Joshua Meyers   June 12, 2022

Scholarship Workshop

The following is my latest concept for this project. It has changed a lot in the last few years of thinking. I think this can really happen next summer, and I’m going to do all I can to see that it does.

The Problem

We are in a global crisis, and the stakes are high. Our actions at this moment could have ramifications for centuries to come. This is not the sole responsibility of some cabal of elites; everyone from activists to parents must act wisely in order to create the world we want to live in. Scholarly practices1 such as thinking, learning, reading, deep conversation, writing, and research are imperative so that we can reflect on our lives in order to expand our vision and participation in the world. The unexamined life may be worth living, but it is a reckless way to live in the present circumstances.

However, we are surrounded by barriers to scholarly practices. I went around Downtown Bloomington, Indiana recently to ask 15 people about what was getting in their way of productive thinking and effective learning2. Reported barriers to productive thinking included hunger, exhaustion, stress, and distraction due to social media, random thoughts, and noisy environment. Reported barriers to effective learning included lack of time, lack of tools, inadequate teachers, and emotional complications with self-development such as ego, arrogance, fear, and self-doubt. I have not tried yet to determine the barriers to other scholarly practices such as reading, writing, and deep conversation.

The university could be a place which helps people work through these barriers to scholarly practice and truly examine their lives. Instead it functions as a barrier in itself, defining the boundaries of who gets to do scholarship, about what, and how deep they can go. These boundaries are primarily defined through finance. Access for most students depends on paying lavish tuitions and going into debt. The ability of professors to do research depends on procuring lavish grants for the university. Additionally, out of a misguided concern for financial efficiency, research universities inhibit teaching through absurdly large class sizes and lack of support, accountability, or adequate payment for teachers.

The Solution

Rather than trying to reform the university, I propose the creation of new scholarly institutions — institutions expressly designed to help people work through the barriers to scholarly practice which they experience. (More generally, I hope to see the growth of a culture of scholarship.)

In constrast to the lavish finance of the university, I advocate frugality in order to allow access to as many people as possible. Just like monastic practice, scholarly practice lends itself to frugality — it does not require luxury, just the essentials, such as lodging, food, and internet, as well as specific, inexpensive tools such as books, paper, and desks. Through economies of scale (e.g. buying food in bulk, and community health insurance), we could be even more frugal together than is possible independently.

I now pose the following questions:

  1. How cheap and accessible can we make scholarly practice without sacrificing health or scholarly focus?
  2. How does this work fit into the history of scholarly institutions?
  3. What is the first step to create new scholarly institutions?

If a scholarly institution truly believes in the power of scholarship to inform action, it will use scholarship to inform its own action. Indeed, one of the biggest hypocrisies of the modern university system is that universities do not have “University Departments” which study universities from a holistic perspective3 informing how they are run.

Hence I propose an answer to the third question: the first step is scholarly practice concerning all three of these questions, as well as others relevant to the growth of a culture of scholarly practice. In other words, I propose a scholarly project to investigate institutions and cultures of scholarly practice, with an eye to the creation and stewardship of these institutions and cultures.

The Proposal

I suggest to aim for an in-person 8 week workshop in the Summer of 2023 to engage in scholarly practices regarding cultures and institutions of scholarship.

Tentative schedule:

Phase 1:
We study the history of cultures and institutions of scholarly practice. This includes the history of universities and monasteries, Plato's Academy, etc. Central scholarly practice: reading.
Phase 2:
We study the barriers to scholarly practice existing in the world today. This includes the new field called Critical Universty Studies, as well as our own research, both through reading and empirical methods. Central scholarly practice: research.
Phase 3:
Informed by the first two phases of reading and research, we set into motion plans to catalyze scholarly practice. Participants will explore ideas, validate business plans, and start building. Central scholarly practice: activism / social entrepreneurship.

