Molly Worthen’s NYT piece, “Why Universities Should Be More Like Monasteries,” is one of my favorite recent takes on higher ed. Worthen pushes back against the rapid invasion of technology (all those “glowing squares”) by recommending a low-tech seminar experience that would foster deep thinking, good conversations, and the opportunity to marinate in the great books that promote growth. She argues that this low-tech educational experience will set up any student, regardless of major, to thrive mentally and emotionally.

Reading Worthen’s proposal for the low-tech model of education, now increasingly harder to find on many a college campus, readily brought back memories of my own college experience. I started college in the fall of 1999. My schedule that first semester included Intermediate Greek, a seminar-style class where we read selections from Xenophon and Plato, all with an eye to solidifying our knowledge of Greek grammar, building vocabulary, and simply getting acclimated to reading Attic Greek prose.

So what did my days as a student look like? Really, I spent hours and hours each day just… reading. For variety, I did some studying with fellow students, but most of the work was done alone. All Classics majors got a key to the Constantine Library, a spacious room in the department that had all key reference texts and large tables (and comfy chairs) that welcomed students to study. From the window of the Constantine, a lovely view of Homer’s back on the Lawn loomed, hunched over his lyre, a beacon promising better things yet to come to those who persevere—like the ability to read the Homeric epics in the original in another year or two.

That promise eventually came true, by the way, but here’s the thing about intermediate classes in ancient languages. They are reading courses, but it’s not the kind of reading that most people are familiar with. It is one thing to read, say, a novel over the course of a week or two for one’s English literature class. It is very different, by contrast, to be wading through the first un-adapted Greek prose of one’s life. There we were, twelve of us (if memory serves me right), slowly moving through selections from Xenophon’s Hellenica, one very painful sentence at a time, first on our own for homework, and then going through this material in class.

I recall that there were a lot of ships. ‘Twas the tail end of the Peloponnesian War, so these ships always seemed to be sailing from one island to another, as ships are wont to do, wrecking occasionally, beaching for the night if possible, and forcing us to learn more ship-related vocab in English as well as Greek. There’s a whole lot more to battle triremes than the confusingly named poop deck, it turns out. Battle always loomed, but reading as slowly as we were, any exciting action was always weeks away and seemed kind of anti-climactic when we finally got to it and figured out the role of the genitive absolute construction in the sentence.

The second half of that semester, we hit Plato’s Apology. The wheels, never fully aligned during our sojourn in Xenophon, came off many an apple cart at that point. Or, I suppose, the cart was heaped abundantly with Athenian-grown olives. Either way, the cart didn’t fare well. It was one thing to wrestle with Xenophon, whose pedestrian prose, once one figured out the grammar and vocabulary, made perfect sense. Look, that ship either made it across the channel or not. No hidden meanings there. With Plato, however, figuring out what each sentence literally said was the least of one’s worries. But at least everyone learned the Greek word for gadfly.

It is no exaggeration to say that I have never read anything as slowly as I did in Intermediate Greek class. But here’s the kicker: I remember very well what I read that semester. I remember, furthermore, the feeling of accomplishment every time I finished yet another complicated sentence. Looking at my battered copy of the Apology from that semester, with my notes in pencil in the margins, one can see that the notes early on covered the entire page, to the point that the Greek text remains barely visible. By the end of the semester, the notes thinned considerably, as my mastery of vocabulary and grammar grew exponentially. My eyeglasses prescription went up too, but I’m sure this was purely coincidental.

Was this process easy? Of course not. There is that fine line, I now realize after years of teaching other college students and homeschooling my own children: if something is too difficult to figure out, we might just give up. But there is a sense of growth and fulfillment that we feel when we overcome—just barely, with much sweat and perhaps some tears, cookies, and the assistance of a good reference grammar—something that we feared we couldn’t hack. Taking Intermediate Greek meant dwelling right on that line for the entire semester.

