, some professors are brainstorming ways to embrace students’ tech addictions with class Facebook and Instagram accounts, audience response apps — and perhaps even including the friends and relatives whom students text during class as virtual participants in class discussion.

Then there’s that other unwelcome classroom visitor: artificial intelligence. A survey of 1,000 college students by the college-ranking website Intelligent found that 30 percent of respondents had already used ChatGPT to complete a written assignment. Some campus experts on teaching encourage faculty members to stop worrying and love the bot by designing assignments that “help students develop their prompting skills” or “use ChatGPT to generate a first draft,” according to a tip sheet produced by the Center for Teaching and Learning at Washington University in St. Louis.

It’s not at all clear that we want a future dominated by A.I.’s amoral, Cheez Whiz version of human thought. It is abundantly clear that texting, tagging and chatbotting are making students miserable right now. One recent national survey found that 60 percent of American college students reported the symptoms of at least one mental health problem and that 15 percent said they were considering suicide. A recent meta-analysis of 36 studies of college students’ mental health found a significant correlation between longer screen time and higher risk of anxiety and depression. And while social media can sometimes help suffering students connect with peers, research on teenagers and college students suggests that overall, the support of a virtual community cannot compensate for the vortex of gossip, bullying and Instagram posturing that is bound to rot any normal person’s self-esteem.

We need an intervention: maybe not a vow of silence but a bold move to put the screens, the pinging notifications and creepy humanoid A.I. chatbots in their proper place. They are our tools, not our masters. That doesn’t mean a futile attempt to wall off higher education from the modern world; it does mean selectively returning to the university’s roots in the monastic schools of medieval Europe and rekindling the old-fashioned quest for meaning.

Colleges should offer a radically low-tech first-year program for students who want to apply: a secular monastery within the modern university, with a curated set of courses that ban glowing rectangles of any kind from the classroom. Students could opt to live in dorms that restrict technology, too. We can work individually with students who have accessibility accommodations to find the best low-tech solutions for them (like turning off Wi-Fi, rationing screen time and deleting attention-guzzling apps).

I prophesy that universities that do this will be surprised by how much demand there is. I frequently talk to students who resent the distracting laptops all around them during class. They feel the tug of the “imaginary string attaching me to my phone, where I have to constantly check it,” as Ms. Rodriguez, who took the monk class and Existential Despair, put it. Many, if not most, students want the elusive experience of uninterrupted thought, the kind where a hash of half-baked notions slowly becomes an idea about the world.

Even if your goal is effective use of the latest chatbot, it behooves you to read books in hard copies and read enough of them to learn what an elegant paragraph sounds like. How else will students recognize when ChatGPT churns out decent prose instead of bureaucratic drivel?

Most important, students need head space to think about their ultimate values. Contemplation and marathon reading are not ends in themselves or mere vacations from real life but are among the best ways to figure out your own answer to the question of what a human being is for — a question that is all the more pressing at a time when the robots soon may be coming for the white-collar jobs in medicinelaw and finance that the secular intelligentsia treats as shorthand for personal fulfillment. To use the trendy pedagogical jargon, here are the student learning outcomes universities should focus on: cognitive endurance and existential clarity.

Colleges could do all this in classes integrated with general education requirements: ideally, a sequence of great books seminars focused on classic texts from across different civilizations. When students finish, they can move right into their area of specialization and wire up their skulls with all the technology they want, armed with the habits and perspective to do so responsibly. Risk-averse college presidents and deans, I’m looking at you: If you can’t quite see starting this as a full-year program, try piloting it as summer school or a winter-break technology detox course.

But before we domesticate the monastic impulse, it’s worth learning from the radicals. Dr. McDaniel, the religious studies professor at Penn, has a long history with different monastic traditions. He grew up in Philadelphia, educated by Hungarian Catholic monks. After college, he volunteered in Thailand and Laos and lived as a Buddhist monk.

As his teaching career took him from Ohio University to the University of California, Riverside, and then to Penn, he found that no amount of academic reading could help undergraduates truly understand why “people voluntarily take on celibacy, give up drinking and put themselves under authorities they don’t need to,” he told me. So for 20 years, he has helped students try it out — and question some of their assumptions about what it means to find themselves.

“On college campuses, these students think they’re all being individuals, going out and being wild,” he said. “But they’re in a playpen. I tell them, ‘You know you’ll be protected by campus police and lawyers. You have this entire apparatus set up for you. You think you’re being an individual, but look at your four friends: They all look exactly like you and sound like you. We exist in these very strict structures we like to pretend don’t exist.’” (It’s worth mentioning that Dr. McDaniel describes his politics as “philosophical anarchist.”) His course offers a chance to temporarily exchange those unconscious structures for a set of deliberate, countercultural ones.