Tentative principles for the workshop:

Participants are not obliged to pay anything, as they are doing a public service. All expenses will be covered by voluntary contributions from both participants and donors.
We will reduce expenses as much as possible in order to admit as many participants as possible.
Participants will be in charge of the workshop, including writing the budget.
Without the pressures of the university (grades, publishing, etc.), we will be free to experiment in our practice of scholarship. We will use this freedom to try out different arrangements to see what works.
Focused environment:
We recognize that focus, or attention is a crucial resource for learning. Thus we will do our best to facilitate focus, e.g. by actively reducing distractions (such as social media) and eating healthy food.
Inclusive Admissions:
Admissions will be based first and foremost on how well a person can live in community and work with others. Then if we cannot procure enough funding to admit everyone who meets this first criterion, we will choose who to admit based on how helpful we think they will be to the project.
No Absentee Donors:
Anyone who donates more than $5000 must visit the workshop for at least a couple days so the participants can get to know them. This way the inevitable influence of the donor will never be hidden from the participants. In exceptional circumstances, a remote visit may suffice.

If successful, the workshop will make significant progress in our understanding of scholarly practice, its history, and how it can be catalyzed, and it will end with several projects set in motion. Furthermore, the workshop itself will serve as a case study of scholarship outside the university which can inform future projects. Finally, through the workshop a scholarly culture will grow which will extend beyond the end of the workshop.

We are now led to the next question: how will this proposal come to reality?

The plan

By putting out this very text, I am sending out a call for action. If you want to be part of this project, email me at to get in touch. I will personally be unavailable June 13 - August 19, but my collaborators Beth Gebresilasie and Jimmy Mathews will still be checking the account during this time. From the people who contact us we will choose a committee to organize the event: in September the committee will start organizing virtual and in-person events building momentum towards the Summer 2023 workshop, as well as finding a space, fundraising, marketing, and admissions. The committee may also find something better to do instead of the workshop. I am open to that possibility as well, as one never can predict where serious scholarship will lead.


We need scholarly practices in order to respond to the present global crisis in a manner worthy of human dignity. There are currently many barriers to it, but institutions and cultures can be developed to help people surmount these barriers. I propose to begin with an 8-week workshop pursuing scholarly practice regarding scholarly practice: this will have a dual effect as it will both help us to better understand how to catalyze scholarly practice, and it will itself catalyze scholarly practice. Essentially, this workshop is a way of “investing” scholarly practice into the engendering of much more scholarly practice. Anyone who enjoys and values scholarly practice should be gratified by this opportunity to engender what they value by means of doing they enjoy.

I encourage feedback and public responses to this piece, especially ones that are critical of it. If I am wrong in a major way, I would sincerely like to know. I also encourage any and all questions as we will be making an FAQ section based on which questions are frequently asked.


  1. I write “scholarly practices” to emphasize that scholarship consists of physical practices like reading and thinking which have material requirements, such as food, time, distraction-free environment, etc. Too often the physicality of scholarship is minimized, and hence the material requirements are not provided. 

  2. The exact questions I asked (among others) were “What are three to five things that get in your way of thnking productively?” and “What are three to five things that get in your way of learning effectively?” 

  3. I am aware that “higher education management” departments exist. However, these departments merely study how to manage universities as businesses; they lack a holistic view of the history and social function of universities. I am also aware of a new field called “critical university studies”. However, it appears to me that this field is primarily focused on the role of higher education in contemporary society, and is not directly concerned with the past or future of scholarly institutions or cultures. 

Joshua Meyers, James Mathews, Christian Williams   February 16, 2020

Scholarly Village Submission to Conexus RfP

The pdf was a submission to Conexus AI’s RfP. Conexus AI is a start-up which funds applications of category theory. The proposal does not seek profit, so it was submitted with an understanding that it would not be funded, and instead we would just be connected to potential collaborators.

Link to pdf

Conexus AI

The RfP

2019 Archive of the RfP

Jimmy Mathews   February 16, 2019

Update on commune plans

Forest library?

I have recently purchased about 1/2 acre of undeveloped forest land in New York state, about 2 hours by Metro North train from New York City. The lot is 1 mile from the train station, so it is accessible from NYC for weekend visits even without a car. It is adjacent to a much smaller lot I previously purchased, on which it was not legal to build because of its size.

