by Kenneth L. Parker, Steber Professor in Theological Studies
In October 1985, I entered a Benedictine monastery in the Mojave Desert to prepare for a life of prayer and reflection. The previous 25 years had been spent in some kind of structured education. I had been formed to earn grades, complete requirements for degrees, and master concepts and content teachers and professors assigned. I had replicated this pattern in my brief career as a high school instructor and in my one year of university-level teaching. I understood the rules and played the game. I knew what the system required of me, and I bent my will to its demands. In that process I learned a lot. But I did not love learning.
My life changed when I became a monk. My PhD from Cambridge University did not matter there. My degrees did not mark me out for privilege. During those years of monastic formation, I followed the routine of five periods of community prayer a day, and two work periods filled with manual labor. We had one period of formal monastic instruction for an hour each day. Superiors oversaw our labors and assigned tasks. In the early months those routines seemed familiar … because I approached them as I had systems of education. I thought I understood instructional “systems” and how to bend my will to mastering their demands. Indeed, I excelled at keeping the new rules. But I did not find joy in them.
Yet as the months progressed, other aspects of the monastic routine did begin to change me. We had twelve hours of “Grand Silence” everyday. Our evening meal was eaten while one of us read a text assigned by the superior of the monastery. Every morning and every evening, I spent 30 minutes in the chapel with a text of my choice, the only requirement being that I must read no more than two or three sentences, and reflect on their meaning. In the routine of monastic prayer—especially praying the psalms—words and small phrases stuck in my head and wove themselves into my interior life as I did simple tasks. I began waking up earlier in the morning to enjoy more of the Grand Silence, and discovered the pleasure of spending time with my own thoughts. I learned to cherish the short unstructured moments in my day, and filled them with little projects of my own devising, or reading a page or two of books I had never had time to read. In short, I discovered a love of learning and found joy in that experience.
When I returned to academic life in 1991, it was impossible to engage undergraduate and graduate education in the same way. Twenty-five years later I retain a suspicion of institutional structures that prioritize rules over the cultivation of a love of learning. When the “standards” of the discipline are valued over the life-giving joy of curiosity and discovery, something has gone wrong, and as educators we have lost our way. My happiest moments in the classroom have been when students embrace the freedom to bring their insights into our common learning experience—and when they find pleasure in the knowledge that they can teach me new things.
As educators, we must realize that our primary task is the empowerment of learners. We must not fall into the trap of merely dispensing systems of knowledge and guarding the gateways to our academic disciplines. Even if our students master these, we may have failed them; for while these structures may facilitate formal adherence to standards of our devising, these may become systems that destroy the love and joy of learning. We must never forget that students do not exist for universities; rather universities exist for students.
Our students will not look back fondly on the curricula we devise, but will remember our joy in their discoveries and our pleasure in their successes. Our passion for learning will inspire them. Cultivating spaces where a love of learning can flourish will nurture joy and feed the core of our humanity. As educators, we must always remember this simple truth—and act on it.