How Monasteries Shaped My Work Life

Guilt, Beer, and the Academy

I just took a three week vacation. Before you judge my commitment to my professional future, let me clarify a few things:

  1. The trip started out as a conference (albeit in the south of France).
  2. I met with collaborators for a future robot ballet.
  3. It was the first real vacation I took in four years.

Why do I feel the need to defend myself? Maybe it is the rampant workaholism in the United States. Maybe it is my entirely unimpressive tan. BUT NO. TODAY I AM GOING TO BLAME THE MONKS.

This article reviews the origins of Western academic culture (monasteries!) and some key cultural elements that influence modern scholarship and academic culture: individual labor, singular focus, and beer.

Where Does Western Academic Culture Come From?

In the Middle Ages, the few people that were not training in fighting or the skills of peasantry could study at monasteries or cathedral schools. Those wanting higher degrees could earn Master of Arts or become doctors (sound familiar?), where possible specialties included theology, medicine or philosophy [1]. For young monks, one can imagine that studying esoteric subjects in theology or inscribing sheepskin pages for the Book of Kells [2] was a form of worshipping God.

In a dark time for knowledge in general, such monks sustained and promoted forms “intellectual and artistic enterprise” [3]. The impact of monasteries on medieval culture was drastic, “Monasteries encouraged literacy, promoted learning, and preserved the classics of ancient literature, including the works of Cicero, Virgil, Ovid, and Aristotle… to create the best environment for devotion, monasticism developed a close and fruitful partnership with the visual arts” [4].

This worship of knowledge was something individual, something holy, and decidedly male. Any man, whatever their resources or status could become a Medieval monk, and each monastery was a self-supporting community, meaning monks did not need to leave (hello, universities!). Vestiges of this can be seen in aspects of academic culture today, for example, the exalted commitment to our research topics, de-emphasis of outside obligations, and abiding incorporation of alcohol into our cultural rituals.

Why Would You Need A Vacation From God?

According to the Met’s History of Monasticism [4], “withdrawal from society is essential to [the concept of] monasticism, a term that derives from the Greek word monachos, which means a solitary person.” This ability to work in isolation has resonances with academic research today. When I started my PhD, someone told me that completing my thesis would be 20% about my topic and 80% about grappling with myself: as if facing my own demons would be the greatest battle.

Both monks and nuns participated in acts of cultural creation, in which their labor was in homage to God. “Some [monks and nuns] signed their works in words that seem intended not only to name the maker but also to identify the object as a prayerful offering,” for example, one chalice reads, “In honor of the Blessed Virgin brother Bertinus made this in the year 1222,” and another fourteenth-century lace altar-cloth from four nuns reads, “May our work be acceptable to you, o kindly Jesus.” [4]

I also find that academics are socialized to de-emphasize our outside lives, and I wonder if this is because we also exalt our research to a sort of worship. Don’t get me wrong, academic research is generally secular, but there is a culture of marriage to one’s work, where taking a break can seem anathema to dedication. This is not research-based. Even though breaks make us more productive [5], perhaps we find such rewards frivolous compared to our “holy” dedication to research.

Monks Don’t Have Babies

Monastic life was also associated with vows of celibacy [4]. Monks therefore had no family to come home to, no children to care for, and — even if they strayed — no babies to carry in their womb.

Success in academia, on average, also benefits from few family obligations [6]. Socialization to believe in this ideal scholar is likely the culprit:

  • Meetings and reviews often happen during evening “life time,” although some universities are seeking to change this.
  • Some program committee meetings and workshops happen on weekends to avoid interrupting work obligations (you weren’t busy, right?)
  • Frequent travel is a must or highly encouraged (I personally enjoy this).
  • Academic women are more likely to have children later in life and fewer children overall (oops) [7].
  • Academia has much worse family leave policies and accommodations than high-level professions like medicine or law [7].

When I was a pregnant phD student, many a fellow student would pretend to ignore my expanding abdomen to ask about my research. One day when I was meeting a reporter for an interview at 7-months pregnant, I did the same thing: “You really think that the color of your dress was what most identified you?” he asked, “Why not mention you were pregnant?” Maybe I should have told him I was a monk!

Obviously many professors have children, hobbies or take vacations, but these cultural legacies have their impact, particularly when you consider gender. It’s certainly something to keep in mind as we schedule ourselves and socialize our students.

Monks Also Like Beer

Just like universities need money to keep the computers powered and the buildings from crumbling, monks needed to support themselves, and they often did so through their own labors. Monastery offerings included things like cheese, honey, and, most famously, brewed beer [8]. The beer helped them meet their desire to offer hospitality to guests (safer to drink than polluted water), provided a source of revenue and was used as “liquid bread,” to sustain monks during fasting holidays such as Lent [9].

Undergraduate students are frequent partakers of this monastic tradition, and academic conferences and rituals (like faculty interviews or retreats) continue to integrate this tradition of hospitality. Food and beverage-based camaraderie provides a break from our often stressful pursuits, pulling us out of isolation. Free food continues to be the most reliable way to get a student to show up to meetings or presentations.

Passion, dedication, and beer. The legacy isn’t all bad. A few weeks off gave me time to appreciate some of the things I really do love about academia. There is a general celebration of curiosity, an openness to collaboration, and a transcendence of knowledge, in which any researcher at any level can be the one to discover a higher truth.

Cheers to that!


[1] Newton, Simon. “Education in the Middle Ages,” The Finer Times, 2013:

[2] “Irish Treasures: The Book of Kells.” Claddagh Design, Jan 18, 2017:

[3] The Culture of Medieval English Monasticism. Clark, James, editor. Boydell & Brewer, 2007.

[4] “Monasticism in Western Medieval Europe,” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, The Met, 2013:

[5] “The Case for Vacation: Why Science Says Breaks Are Good for Productivity,” The Atlantic, Aug 6, 2016:

[6] Mason, Mary Ann, and Marc Goulden. “Do babies matter? The effect of family formation on the lifelong careers of academic men and women.” Academe 88, no. 6: 21–27, 2002:

[7] Jaschik, Scott. “Does Academe Hinder Parenthood?” Inside Higher Ed, May 23, 2008:

[8] “The Brewing Monks: A Brief History of the Trappist Monks,” I Think About Beer, 2013:

[9] “The History of Beer: Monastic Brewing Traditions,” BBC photo essay, Jan 14, 2013.: