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Is it time to return to the medieval way of life on college campuses? (chronicle.com)
53 points by quinndupont on Jan 28, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 48 comments



I think there's some merit to this proposal, but it's too riddled with an infatuation with a certain brand of Christian monasticism for me to separate out what is good and what is bad.

"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."

That's confusing "virtue" with something actually relevant to academic involvement. I agree there's a lot wrong with the current system, but it's not that students are having too much sex and sleeping in on.

"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."

That's not going to happen. Once again, we have some confusion between this weird form of self-denial with caring about education. It's perfectly possible to be committed to learning/research/etc. while still wanting to talk to your friends during dinner.

This isn't even getting at the daily ritualistic prayer, the claim the current academic zeitgeist is "decadent", the fact that a lot of research requires expensive equipment, something unaccounted for under this scheme, the suggested "withdrawal" from the rest of the world, etc.

EDIT: Not to mention, there's the problem of people with families. Does the rest of the family have to join in also? What about children? If they don't, how does the member provide for them? Are only single people allowed to join? What?


I agree there's a lot wrong with the current system, but it's not that students are having too much sex

From what I saw, it's not that students were having too much sex. It's the combination of a lot of undirected lost souls who are not committed so something substantive (like learning/research) with a pervasive atmosphere of bacchanalia. I saw people go through many emotional wringers in school.

Once again, we have some confusion between this weird form of self-denial with caring about education.

I agree. I think it's perfectly possible to have an atmosphere which is contemplative without going towards asceticism. What's really needed is a shift in emphasis.

the fact that a lot of research requires expensive equipment, something unaccounted for under this scheme

There's a lot of research and substantive work that doesn't require expensive equipment. For one thing, I would love some monasteries to become hosts for Google Summer of Code work.


The positive aspect of asceticism: such a place would have far less overhead.


...good luck?

Engineering school makes even the most dedicated student wonder why they're even bothering at times. And now you'll take away getting laid, fucking off, bitching, and Starcraft. And you'll have them do additional manual labor on top of that.

I think part of the reason these monasteries have such sterling reputations is cause we never hear about the failures. No one really bothered recording the number of people who joined, and then ran away, or even the number of successful for which monastic life was actually an improvement. I mean sure, you gotta read all these books, and plow a field, but at least you have a bed (albeit hard) and roof, and the lord isn't out to tax you all the time.


"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?" You're not going to spawn Zuckberg, Obama, or the next cure for cancer and you'll fall behind China and India, while your kids wonder why they never got a shot at being the world leaders of tomorrow.

Now I don't mean to say that there isn't value in learning for it's own sake- there is. You don't need to reshape education to do that though. Every student today has the ability to make these choices- like icegreentea said, they choose not to because they don't think it's valuable.


Engineering school makes even the most dedicated student wonder why they're even bothering at times. And now you'll take away commiserating with your friends about how none of you are getting laid because of the school's abysmal male-to-female ratio, fucking off, bitching, and Starcraft. And you'll have them do additional manual labor on top of that.

There. Fixed it for ya.

Sincerely, The Engineering School Truth In Advertising Committee


I think that a more ascetic way of life would be good for many people, myself included -- when I get away from everything, it gives me time to think and refresh myself.

On the other hand, the article seems to be going in a more insular direction, which I absolutely cannot agree with. Universities and colleges need to teach as a part of the world, not from ivory towers. The biggest problem with my alma mater is that it's very isolated geographically and that created a "bubble" where outside events didn't really penetrate beyond sports or a few political interest groups.


I think the ideal solution would be to adopt the deep springs model, where students do two years of monastic liberal arts education as described, and then finish off at a research university. I would have greatly preferred this over the actual college experience.



One thing that the Cartasian maths did in Anathem was to effectively provide a civilization insurance policy by preserving knowledge, and a scientific mindset, through extended dark ages.

In you look around and wonder what would happen if there was a general collapse of civil society you do have to wonder who and where the bodies of knowledge that we have collected over the last few thousand years would be preserved (right back to things like the Homeric epics - which have made it through two long dark ages).


It reminds me of Hillis' observation that relics like the Dead Sea Scrolls are safe while lost but endangered by being found and put in a museum.

http://longnow.org/essays/millennium-clock/


Well, of course the relics that we've discovered were safe while they were lost. Because otherwise we wouldn't have discovered them. That doesn't mean that being lost is safer than being in a museum. (Perhaps it is, but where's the evidence?)


Well, one piece of evidence is what happened to the museums in Baghdad in 2003, not to mention the things that were lost in Berlin in '45.


>(Perhaps it is, but where's the evidence?)