Reading ancient languages requires slow and careful thinking and processing of a sort that we do not normally utilize in our pressure-cooker fast-consumer world. It also requires patience, concentration, and an investment to engage faithfully in a task day in, day out, all with an eye to reaping benefits at some point in the future. When? It’s going to be a while, so just wait—and learning to wait to see results is part of the learning process as well. These are all skills that pre-modern life, including its way of reading, readily cultivated. As one of my professors was wont to snipe whenever anyone complained, the process of studying Greek builds character. He was right. And it is specifically the slow and steadfast nature of the process that achieves this character transformation.

We now dwell in a world of fast everything. Fast locomotion. Fast food. Fast ideas. Fast books. To some extent, some elements of this fast pace existed already in my college days, but because smart phones did not become ubiquitous until a decade later, a monk-like existence was still possible. Thanks to the latest digital technologies, we now have more and more information to consume and a corresponding way to share our own thoughts ever faster with anyone willing to read them—very fast, probably on a glowing square.

I confess that I find myself navigating this world much too easily, and that makes me deeply uncomfortable. Surely we weren’t made to process this much information, this fast, and (in the case of children or students today) this young. Furthermore, people who have never experienced the strange joy of working slowly to learn something might become conditioned to give up too easily on skills and tasks that do not come naturally to them—cue all the different methods of cheating that now exist, from downloading someone else’s paper from the web, to employing ChatGPT to write said paper, to hiring a ghost writer to craft it. Although, I suppose, ChatGPT might put this last option out of business.

This school year, my third-grader took his first year of koine Greek. Over the course of nine months of spending no more than fifteen minutes a day on this subject, five days a week most weeks, he went from learning the Greek alphabet to reading and composing simple sentences and memorizing a number of short verses from the New Testament. And it has been sheer joy for both him and me. Normally he is a fast reader who sails through books in no time flat. But with his study of Greek, I have seen him forced to do what Greek has always made me do as well: slow down, savor the puzzle of each sentence, and flourish in a way that is decidedly un-modern. In particular, he had to copy his memory verse for the week each day—in Greek.

And so, the end of the school year has prompted me to try this new (to me) practice as well to retrain my body and mind. After not writing anything by hand in a very long time, I recently started copying just a few verses of Greek by hand each evening from the Gospel of Mark. It feels strange, but it also feels strangely beautiful. It makes every fiber of my efficiency-driven being squirm: what is the point, we might wonder, of copying anything by hand in this day and age? Don’t I have the book right there in front of me? What good is my copy work? At least Medieval monks, the original copy-masters, had an obvious practical purpose in their copying. So why am I wasting my time doing this?

Because it is the slowest and least efficient activity of my day. And in this world of machines and fast everything, it feeds my soul.

Image credit: Henrik van Steenwijck the younger, “Saint Jerome in his Study,” 1630 via Wikimedia

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Nadya Williams
Nadya Williams grew up in Russia and Israel, and after thirteen years in Georgia is now a resident of Ohio. She is the author of Cultural Christians in the Early Church (Zondervan Academic, 2023) and Mothers, Children, and the Body Politic: Ancient Christianity and the Recovery of Human Dignity (forthcoming IVP Academic, October 2024). Her newest book project, Christians Reading Pagans, a guide for Christians on reading the pagan Greco-Roman Classics, is under contract at Zondervan Academic. Along with her husband, Dan, she gets to experience the joys, frustrations, and tribulations of homeschooling their children.


  1. A friend who is a seminary professor says that one of the biggest problems with his recent students is that they have never learned that “knowledge takes work.” He says that the idea of “wrestling with a text” is completely foreign to them, and that they expect answers to just jump out at them like they do online.

  2. You’re almost talking about a meditation practice. Most of us won’t study Greek but I think this kind of experience could be gotten from group reading of literary classics. I.F. Stone’s greatness as a reporter was from just this relationship to texts, texts that other reporters overlooked. So take care. Study in depth, living in depth produces valuable awareness that convention at no time has wanted revealed!

  3. This is so marvelous. I, as an adult, am studying koine Greek, and most of the time I think, I’ll never get this, but I soldier on. I am going to start writing down the Gospels in Greek as well.

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