We’ve already got the robes: Of monks and us

This is the last post in a six part sequence called Strange Rumblings in the Meritocracy.

In this series I’ve written a lot about education, its constraints, the pressure we all feel to compete in the meritocracy, and some possible ways out. Much of this came from my reflecting on the fact that the financiers I study make use of university credentials to speak to their own worth in ways that are far from what we would like to do in our classrooms and in our research. I’ve distinguished assessments that are supposed to speak to essential parts of a person (GREs, SATs, GPAs and so on) and mark them as special, from feedback on particular work that is often offered open-endedly and in a pass/fail format (on, say, a thesis), as in a model of apprenticeship. I’ve also suggested that the more we get in the business of assessing the worth of someone’s character or the potential of someone’s soul from our various course and research offerings, the less we know what we’re doing, and the more we play into our current, meritocratic modes of anointing elites. In this last post I want to offer some thoughts on what academia might look like if somehow we were able to strip away the meritocratic ranking, the obsession with grades and league tables, and focus on the substance of teaching and growing what we know. So in the grand spirit of comparison I want to compare the student’s path in a university to the novice’s path in a Catholic monastery.

To reiterate I’m not saying academia is a monastery, or the monastery is a college (though there are similarities). What I am suggesting is that, insofar as we want to get out of the soul-weighing business, and into the work of teaching what we know, monastic formation is worth considering.


Several years ago, I conducted a summer’s worth of field-work with a Catholic Monastery, learning how people become monks and make sense of what God wants them to do.  I lived in-cloister, worked, participated, did interviews, and got into some archival material.

Becoming a Monk

The similarities between monastic and academic life are striking. Most basically, people come in response to a calling. They feel that God has called them to the monastery and a life of prayerful devotion. In turn the potential monk has to take their understanding of that God wants them to do and test it against the understanding of the other brothers. And in turn, the other brothers see it as their responsibility to “form” the raw spiritual energy and personal gifts of the individual in the rock-tumbler of life behind the cloister. As individual as a person’s loving relationship with God is, it must be socially legible, and articulated within the standards of the community.

All of this leads to a series of stages and steps. First a monk comes with informal visits, staying for observational periods, perhaps in a monastic cell, and definitely on the chore-roster. The interested person will participate in all parts of monastic life except department (I mean brother’s) meetings. If, after spiritual advisement and personal discernment, someone decides they want to give monasticism a try, they will enter a one year trial period called the postulancy. At this point, the individual is living as a monk, and trying things out but has not joined the monastery, and certainly not taken any vows. All along the way the postulant takes classes, has spiritual advising, and works on and around the monastery.

If, after a year, the postulant still wants to enter, and if, after a year, the brothers in the monastery still like the postulant and think he’ll be a good monk, the postulant is admitted into the monastery. This is the only time at which the community of solemnly professed brothers get to decide communally whether they will allow someone to enter their monastery. There are other times at which an adviser, or a committee’s opinion can weigh heavily on the living and working conditions of the monk-to-be. But entry to the novitiate is special for it’s formality and its representation of the voice of the monastery.
Should the brothers let the postulant in, he is granted a habit, takes a monastic name, and adopts simple vows–a temporary version of the solemn, permanent vows a monk takes at the end of formation. In this particular monastery, they swore vows of chastity, obedience, individual poverty, stability (staying at this monastery), and conversio morum (allowing the monastic community and the holy spirit to work on their souls).

Simple vows lasted a period of three years and could be renewed three times. This was the period of time over which an individual was meant to truly reflect on their calling in order to decide to enter into life-time vows to the monastery. In turn, in the ideal scheme of things, simple vows would lead to solemn vows which were permanent and only lifted under extreme and unusual circumstances.

All along the way individuals en route to becoming monks are doing work around the monastery, taking classes and studying up on topics of monastic interest, undergoing spiritual advisement, and participating in the regular ritual life of the monastery. Note, too, that classes are not simply in spirituality or theology, but often take a humanistic or liberal arts bent, encompassing literature, philosophy, and history. Too, monks will regularly leave the monastery for parts of their formation, often pursuing academic degree of ones sort or another that match up with their temperament and personal potential. Many also get ordained as priests.

So, just to spell this out, monks become monks via a stepped process of work, scholarship and individual discernment. Formally and substantively this has more than a few echoes to scholarship in which one proceeds, at least ideally, by regular steps and examination to ever higher levels of mastery and community acceptance.

Lifting the Constraints

The similarities to academic life in aspiration and substance make the monastery all the more interesting when one realizes the liberty and hospitality with which monks treat interested comers. First, it’s worth realizing, that this particular order of monks had a commitment to hospitality dating back to the 5th century AD. They treated the stranger as Christ and found space for all visitors. Though they ran a retreat house, the room-rates were suggested. Moreover they welcomed just about anyone interested in their way of life to come and give it a try. All were welcome, even anthropologists.

This hospitality extended to provisioning too. Simply put, if you lived at the monastery, the brotherhood took care of you. They maintained a communal pantry from which you took what you needed. Additionally there was one cooked meal (lunch per day) at which everyone gathered. Individual monks were not meant to accumulate private property, and mostly wore either their monastic habits or used-clothing donated to a community chest. Beyond this the monastery would attempt to assume your debts if you entered and take care of your education and your healthcare, all until your death. One monk estimated
it cost them around $8,000 per year to keep a monk on site. It’s worth noting, too, that they had a wonderful library at the center of things.

Now, given all this, you might expect the monastic life to be overrun with freeloaders and in a constant state of expansion. The monks themselves, when I casually talked to them about their formation process figured that something like one in every two, or 50% of potential-monks ended up staying at the monastery. Since the monastery’s founding in the 1950s, 237 men entered the postulancy. So, if we figure on this notional rate of monastic grown, 50%, we might expect somewhere around 115 monks at the monastery. This would have been something to behold, given that there were only 14 monks (13 solemnly professed and one between the postulancy and the novitiate), 25 monastic cells, and a handful of graves, when I was there doing field work. This brings up a fairly obvious question. Where did those other 223 men go? Why didn’t they remain in paradise?

Leaving Paradise

About halfway through my fieldwork, one of my monk-friends said it might be of interest to look through their “register of religious”, a handwritten notebook tracking the arrival and departure date of all men who entered the postulancy, as well as offering brief biorgaphical information (birthday, place of origin), and, occasionally, reason for leaving. In exchange for access, I agreed not to chase anyone down. Though, I did spend much of the rest of my fieldwork talking to monks about why all those people left, collecting their stories.

The raw numbers were the most surprising. Again, since the 1950s, 237 men had elected to enter the monastery for a postulant period, and only 23 had completed monastic formation and were currently at the monastery or had died, in vows, and in residence. So, roughly speaking, 9 out of 10 people who tried to become monks at some point or another decided that the life was not for them. Put another way, 9 out of 10 people who, at one point, had heard the voice, or at least the push, of a God, into monastic life, ultimately abandon the vocation.

Remember, too, that the material barriers are more or less removed–the monks will provision you (there is no adjunct-food-stamps-scamble here). Moreover, more often than voting people out at the novitiate stage, the monks tend to be pretty forgiving and allow people who really want to stay, to do so. If anything, the monks could stand to be more selective, as, arguably, several personality misfits, have created a considerable amount of heartache for the brothers over the years. So, why did they leave?