No one understands discipline better than the Benedictines, members of the monastic order who follow the rule written by St. Benedict in the sixth century. Undergraduates at Belmont Abbey College outside Charlotte, N.C., share their quadrangles, sidewalks and even their chess clubs with Benedictine monks who live in an abbey in the middle of campus. “For the last 1,500 years, Benedictines have had to deal with technology,” Placid Solari, the abbot there, told me. “For us, the question is: How do you use the tool so it supports and enhances your purpose or mission and you don’t get owned by it?”

Mental distraction was a struggle even for the ancient ascetics who didn’t have Snapchat. When the mind wanders and a monk wants “to bind it fast with the firmest purpose of heart, as if with chains, while we are making the attempt, it slips away from the inmost recesses of the heart swifter than a snake,” John Cassian, a fourth-century monk, wrote. Many monasteries don’t totally reject the latest technology, but they are mindful of how they use it. Abbot Placid told me that for novices at his monastery, “part of the formation is discipline to learn how to control technology use.” After this initial time of limited phone and TV “to wean them away from overdependence on technology and its stimulation,” they get more access and mostly make their own choices.

Evan Lutz graduated this May from Belmont Abbey with a major in theology. He stressed the special Catholic context of Belmont’s resident monks; if you experiment with monastic practices without investigating the whole worldview, it can become a shallow kind of mindfulness tourism. The monks at Belmont Abbey do more than model contemplation and focus. Their presence compels even non-Christians on campus to think seriously about vocation and the meaning of life. “Either what the monks are doing is valuable and based on something true, or it’s completely ridiculous,” Mr. Lutz said. “In both cases, there’s something striking there, and it asks people a question.”

Pondering ultimate questions and cultivating cognitive endurance should not be luxury goods. David Peña-Guzmán, who teaches philosophy at San Francisco State University, read about Dr. McDaniel’s Existential Despair course and decided he wanted to create a similar one. He called it the Reading Experiment. A small group of humanities majors gathered once every two weeks for five and a half hours in a seminar room equipped with couches and a big round table. They read authors ranging from Jean-Paul Sartre to Frantz Fanon. “At the beginning of every class I’d ask students to turn off their phones and put them in ‘the Basket of Despair,’ which was a plastic bag,” he told me. “I had an extended chat with them about accessibility. The point is not to take away the phone for its own sake but to take away our primary sources of distraction. Students could keep the phone if they needed it. But all of them chose to part with their phones.”

Dr. Peña-Guzmán’s students are mostly working-class, first-generation college students. He encouraged them to be honest about their anxieties by sharing his own: “I said, ‘I’m a very slow reader, and it’s likely some or most of you will get further in the text than me because I’m E.S.L. and read quite slowly in English.’ Once I put that on the table, other students went around and also opened up about their experience of reading and not trusting themselves to maintain attention for a long period.”

For his students, the struggle to read long texts is “tied up with the assumption that reading can happen while multitasking and constantly interacting with technologies that are making demands on their attention, even at the level of a second,” Dr. Peña-Guzmán said. “These draw you out of the flow of reading. You get back to the reading, but you have to restart the sentence or even the paragraph. Often, because of these technological interventions into the reading experience, students almost experience reading backward — as constant regress, without any sense of progress. The more time they spend, the less progress they make.”

Dr. Peña-Guzmán dismissed the idea that a course like his is suitable only for students who don’t have to worry about holding down jobs or paying off student debt. “I’m worried by this assumption that certain experiences that are important for the development of personality, for a certain kind of humanistic and spiritual growth, should be reserved for the elite, especially when we know those experiences are also sources of cultural capital,” he said. Courses like the Reading Experiment are practical, too, he added. “I can’t imagine a field that wouldn’t require some version of the skill of focused attention.”

The point is not to reject new technology but to help students retain the upper hand in their relationship with it. Ms. Rodriguez said that before she took Living Deliberately and Existential Despair, she didn’t distinguish technology from education. “I didn’t think education ever went without technology. I think that’s really weird now. You don’t need to adapt every piece of technology to be able to learn better or more,” she said. “It can form this dependency.”

The point of college is to help students become independent humans who can choose the gods they serve and the rules they follow rather than allow someone else to choose for them. The first step is dethroning the small silicon idol in their pocket — and making space for the uncomfortable silence and questions that follow. The experience stuck with Ms. Ouyang, the nursing major. “I didn’t look forward to getting my phone back,” she said.

New York Times – May 25, 2023