Why Universities Should Be More Like Monasteries

(Harmonist) – by Harmonist staff

By Dr. Molly Worthen, a historian at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who writes frequently about higher education. Originally published by The New York Times.

Students are hungry for a low-tech, introspective experience — and not just students in the Ivy League. Research suggests that underprivileged young people have far fewer opportunities to think for unbroken stretches of time, so they may need even more space in college to develop what social scientists call cognitive endurance.

Yet the most visible higher ed trends are moving in the other direction. Rather than ban phones and laptops from class, some professors are brainstorming ways to embrace students’ tech addictions with class Facebook and Instagram accounts, audience response apps — and perhaps even including the friends and relatives whom students text during class as virtual participants in class discussion.

Then there’s that other unwelcome classroom visitor: artificial intelligence. A survey of 1,000 college students by the college-ranking website Intelligent found that 30 percent of respondents had already used ChatGPT to complete a written assignment. Some campus experts on teaching encourage faculty members to stop worrying and love the bot by designing assignments that “help students develop their prompting skills” or “use ChatGPT to generate a first draft,” according to a tip sheet produced by the Center for Teaching and Learning at Washington University in St. Louis.

It’s not at all clear that we want a future dominated by A.I.’s amoral, Cheez Whiz version of human thought. It is abundantly clear that texting, tagging and chatbotting are making students miserable right now. One recent national survey found that 60 percent of American college students reported the symptoms of at least one mental health problem and that 15 percent said they were considering suicide. A recent meta-analysis of 36 studies of college students’ mental health found a significant correlation between longer screen time and higher risk of anxiety and depression. And while social media can sometimes help suffering students connect with peers, research on teenagers and college students suggests that overall, the support of a virtual community cannot compensate for the vortex of gossip, bullying and Instagram posturing that is bound to rot any normal person’s self-esteem.

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