I would like to eventually formally give the land to a non-profit, cooperative, or community land trust organization, and develop the site as some sort of school, camp, or workshop with residential capacity so that at least some of the workers or members could actually live there. This summer 2019 I will plan approximately 4 consecutive weekends for clearing and possibly building. Please contact me ( if you want to be part of this by:

  1. volunteering
  2. donating materials or money
  3. lending tools or equipment (use of a truck, power tools, etc.)
  4. suggesting helpful ideas for getting started

It seems to me that the most viable business activities of the cooperative are:

  1. (School) A non-traditional, academically-rigorous school or summer camp for kids, teenagers, and college-age students, paid for by parents. The emphasis would probably be: Mathematics, economics, computer science, political science, history. This depends on the participation of scholars with expertise in those fields. My background is mathematics.
  2. (Research retreat) A purely research-oriented retreat funded on a per-project or per-research-group basis by charging research groups (presumably themselves normally situated in a university setting and funded by grants) for specific durations, say from a few weeks to a few months.
  3. (Workshop) A furniture or other type of workshop, funded by sales of the product.

Let me know if you have strong opinions about which direction to take this. For example, I know my brother Jordan really wants to make it a dojo, my friend Josh wants something more like a monastery, Saad thinks it should be a school or camp, and Matthew wants a research center. I have never been to the Nesin Mathematics Village, but from what I’ve heard it sounds like a good overall model for us to keep in mind.

In any case, I think it makes sense to have:

  1. Living space: 1 to 10 beds in private spaces. 1 to 10 showers and toilets. Kitchen.
  2. Library and study space.
  3. Open work or fitness space.

So much of our work can begin before settling the question of what direction to eventually take the organization.

I’ll be drawing up budget plans and seeking funding pretty soon, pitching to individuals for small amounts and hopefully also applying for institutional grants. Again, please contact me ( if you want to be involved. In case no real funding comes through, I think over a couple years I would eventually be able to build at least a tiny little library cottage that I would try to operate more or less for the public.

Jimmy Mathews   August 27, 2017

A meeting in NYC

On Sunday August 20th 2017, a group of us met on Roosevelt Island over Chinese food to discuss the future of this project. Those present were my brothers Jordan and Justin, a few math friends Matthew, Josh, and another Matt, and Matt’s friend Deval Shah, as well as myself.

C Crowe   December 1, 2016

Proposal for an Evolving Secular Monastery

Part I. An Evolving Monastery

Part II. The Structure of the Evolutions

Part III. Discussion of Basic Questions

Part I. An Evolving Monastery

This document is a sketch of plan for an evolving secular monastery, whose ideological focus includes critical thought, art, pursuit of knowledge, advancement of living conditions, and community service. The plan calls for a small group of founding members who initiate the monastery and guide it through a series of evolutions aimed at increasing the monastic community’s social and economic stability, developing its culture and identity, raising its living standards, and increasing time available for higher pursuits.

One might describe a monastery as commune with a higher purpose. During an initial period a (possibly small) number of founding members assemble and work out all the details required to form a commune along with a rough idea of the commune’s higher purpose and its evolutionary trajectory; this is the zeroth evolution. Subsequently, they form the commune, and work out any basic social and logistical problems and set a routine; this is the first evolution and the germ of monastic life. In the second evolution they begin a series of discussions and projects, which aim to develop the their culture and practices as a monastic community in rudimentary ways. During further evolutions, they develop their culture and practices in more sophisticated ways, becoming more self-sufficient, attracting and assimilating members, performing community serive, finding time for higher pusuits, harness the power of their accumulated wealth, and set goals for future evolutions.

Part II contains rough descriptions of the various evolutions and aims capture their structure more than their details. These details are variables, dependent upon qualities of the founding members and the shape the monastery takes through its evolutions.

Part II provides a context for Part III, a discussion of the basic questions that must be answered before beginning the commune, and a basic discussion of its goals and trajectory. These questions interact, but group roughly into sections like: goals and ideals, location, economics, social structure, and so forth.

