Vivek Haldar

The monk tax

The idea of going to college seems to be falling out of favor. It’s expensive, and not all that useful, and saddles most graduates with debt, the naysayers argue. All this, in spite of incontrovertible data that education still pays1. But I want to draw our attention not to college, not to how they are administered, not to those who pass through them, but to that which contains all of these–the University.

66 institutions have had an unbroken existence from the 16th century to the present day, and of those, 62 are universities2. This is an astonishing fact given that universities wield almost no power, and compared to other institutions such as parliaments or corporations, have very little impact in the short term. This longevity can only be explained by the fact that we as a society recognize at some deep, unstated level that universities are crucial and worth preserving.

But crucial to what, and how?

In the ancient world, Buddhist monks would go from door to door asking for alms. They were called bhikku, or bhikshu 3, which stems from the Sanskrit root for “beg” (bhik). This pattern is repeated in all major religions. All have a monastic tradition, and one that usually survives on charity.

The earliest universities were nothing but learning monasteries4. From the dawn of civilization society has been paying a “monk tax”, supporting those who have to some extent checked out from the turbulence of day-to-day life to focus deeply on something for the longer-term.

In this sense, universities are like the seed corn of civilization. Eating your seed corn might fill you now, but will surely lead to famine in the future.

And now we have come full circle. In the modern world, if you want to check out from the turbulence of day-to-day life to focus deeply on something, but not in a religious way, and do so surrounded by a few kindred souls, the place to do that is a university.

At their core, universities are modern, secular monasteries.