Generally, I heard three reasons for leaving: sickness, mismatch, and growth. Sickness was straighforward. Some people had mental problems or enduring trauma, that made the close quarters and solitude and quiet of monastic life impossible. Mismatch happened to otherwise healthy-minded people and was sort of a catch all to not fitting into monastic life. My favorite such story was one man who left not too long before I arrived, and had been there for the better part of a year, one day, decided that he was actually a Buddhist, and therefore should leave the monastery. And finally, the monks had an idea that people grew and developed spiritually while at the monastery. For this reason, they had the idea that often people coming out of the monastery were in a better place than when they started. Moreover, even if it was appropriate for someone to enter the monastery at one point in their life, it might not always be the best place for them. If they outgrow the monastery, they probably should leave, and there are some social scripts for this happening.

One delightful version of this was a longtime, solemnly professed monk fell in love and left the monastery to get married. The monks noted, that perhaps in the past this may not have gone over so well, but now they were just happy for the guy. They missed him, but thought it was probably right that he moved along.

When all is said and done, even given direction from God, a loosening of material constraints and considerations, and a more or less open process that takes all comers, around one in ten people actually make it as monks. Perhaps the vows make a difference. Celibacy, obedience, poverty, stability, close communal life, all these things may strike some as burdens. But it’s worth noting, that, again, everyone who has shown up for the postulancy has thought that all of this stuff sounds great. Everyone more or less accepts the premise of the lifestyle when they start.

One further curious outgrowth of the monastic life is the support and devotional community that has sprung up around monks. Not only are their retreat houses generally occupied, and their services fairly well attended (despite being a few miles up a winding mountain dirt road), but they have developed a network of 100s of oblates, lay-, unvowed-people who admire the monastic life, go to monks for spiritual direction, and participate in retreats. Moreover, the monks manage to support a bit above 50% of their operating budget from donations.

Meritocracy, Inequality, and Monks

With monastic formation we have a process of education that is mostly open, materially unconstrained, individually tailored to each monk, and perhaps functioning as a decent analog to some kind of university education (though at a much lower cost)–book learning, character shaping, lifestyle change, etc. And what happens? Lots of people show up, most stay awhile and learn something or other (the average stay I found was 6 years and 11 months, perhaps exaggerated from some 50+ year outliers), and the overwhelming majority leave because the monastery no longer works for them, or they found what they were looking for.

What do we think would happen if we allowed all comers, perhaps over some minimal competency requirements, to enter our doctoral programs and our professional ranks?How long do we really think people would stay with academia if there weren’t such stigma and cost attached to leaving? What if we could strip away the sunk and the transaction costs from pursuing an education? What would happen to meritocratic elitism if everyone who thought they needed and could do, say, an MBA at Harvard or a PhD at Berkeley, could go and try? Would the education still be a loud proxy for one’s capabilities as a human being? Or would it, perhaps, start to more accurately speak to the mixture of bravado and spreadsheet proficiency one actually learns? How many professors or graduate students would actually remain academics? Perhaps more interestingly, how many undergraduates would study with us in the absence of student debt and our society’s credentialist arms race? How many would care what we have to say if, in some small way at least, we didn’t have our finger on the button that could destroy what they think are their chances of achieving a degree, getting some middle class job, and building a particular life? How many of us are scared of the answer?

3 thoughts on “We’ve already got the robes: Of monks and us

  1. Dan, a basic question: Will the argument scale? My mind drifts back to undergraduate courses in medieval history. I seem to recall that when monasteries were becoming a major part of medieval life they performed functions that, a few dissenters and heretics aside, were believed to be important by secular as well as religious elites. Later, as routinization and corruption set in, they lost their cachet. New rulers saw them as cash cows to be milked or beef to be slaughtered to feed the royal treasury (not accidentally, I am now reading a novel set in the reign of Henry VIII). One might argue that Christianity played a role in Medieval Europe like that played by Capitalism today, and for monasteries to grow and become established parts of the landscape that was critical.

  2. Hi John,

    As always, thanks for the thoughtful comment. It’s an interesting question about monasteries and scaling. The one I was at was tiny. The whole order, worldwide, was perhaps a couple hundred monks. So, over their orders millenia long history, they didn’t scale too well. Though they did endure. Other orders seem to scale particularly well (all sorts of Benedcitines) and they often find themselves running hospitals, universities, or all sorts of charities.