Part II. The Structure of the Evolutions

Zeroth Evolution

In the beginning there are a few gung-ho founding members with a vague set of goals and ideas. They have varying skill sets, resources, jobs, living habits, communications skills, social requirements, and family aspirations. They are distributed around the world in various places and varying concentrations, and they have varying levels of attachment to those places. They are presumably open to shifting their mindsets and habits, may or may not be open to moving, and must be open to working hard for the sake of bringing the monastery to life. They have a lot to figure out.

They come up with a list of questions, which must be answered before founding the commune. The answers to these questions are dependent on who is interested, where they live, their current social ties, their level of commitment, resources, jobs, and so forth.

Part of this plan should be a budget, but one should note that a few people with decent jobs living frugally and communally should have no problem saving a high percentage (say, at least 50%) of their income, even living fairly comfortably. If people have to move, then obviously the plan would need to include new jobs. I have some ideas for decent-paying jobs in college towns for those who have at least some specialized knowledge of stem fields. Organized correctly over a few years, these jobs can be fairly lucrative, especially in NYC.

Following are example questions, which are discussed further in Part II, below:

What are the main long term goals? Does everyone live together? And where? Does the monastery collect wealth? What is the initial standard of living? How are private and public space organized? What sort of commitment is expected from members? Is there personal wealth? Is there personal allowance for each member? Are there membership ranks? Do members and founding members have to donate all their personal wealth to the monastery? What work will everyone do? Is money pooled? To what degree are members required to interact with each other? What degree can members interact with outsiders? How structured is life? Is there a strict schedule? How is time organized? Can someone leave on a vacation? How are problems worked out? Is there a TV? Internet access? Do I get to wear a funny hat?

GOALS. Work out all the basic questions required to start a commune, and work out basic goals and a rough trajectory for the monastery.

First Evolution (lasting ~one month)

The founding members move in together, preferably into one building, but perhaps into a few buildings in different areas. These buildings ought to have extra space to add new members (unused can be rented out). Everyone knows exactly what their job is and roughly what to expect in the short term. Presumably, all or most members have outside jobs. Income is pooled. If possible, there is a community head whose primary job is not to gather wealth, but organize the group and run the commune. The head can take care of problems and make sure everyone is in line.

The group settles into a routine, and is forced to deal with any basic logistical and social problems that arise.

GOALS. Work out basic logistical and communication problems, and make sure the very basic communal structure is instated and works. If there is a schedule, is being followed? Are basic expectations being met? Is everyone doing their job? Is the commune solvent? And so forth.

Second Evolution (lasting ~a few months)

After the dust settles, but before focus is lost, the group begins a series of discussions and projects aimed at immediately developing the community’s culture, values, rituals, cohesiveness, and increasing their standard of living.

The discussions are moderated and focused, and full participation by all members is mandatory. The results of the discussions are summarized and recorded. The discussions might involve setting short term goals and developing the culture/mindset and practices of the group. They discuss rituals and routines, expectations of members, values, and learn express gratitude to each other. Someone keeps notes on the discussions and makes sure the results are remembered and implemented.

The group also forms a list of community projects, which are prioritized and doled out. The projects are recorded and progress noted. Projects with high priority in this early period should concern long-term investment of community funds, figuring out health insurance, increasing household efficiency, a system for organizing health care checkups, obtaining public bicycles and other community property, perfecting the living space, and planning group events. If there is a community head, they can be in charge of organizing the discussion and carrying out most the projects. If high priority tasks are left over, or in lieu of a community head, they are doled out to members.

If the group is small, high priority is made of attracting more members and figure out how to assimilate them.

GOALS. Immediately grab the group’s focus with discussions and projects. Develop the culture and activities of the group in rudimentary ways, and practice in the structure for running the community. Begin gathering wealth. As soon as economically feasible, the group should appoint a community head and find ways to keep them busy.

