opinion | College students want a taste of the monk’s life
“On college campuses, these students feel like they are all individuals, going out and being wild,” he said. “But they’re in a playpen. I tell them, ‘You know you’re going to be protected by campus police and lawyers. You have this whole apparatus set up for you. You feel like you’re one person, but your four Look at friends: they all look and sound just like you. We exist in these very strict structures, we just prefer to pretend we don’t exist.” (It is noteworthy that Dr. McDaniel in his Has described his own politics as “philosophical anarchist.”) His course offers an opportunity to temporarily exchange those unconscious structures for an intentional, countercultural set.
No one understands discipline better than the Benedictines, members of the monastic order who followed the Rule written by St. Benedict in the sixth century. Undergraduates at Belmont Abbey College outside Charlotte, NC, share their quadrangle, sidewalks — even their chess club — with Benedictine monks who live in a cloister in the middle of campus. “For the last 1,500 years, the Benedictines have had to deal with technology,” the abbot there, Placid Solari, told me. “For us, the question is how do you use the tool so that it supports and enhances your purpose or mission, and you don’t own it.”
Mental distraction was a struggle even for ancient ascetics who didn’t have Snapchat. When the mind wanders and a sadhu “wants to fasten it with the strongest aim of the heart, as with chains, while we are trying it slips through the innermost places of the heart faster than a snake, wrote John Cassian, a 4th-century monk. Many monasteries do not completely reject the latest technology, but they are careful about how they use it. Abbot Placid told me that for novices at his monastery, “part of the formation is the discipline to learn how to control the use of technology.” After this early time of limited phone and TV access “to wean them away from over-reliance on technology and its stimulation,” they gain more access and mostly make their own choices.
Evan Lutz graduated from Belmont Abbey this May with a major in theology. He emphasized the special Catholic context of the resident monks of Belmont; If you experiment with monastic practices without examining the whole worldview, it can become a shallow type of mindfulness tourism. The monks at Belmont Abbey do more than model contemplation and meditation. His 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 some truth, or it is completely ridiculous,” Mr. Lutz said. “In both cases, there’s something striking, and it makes people ask a question.”
Pondering over final questions and developing cognitive stamina should not be a luxury. David Peña-Guzman, who teaches philosophy at San Francisco State University, read about Dr. McDaniel’s Existential Despair course and decided he wanted to create a similar course. He called it The Reading Experiment. A small group of humanities majors gathers once every two weeks for five and a half hours in a seminar room furnished with sofas and a large round table. He reads authors ranging from Jean-Paul Sartre to Frantz Fanon. “At the beginning of every class I asked students to turn off their phones and put them in the ‘basket of despair’, which was a plastic bag,” he told me. “I had a long conversation with him about accessibility. The point is not to take the phone for ourselves, but to remove our primary sources of distraction. Students could keep the phone if needed. But all of them decided to give their phones.