The relics that were safe through social meltdowns and other problems are the evidence.

There are pretty safe assumptions that lead to that position too - museums will get destroyed just as other municipal buildings would in a period of societal collapse. Imagine you're uneducated, living in what was a museum and need to build a fire ...

If the artefacts are still safely ensconced in a not yet rediscovered cave then they're relatively safe.

We get a lot of our historic information from ceramic and stone artifacts - I wonder what durable items we might pass down through the millenia?


"If the artefacts are still safely ensconced in a not yet rediscovered cave then they're relatively safe."

His point is that if a colony of insects happened into that cave a month after they were "safely ensconced" 500 years ago, then they wouldn't be there for us to find. Basically you're falling for survivorship bias.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Survivorship_bias


>Basically you're falling for survivorship bias.

Yes some artifacts will be destroyed in caves. But we also know that artifacts won't be preserved in museums. Hence I said relatively safe. Clearly not all artifacts survive but we're sure that no artifacts remain in the Library of Alexandria (whether scrolls from there were saved or not, they weren't saved in the library).

Yes I see that you can also argue that items in caves/other caches are also eventually removed or destroyed in situ but it is the preservation against rampaging hordes and systematic destruction that I was targetting.

>That doesn't mean that being lost is safer than being in a museum. (Perhaps it is, but where's the evidence?)

Obviously this is circumstantial evidence but I think that museums are simply too obvious to protect against certain things like looting in war or social collapse scenarios.


Thanks for posting this, I was about to. Also, I have the domain http://mathic.org, if anyone is interested in setting something up.


I think we can all agree at least that the current 'college experience' goes a little to far in the other extreme. I'd argue that at this point its actually a step backward from adulthood.

High school student:

-Wakes up at 6am, Juggles school, extracurriculars, home responsibilities, social life, holds a part-time job

college student:

-Doesn't change out of pajamas until it's time to go to the bar.


Actually for me university was exactly where I learned self discipline because the opportunities to go off the rails were just so available - after coming with a hair's breadth of being thrown out I turned myself around and ended up with excellent marks and a first. In some ways the very availability of distractions is part of the strengths of a traditional university education.


When would I have had time for significant manual labor in college? Ask a grad student working 72 hours a week in the lab to grow their own food instead of snarfing down ramen at their desk, and see how much research gets done. :/


Part of his proposal is that people would never be forced to leave. I suspect that many grad students would trade a year or two longer researching at a more relaxed pace, combined with some less intellectually intense manual labor, for how things work now.


Ah yes. Five to eight years of phd and another three of postdoc was just getting me to the nonexistent job market for scientists too darn fast. ;-)


Another corrupting influence—anxiety over college costs—could be removed entirely by making our institutions self-sustaining through productive labor.

The author is ignoring a significant advantage that actual monasteries and convents have on this point: they are exempt from taxes by law and longstanding tradition. It's not clear that an institution lacking this advantage could really become economically self-sufficient.


Colleges and universities are also exempt from taxation. Harvard University pays no tax on its endowment gains or property.


Actual monasteries and convents are in a perfect position to fill this role. Not only do they often have the perfect geographical location, they also have physical plants which are designed to foster the right mental attitude and already have practices that do the same. They also have the right tax exempt status.



I got a mailing from them way back when I was graduating high school. I looked at it over and over, but was never bold enough to actually apply to such a non-traditional school. I think that was a big mistake on my part. Still think about that choice on a regular basis, many years later.


Berea is another: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berea_College

My brother looked at it - was quite attractive but didn't have his specific field of interest.


There are already many aspects of this author's proposal practiced in the cowboy style at Deep Springs.

By reputation, it's a highly successful institution.


I have, on occasion, wanted to start a monastic order of really well dressed physicists. So many scientists are so poorly dressed, I just want to start an order where you must be impeccably dressed in an expensive suit and tie at all times.


>you must be impeccably dressed in an expensive suit and tie at all times

Why? What is it about this attire that makes you want to do that.

All I can see is that such dress is an attempt to feel superior over others and that your belonging to such a group would allow for the feeling of superiority without the effort of intellectual advancement?


Not really, I just like nice clothes. And I like to wear nice clothes. And I feel silly wearing nice clothes when surrounded by others who aren't wearing nice clothes.

One could, however, think of it as a discipline thing. If you wear a perfectly pressed suit you're less likely to slouch. And if you're less likely to slouch, maybe you're less likely to be sloppy in your thoughts, so your research might be better.

Then again, maybe your research would wind up being worse because a suit feels so conformist. Who knows? But it would be a worthwhile experiment.


