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Why Ivy League students flock to immersive “monk class”

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Daniel Hoz

Theresa Civantos Barber - published on 12/08/23

This unusual Ivy League class shows us just how much young people can do -- and even more important, how much they want and crave to do.
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You may have heard of the famous “monk class” at the University of Pennsylvania. 

The unusual college course reveals something important about what young people crave in today’s distracted world and shows a glimmer of the greatness of which they are capable. 

Professor Justin McDaniel has taught the class, formally called “Living Deliberately: Monks, Saints and the Contemplative Life,” for 21 years. He regularly has over 200 students going through the application process — which includes an essay and an interview with him — for the 14 available spots in the class.

Students in the class agree to stick to a number of ascetic practices. In an interview with Aleteia, McDaniel explained what the students agree to practice:

They get up at 5:30 in the morning, they take a full vow of silence, no internet, no radio. They hand in their phones to me for a month — they’re put in a lockbox. They can’t eat if it’s dark outside, so they only eat during the daylight hours, and they have restrictions on what they can eat — not on the amount they can eat, but the types of food they eat. There are a lot of restrictions.

Why is it so popular?

You might look at that list of restrictions and wonder why any college kid would choose this, much less the many students who have made the class so popular.

That question of why someone would choose self-denial is actually exactly what inspired McDaniel to develop the class. A professor of religious studies, he found that students were often confused and curious when they learned about religious monasticism. 

“You can give them psychological reasons and economic reasons and sociological reasons on why people choose austerities and self-denial,” he said, but these explanations pale in comparison to lived experience. “So, I said, ‘Why don’t we try to do this ourselves?’”

Once it got started, the students’ experience was what made the class skyrocket in popularity. 

“Many students said it’s the best class they ever took,” he said. “They describe how well focused they are at the end of the class, and they all report better levels of concentration, peace, and contentment. Most report doing better in all their other classes as well.”

What young people crave

McDaniel has learned a lot about young people in his many years teaching “Living Deliberately.” They are capable of extraordinary self-denial and even crave the peace and clarity it brings.

“We discount many young people as addicted to social media or scatterbrained, thinking they can’t focus or they’re entitled, but I’ve found the opposite,” he said. 

In this age of relentless information and distractions, “they’re craving for quiet time and, as one of my students puts it, ‘a life of single tasking.’ So there’s this great eagerness of students to do this. We should take our young people seriously as thoughtful, reflective, introspective and caring individuals.”

As Professor McDaniel says, we can be cautions not to underestimate the young people in our lives just because their slang or fashion trends might be unfamiliar. Young people often set the example, such as Blessed Carlo Acutis and St. Therese of Lisieux. 

For young people seeking greatness, Scripture has these words of encouragement: “Let no one have contempt for your youth, but set an example for those who believe, in speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity” (1 Timothy 4:12). 

And for those of us who are perhaps not quite so young, Professor McDaniel’s class shows us just how much young people can do—and even more important, how much they want and crave to do. They were made for greatness, and with a little encouragement and guidance, they absolutely have what it takes. 

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