Getting Medieval on Higher Education

Brian Taylor

January 23, 2011

In this season of austerity, I would like to humbly propose that we return to some of the foundational traditions of our colleges and universities.

No, I do not mean the values of the 1950s, when the United States believed in education as a public good—nor even the 1880s, when universities decided to become centers of research. I mean the values that emerged after the fall of the Roman Empire. Monasticism, I believe, may provide the most effective haven for higher education in the context of yet another crumbling civilization corrupted by luxuries, addicted to war, and hostile to self-examination.

Hemmed in by barbarians on every side, it's time for academe to get medieval.

There are, of course, many ways of being a monastic, and the Christian tradition is only one. But most include some variation on the basic pattern of communal living, asceticism, combined with a regime of meditation and labor.

In some modern forms, the monastic way of life need not even include adherence to a particular faith. One can easily imagine cloistered communities focused on sustainable, ecological practices. Instead of daily prayers, members of the collective might spend a prescribed number of hours reading Thoreau and Wendell Berry; in season, they might cultivate organic heirloom vegetables for their own use and for sale at the local farmer's market.

One could imagine that in the Middle Ages, choosing a monastery might have been like selecting among liberal-arts colleges, each with a different variation of mission and expression. But the major purpose, in every case, was to turn away from the vices and distractions of the world toward a higher life—often a deeply intellectual one—nurtured by the work of one's hands.

Such an option is scarcely available to many so-called traditional students, for whom the life of the mind is barely an afterthought, perhaps somewhere below the availability of enough stair-climbing machines in the gleaming, new fitness megaplex financed by ruinous tuition costs and the galley-slave wages of self-loathing adjuncts staffing a thousand sections of remedial composition.

But I digress.

As we all know, for the virtuous student, college life has become a variation on The Temptation of Saint Anthony—a never-ending assault by the demons of gluttony, envy, sloth, lust, and pride. The real question is how to build an institution of higher learning that is not an incubator of evil. One that cultivates the higher values and steers students away from self-gratification, materialism, and worldly ambition toward a purity of purpose sustained by cultivation of the intellect, discipline, and cheerful self-denial.

Let us, for a moment, consider what it might be like to join a college that has redesigned itself according to The Rule of St. Benedict, comprising guidelines for the Benedictines, an order of men and women that has survived for nearly 1,500 years.

In the sixth century, St. Benedict established one of the first monasteries at Monte Cassino, near Rome. Although he was not a supporter of scholarly pursuits, the Benedictines eventually set about preserving ancient learning that might otherwise have been lost, and they made substantial contributions of their own. As the culture of scholarship developed, spiritual devotion and the intellectual life became complementary rather than antagonistic. Everything had meaning that looked to the ultimate marriage of heaven and earth: That was explicitly Christian, of course, but the basic worldview resonates with contemporary progressivism in many ways.

"Listen carefully, my child, to the master's instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart," begins St. Benedict, sounding almost like Obi-Wan Kenobi. Yes, I want to say, I want to become a Jedi, too, and fight to restore balance to the galaxy.

It all begins with a sense of purpose and destiny. A major should not be selected because of a job report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. What would it be like if college students felt that they were called to a vocation rather than simply getting their tickets stamped so they can get middle-class jobs, if they are lucky?

Perhaps in the futility of undergraduate careerism lie the seeds of a new vocational outlook in higher education. It is worth remembering that monasteries were the first institutions in the West that allowed people to explore options beyond the circumstances into which they were born.

I often see proposals for such an institution. Why not bring together a core group of serious-minded but underemployed academics—who already have adopted a life of poverty, more or less—to form a college that has none of the superfluities that have made higher education the equivalent of a four-year Carnival cruise? No more millionaire vice presidents and coaches, no more gargantuan stadiums with double-Jumbotrons, no more dorms and dining centers that look like Disney World resorts, no more exploited adjuncts who fear displeasing their student-customers. Instead, this college would have full-time, resident professors, recreational athletics, and basic dormitories that the students maintained themselves. In time, a few administrators could be chosen from among the faculty.

What if, instead of preparing students to leave the institution, we encouraged some of them to stay, joining us in work and reflection for as long as they continued to benefit from the experience? One of the major corrupting elements of higher education—the fear of unemployment—would be reduced, and students could focus, once again, on learning for its own sake.

Another corrupting influence—anxiety over college costs—could be removed entirely by making our institutions self-sustaining through productive labor. Depending on their interests and capabilities, students—let us call them "novices"—could be put to work growing food, tending beehives, crafting furniture, building digital archives, and doing their part in cleaning and maintenance, thereby providing—through a system of communal sharing—the resources, infrastructure, and maintenance needed to sustain the institution in perpetuity, with minimal external support.

Many aspects of the monastic life could be fruitfully adopted. The Rule of St. Benedict is a kind of constitution; it includes guidelines for provosts, deans, and dormitories. More important, it requires, among other things, that everyone be treated equally, and that all work together for the good of the community, deeming no task too lowly to be undertaken. Members should cultivate nonviolence, humility, and ungrudging obedience to just authority. Speech should be used in moderation, and only for some purpose. Instead of gossiping at meals, edifying books are read aloud. There are no private possessions, only two meals a day, and vegetarianism is the norm. Clothing is simple, utilitarian, and uniform. The day is organized around manual labor, private study, and the rituals of communal prayer.

All of those rules are supports for a way of life that is ultimately directed toward a higher meaning. For the Christian monastic, that would be one's relationship with God, but many other orientations are possible.

One component of this way of life stands out to me, in particular, as most important: solitude and silence. In every waking moment, students now are bombarded with the din of the marketplace and encouraged to join in the madness of crowds. But in an empty room—without a high-definition, widescreen TV—one stands alone and is forced to confront the truth about oneself. Nothing is more effective at bringing about personal transformation and enlightenment—whatever one's tradition—and we have made it all but impossible in the modern university.

At first glance, my proposal seemspaleo-conservative, but it may be that reviving some parts of monastic culture could make us greener and more progressive; it could nurture a culture of intellectually serious and critical self-examination; and it could slow and eventually reverse the unsustainable growth of tuition costs—rooted in the proliferation of countless distractions—that is causing us to wonder if higher education is the next major social institution to crumble.

We are, no doubt, entering a period of even greater austerity for academic programs. The message throughout higher education is no more tenure, no more small classes, and no more specialized research, unless it is paid for by external grants. Make the faculty accountable in quantifiable ways so that only quantifiable things can be taught. Essentially, everything at the core of traditional education is expendable—but the superfluities, driven by the need to attract students, are essential and must continue to grow. The outside world is inside the walls, and it's not going to leave.

What option remains for the serious-minded academic but withdrawal, reflection, and, eventually, the creation of new institutions on a stronger foundation?

The modern system of higher education has existed for little more than a century, and its present, decadent form has materialized only in the last few generations. While I would not seriously advocate the literal adoption of monastic rules, perhaps it is time to contemplate how we might regain our sense of purpose by revisiting the traditions of our oldest institutions.

Thomas H. Benton is the pen name of William Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College, in Holland, Mich.