>Then again, maybe your research would wind up being worse because a suit feels so conformist. Who knows? But it would be a worthwhile experiment.

Or maybe it wouldn't matter because you're just you with different textiles covering (or not) your naked body.


Perhaps I'm getting grumpier as I'm getting older but yes! And can I start an engineers branch of Really Well Dressed?

You should dress according to your age. You don't get any younger/cooler by dressing like a teenager. Put on some nice clothes, learn some manners and grow up.

Now get off my lawn :-)


If you're that smart, and have to go around in a suit, why not ditch physics and get into finance?


I've thought about it, but I don't wanna live in New York. :)

PS. Attention California-based hedge funds with strict dress policies! I am available! My email address is not in my profile but if you're that smart you can probably figure it out!


This whole thing feels like a solution to a problem that's already been solved. If students want to decide where to go to school based on academic strength rather than the gym facilities and sports teams, they are already free to do so. I know a lot of students who would rather stay home and read than party all night, so that's what they do. Attaining the mind-oriented domestic life described later is mostly a matter of finding the right people to live with.


...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.

Hell, I thought everybody already understood that this was actually the point of college, but I will defer to Frank Zappa on this one: If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library.


Are we talking about the nominal regulations, or the way things actually ran? Cf. Chaucer, Rabelais, and the Goliardic poems for some information on the latter. Gutenberg's version of Rabelais is a very old translation, but I append a sample anyway:

Going from Bourges, he came to Orleans, where he found store of swaggering scholars that made him great entertainment at his coming, and with whom he learned to play at tennis so well that he was a master at that game. For the students of the said place make a prime exercise of it; and sometimes they carried him unto Cupid's houses of commerce (in that city termed islands, because of their being most ordinarily environed with other houses, and not contiguous to any), there to recreate his person at the sport of poussavant, which the wenches of London call the ferkers in and in. As for breaking his head with over-much study, he had an especial care not to do it in any case, for fear of spoiling his eyes. Which he the rather observed, for that it was told him by one of his teachers, there called regents, that the pain of the eyes was the most hurtful thing of any to the sight. For this cause, when he one day was made a licentiate, or graduate in law, one of the scholars of his acquaintance, who of learning had not much more than his burden, though instead of that he could dance very well and play at tennis, made the blazon and device of the licentiates in the said university, saying,

  So you have in your hand a racket,
  A tennis-ball in your cod-placket,
  A Pandect law in your cap's tippet,
  And that you have the skill to trip it
  In a low dance, you will b' allowed
  The grant of the licentiate's hood.


Very good point. This article fits quite well in the category of "nostalgia for a simpler age that never really existed."


I studied in a JNV (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jawahar_Navodaya_Vidyalaya), from class 6th till class 12th; those were the best days of my life. All that I am today, is because of my stay in the vidyalaya. I guess the article linked above speaks of a similar life in an institute, but for higher education.

Such a model would only work if the students in that place are of such ideological disposition that they do not find all the fancy stuff fun.

I was once asked what I'd do if I had a 100 million, by some sheer luck or something. My answer was that I would anonymously buy a huge stretch of land in a remote area somewhere near the Western Ghats/Himalayas (India) and start a zen monastery type of institute for sciences; frugal(with Internet/infrastructure) in nature but strict in admissions, with no age limit for members. No fee whatsoever for the students, boarding and lodging included. A centre for higher education in science and technology, modeled after JNVs. And I would try joining that institute as a student, taking admission tests.


Bring together a core group of serious-minded but underemployed academics—who already have adopted a life of poverty ... instead of preparing students to leave the institution, we encouraged some of them to stay, joining us in work and reflection.

Sounds like a typical grad school.


Why would anybody want to copy an education system that arguably set Europe back 1000 years?


I can appreciate that the involvement of religion with education has had some negative impact on scientific and social development, but I would have thought that overall historically it has probably had a positive effect.

Note that I say this as an atheist and as someone who doesn't think that there is much place for religion in modern education, apart from learning about religions as part of general cultural awareness.


Well, how about the one that preserved knowledge through the dark ages then?


Isn't a lot of modern academic opinion turning against the idea of any kind of significant 'dark age' actually having occurred in Europe?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dark_Ages


They seem to be avoiding the term "Dark Age" but there is no doubt that there was a huge collapse in the infrastructure of civil society and technology after the Western Empire ended.

Note that there was also an earlier Bronze Age "Dark Age" in Eastern Europe:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bronze_Age_collapse


If it hadn't been for religion, we wouldn't have spent 1000 years in the dark ages.

So the preserved knowledge is only a tiny slither of what they destroyed.




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