A provocative notion, from writer Dr. Molly Worthen in The New York Times:
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.
Dr. Worthen gives more details and reactions from students. She also suggests that a kind of “monastic freshman year” might be beneficial for all concerned, and she points for proof to The Benedictines:
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.