Notes on University Governance

Molly Worthen:

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.)