Opinion | Cloisters U.: The Sounds of Silence in a College Class

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To the Editor:

Re “Universities, Meet Monasteries,” by Molly Worthen (Opinion guest essay, May 28):

Dr. Worthen’s essay resonated deeply with me. I am a tutor and the incoming dean of St. John’s College, Santa Fe, one of the oldest colleges in America, a college with an enduring commitment to seminar-style discussion and the close reading of the Great Books.

Without fanfare, year after year, St. John’s continues to offer a program of study that requires little more than a great book, a seminar table and the participants around that table.

St. John’s is not a monastery, but it does provide a cloister where devices and the pull of the virtual world have no place. The education requires the students to be present to their thoughts, to the comments of their classmates, to the beauty of the texts. In doing so they experience self-discovery and deep conversation.

It becomes increasingly clear that this kind of education, Luddite though it may appear, is not a turning back, but a looking forward. It is one of the few places available for our young people to face, as Dr. Worthen put it, that these devices are our tools, not our masters.

Sarah Davis
Santa Fe, N.M.

To the Editor:

The idea of creating a “monastery” within a larger university has some merit, especially given how distracted so many of our young adults are with their phones, computers and a nearly ubiquitous digital “panopticon” that has become part of not only college, but also where and how we live.

For Molly Worthen’s concept to work, however, it would be necessary to get the full buy-in of the college faculty and administration, because everything they do is now fully digital, including homework, essay submissions, various e-chalkboards and even virtual office hours. College administration also operates its entire function digitally, including financial aid and all record-keeping.

This reminds me of Saul Bellow’s introduction to Allan Bloom’s classic 1987 book “The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students.” Bellow recommended that, as much as possible, society’s “backflow,” as he put it, be kept off campus so students can concentrate on learning fundamental skills and develop their own powers of mind.

This was way before the internet and iPhones, and is timeless advice, whether digital or not.

Matthew G. Andersson
Clearwater, Fla.

To the Editor:

Molly Worthen made a sound argument for the creation of classes and programs at universities that limit and remove technology from students’ daily lives.

TikTok, Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat have already affected our collective attention span. They are designed to keep their users on the platform as much as possible; the revenue the companies generate from endless advertising is their lifeblood.

Look no further than the couple at a restaurant, glued to their phones, or the student trying to complete an assignment at 11 at night, who for hours was scrolling through a TikTok feed.

The advent of artificial intelligence is drawing humans deeper into this inescapable “technology tornado.” As Dr. Worthen mentioned in her essay, there are increasing numbers of educators who want students to learn how to use this in the classroom. However, doing so relieves these students of the necessary critical thinking skills that are vital to ideas and innovation.

What will society become when our ability to reflect, ponder and strategize is greatly hindered?

This article brought up a lot of questions and thoughts about not just our current quarrel with technology, but also how this will affect human civilization in the long run. Thank you, Dr. Worthen!

Bill Tamburelli
Santa Barbara, Calif.

To the Editor:

I was a Catholic high school boarding student at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit from 1965 to 1969. We had to observe “grand silence” every night from prayers, around 9, until we sat down at breakfast the next morning, and we were not permitted to listen to the radio or watch TV while at the seminary.

Although we were not monks, in preparation to eventually become priests, we were cut off from “the world” and were taught to be “in the world but not of it.”

Molly Worthen captures well the unexpected benefits of an imposed silence in the cases she describes at universities. Although it felt strange living that “vow of silence” as a teenager — long before the age of the internet and iPhones! — I treasure the lessons learned by living periods of each day in silence.

Many of my friends over the years have had nonstop background sounds of music playing on the radio all day (and night) or switched on the TV as soon as they awoke each morning. No car ride was possible without the radio blaring. I choose carefully which programs I listen to on the radio and am selective about my TV viewing — only at night for the news and some favorite shows on Netflix and Paramount+.

In the end, I did not become a priest, but I cherish the value of a somewhat “monkish” existence, living comfortably with silence and deep into my own thoughts. As a university instructor, I encourage my students to learn to do the same.

Michael W. Hovey

Prizes in the Arts Do Have Meaning and Value

To the Editor:

Re “What Prizes Mean (and What They Don’t),” by Roger Rosenblatt (Opinion guest essay, May 28):

In the late 1980s, a critics’ prize for live theater in the Dallas-Fort Worth area was established by me and a few other reviewers: the Dallas Theater Critics Forum Awards. It eventually died because of Covid and because of the decimation of jobs in the media, especially for professional critics.

But at the time, there wasn’t anything like it in the area. We didn’t award single “best of” prizes, nor did we use the term “winning.” That’s because the fundamental reason for establishing such a prize was simple enough.

Live theater is one of the most ephemeral of arts. It mostly vanishes. But 20 or 30 years on, after the memories have faded — memories of all the work that talented writers, actors, designers and directors had put into a production — the artists would have at least this one thing to point to.

It would be proof that, at one point in time, a group of relatively knowledgeable people felt that what I did was worth this public acknowledgment.

Jerome Weeks
The writer is an arts producer and reporter for KERA, a public radio station.

To the Editor:

When I was 24, I won a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship. At the time I was just starting an uncertain career as a visiting professor at a small liberal arts college in Indiana. After a few months at the college, I knew I had to leave.

Though I loved my students and colleagues, I couldn’t abide living in a town where the number of Confederate flags outweighed the number of other Black people I saw in a given week. Having the money from my fellowship allowed me to move back to Chicago and purchase a home.

My story is far more mild than others. I know friends who have used prize money to exit abusive relationships or access health care for chronic illnesses.

Prizes can furnish people with resources and access to live their lives. Until we live in a country with a more robust commitment to caring for people, if you find prizes distasteful, then resolve to not apply or accept them in hopes that someone with more pressing needs might get one.

Nate Marshall
Providence, R.I.
The writer is an assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

A Climate Question

To the Editor:

Re “Arctic May Lose Nearly All Summer Sea Ice as Early as 2030s” (news article, June 7):

Sadly, it’s conceivable that someday in the not too distant future, a parent will speak the idiom “Just the tip of the iceberg” to their child, and the child will ask, “What’s an iceberg?” Lord help us.

Doug Williams

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