“On college campuses, these students think they’re all being individuals, going out and being wild,” he said. “But they’re in a playpen. I tell them, ‘You know you’ll be protected by campus police and lawyers. You have this entire apparatus set up for you. You think you’re being an individual, but look at your four friends: They all look exactly like you and sound like you. We exist in these very strict structures we like to pretend don’t exist.’” (It’s worth mentioning that Dr. McDaniel describes his own politics as “philosophical anarchist.”) His course offers a chance to temporarily exchange those unconscious structures for a set of deliberate, countercultural ones.
No one understands discipline better than the Benedictines, members of the monastic order who follow the rule written by St. Benedict in the sixth century. Undergraduates at Belmont Abbey College outside of Charlotte, N.C., share their quadrangles, sidewalks — even their chess clubs — with Benedictine monks who live in an abbey in the middle of campus. “For the last 1,500 years, Benedictines have had to deal with technology,” Placid Solari, the abbot there, told me. “For us, the question is, how do you use the tool so it supports and enhances your purpose or mission, and you don’t get owned by it.”
Mental distraction was a struggle even for the ancient ascetics who didn’t have Snapchat. When the mind wanders and a monk wants “to bind it fast with the firmest purpose of heart, as if with chains, while we are making the attempt it slips away from the inmost recesses of the heart swifter than a snake,” John Cassian, a fourth-century monk, wrote. Many monasteries don’t totally reject the latest technology, but they are mindful of how they use it. Abbot Placid told me that for novices at his monastery, “part of the formation is discipline to learn how to control technology use.” After this initial time of limited phone and TV “to wean them away from overdependence on technology and its stimulation,” they get more access and mostly make their own choices.
Evan Lutz graduated this May from Belmont Abbey with a major in theology. He stressed the special Catholic context of Belmont’s resident monks; if you experiment with monastic practices without investigating the whole worldview, it can become a shallow kind of mindfulness tourism. The monks at Belmont Abbey do more than model contemplation and focus. Their presence compels even non-Christians on campus to think seriously about vocation and the meaning of life. “Either what the monks are doing is valuable, and based on something true, or it’s completely ridiculous,” Mr. Lutz said. “In both cases, there’s something striking there, and it asks people a question.”
Pondering ultimate questions and cultivating cognitive endurance should not be luxury goods. David Peña-Guzmán, who teaches philosophy at San Francisco State University, read about Dr. McDaniel’s Existential Despair course and decided he wanted to create a similar one. He called it The Reading Experiment. A small group of humanities majors gathered once every two weeks for five and a half hours in a seminar room equipped with couches and a big round table. They read authors ranging from Jean-Paul Sartre to Frantz Fanon. “At the beginning of every class I’d ask students to turn off their phones and put them in ‘the Basket of Despair,’ which was a plastic bag,” he told me. “I had an extended chat with them about accessibility. The point is not to take away the phone for its own sake, but to take away our primary sources of distraction. Students could keep the phone if they needed it. But all of them chose to part with their phones.”