    The problems that you’re running through, though, seem to be reflective of larger currents of history (the rise of Protestantism, say, in the case of the dissolution of the monasteries in England), rather than any trouble scaling might have from unstable or inevitably stultifying processes inside the monastery. My take is that Catholic monastic life goes through cycles of routinization and charismatic revitalization (a la Weber and Wallace). And it seems to do this in the context of all sorts of different state societies, if given a minimal level of tolerance.

    Perhaps if we’re thinking about the ability of these types of institutions to scale, and keeping universities in mind, we might wonder about how, if at all, disciplines and departments, schools and universities are able to allow schism and school formation. To my mind, this invites a conversation about how costly it is for academics to enter the game, leave the game, and the impossibility of starting your own school or department.

  3. Perhaps if we’re thinking about the ability of these types of institutions to scale, and keeping universities in mind, we might wonder about how, if at all, disciplines and departments, schools and universities are able to allow schism and school formation.

    Dan, as always, it is great discussing things with you. I can offer some thoughts about why schism and school formation were allowed and why areallowed may be too optimistic. The notion is an historical one, that there was in what are now OECD countries a window of opportunity in the first two or three decades following WWII. The pessimistic note is that the window of opportunity appears to be closing.

    Following the end of WWII, all of the OECD countries had an urgent problem to solve, what to do with the demobilized soldiers coming home from the wars. The soldiers needed jobs, opportunities, and training for peacetime life. The GI Bill was, along with a booming postwar/Cold War economy, the USA’s answer to that problem. But that wasn’t the end of the story. The GIs’ kids were the Baby Boomers whose numbers would create an unprecedented demand for higher education. New schools, departments, and disciplines created to meet that demand were scrambling for faculty. Demand was high, supply was low. A degree from a well-known school and a published paper or two were enough to get a job, frequently even tenure. All this would change abruptly when Baby Boomer demand peaked and schools like my first and only full-time academic employer discovered that the median age of faculty, already 80% tenured, was somewhere around forty, that they were going anywhere, and would expect salaries and benefits to rise with seniority. The days of easy employment and tenure were over.

    The cultural context for these developments was the democratic myth that higher education would provide an avenue for upward social mobility. And it did, for a while. The democratization of higher education increasingly became, however, what sociologist George Ritter labeled McDonaldization, cheap, fast, we do it all for you. Gresham’s law ensured that the value of academic degrees per se collapsed. The same market polarization that kept high-end department stores like Nieman-Marcus and discounters like Walmart in business, while putting midrange chains like Woolworth’s out of business also effected higher education, with a radical split between the Harvards and Stanfords at one end and community colleges on the other, and second and third-tier public universities and their private counterparts under increasing pressure. And the problem was not confined to the old West, North America and Europe. It has been, I’d guess, at least two years since I picked up an issue of China Daily at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Tokyo, devoted to what was described as a universal problem—a massive surplus of university graduates for whom there are no jobs. We are talking about Japan, Korea, and the case of China and India, graduates in numbers bigger than the total populations of many European countries. To which we can add the information explosion powered by the Internet and other digital technologies.

    In short, the good old days that some of us just missed and most of those younger than me (I am in my seventies) may never see in their lifetimes are history. The old stories about higher education leading automatically to better jobs, the supposed value vaguely described as “critical thinking,” and the notion that adding to the sum of human knowledge is a good in itself are tired and seem, except for the lucky minority who make it into the knowledge-worker elite, increasingly implausible.

    None of this is to say that shifting to a neoliberal, corporate model is a good thing. It is to suggest that academia, obsessed with preserving its privileges, has failed to come up with a compelling new story with which to mobilize public and political support.

    End of rant. The hobby horse is tireless. The rider is not.

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