Should universities be more like monasteries?

As it becomes abundantly clear that texting and chatbotting are making students miserable right now, what they may actually need is a taste of the monk’s life

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By Molly Worthen

Published: Fri 9 Jun 2023, 1:20 AM

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 humankind.

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 jewellery or makeup in class. Men and women sat separately and wore different “habits”: white shirts for the men; women in black.

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 practising living a monastic life. We had to wake up at 5am and journal every 30 minutes.” If you tried to cruise to a C, you missed the point: “I realised the only way for me to get the most out of this class was to experience it all,” she said. (She did get 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 5pm 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 found that 30 per cent of respondents had already used ChatGPT to complete a written assignment. Some campus experts on teaching encourage faculty 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 AI’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 per cent of American college students reported the symptoms of at least one mental health problem, and 15 per cent said they were considering suicide. A recent 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 AI 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 programme 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 recognise when ChatGPT churns out decent prose instead of bureaucratic drivel?

Most important, students need head space to think about their own ultimate values. Contemplation and marathon reading are not ends in themselves, or mere vacations from real life, but 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 medicine, 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 civilisations. When students finish, they can move right into their area of specialisation 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 launching this as a full-year programme, 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. Justin 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 himself. For 20 years, he has helped students try it out personally — and question some of their own 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.’”

No one understands discipline better than the members of the monastic order who follow the rule written by St Benedict in the sixth century. Undergraduates at Belmont Abbey College outside of Charlotte, NC, share their quadrangles, sidewalks — 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 ESL (English as Second Language) 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 of time.”

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 only suitable 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, the economics major who took Living Deliberately and Existential Despair, said that before those classes 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 allowing 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.

Molly Worthen is the author, most recently, of the audio course ‘Charismatic Leaders Who Remade America’ and an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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