Third Evolution (lasting ~a few to several years)

The community is presumed to be reasonably stable and functional, financially solvent, relatively comfortable, and is beginning to develop the culture and practices. There are regular meetings and a system to deal with problems. There is a clear list of priorities and tasks, a reasonably clear picture of the monastery’s trajectory. Presumably all or most members still have external jobs to bring in funds, but the startup costs have been born and the community has ordered its finances and is gathering wealth. There is presumably a member whose job is not to gather wealth, but work for the monastery.

Now the group can take on more sophisticated projects, which require a higher degree of planning and collaboration. At least some of these should involve higher pursuits (community service, arts, critical thinking, …). Other projects should involve attempting to shift work from external jobs, to internal jobs and should involve higher pursuits if possible, or at least increase further the goals of the monastery.

The group could start a business that uses members’ high-level knowledge, and if successful, other members can be trained with this knowledge and incorporated into the business. Or they could start a business that requires mundane work, but which can be used to easily assimilate new members. They could start a program for youth or young scholars, which survives on some mix of payments, grants and donations.

As members are added, the community will have to refine its economic structure, logistical and power structures and likely move to larger locations. Older and recently-adopted members may begin to diverge in status. The monastery should grow in a controlled manner and carefully consider its stability and goals during any transitions.

The group begins considering how to develop its image and attract donors. It learns how to attract and assimilate new members. The group continues to hold discussions to refine its culture and practices.

GOALS. Learn to attract and assimilate new members. Refine culture and practices, develop a reputation, gather wealth increase self-sufficiency. Form a public image, assert the monastery as a force for good in the community, and try to attract donors. As always, consider longer term plans and make sure the monastery is headed along an appropriate trajectory.

Fourth Evolution (lasting ~several or more years)

Now we presume the monastery culture is somewhat developed and beginning to flourish. It is economically stable and has gathered a fair amount of wealth. Its members mostly perform internal work that is at least somewhat related to the community goals and higher pursuits. Membership is presumably reasonably large, and the monastery is making a name for itself. It is somewhat self-sufficient, has fairly developed culture and activity, comfortable lifestyle. Likely, some of its members still work outside, but mostly by preference. Some members may be seasonal, or have other considerations.

Presumeably the monastery has gathered enough wealth to start taking on more major projects, on the scale of, for example, building and marketing cheap and superefficient tiny houses.

The monastery is presumably in an urban location. Given sufficient interest, another major project could be bifurcating to a rural location, where a much higher degree of self-sufficiency and isolation are possible, and life has a different flavor (slower, more time for higher pursuits, different kind of work). Preferably, the urban and rural locations would function in concert, and members can serve a variety of roles and choose among different lifestyles.

GOALS. The goals from here out are less easy to predict, but presumably involve shifting a larger portion of time to higher pursuits, and becoming more highly self-sufficient, making a facility that can survive economic and social upheaval. The monastery may wish to continue collecting wealth so it can take on more major projects.

Fifth Evolution

GOALS. (Highly speculative!) Become a political force and promote public and government understanding of science. Replace some of the functions religious organizations and universities have traditionally served in society.

23-rd Evolution (lasting ~a few centuries)

The Freethinkers Secular Monastery has gathered considerable wealth and its members spend their days hiking, serving communities, playing music, and celebrating life with wine and postprandial orgies.

Part III. Proposed Answers to Basic Questions

Following is a discussion of certain questions that presumably must be answered prior actually founding the monastery.

Main Goals and Ideals

  • What are the main long term goals?
    1. Form a monastic community whose members have the freedom to focus on “higher pursuits” like art, thought projects, etc.
    2. Develop an appropriate value system, culture, practices and identity.
    3. Survive as an institution, be self-sufficient.
  • What are the basic ideals?
    1. Advances and improvements should benefit everyone who has participated.
    2. Participation is open to anybody.
    3. ???


  • Does everyone live together?

Everyone lives together. This makes it easier to interact, form bonds, form an community identity, practices and culture, save money, maintain focus, and guarantee participation. It forces the group to work through all kinds of problems together and have difficult conversations, and it keeps people from drifting away.

  • Where do they live?

Where everyone lives depends on who joins. In more urban locations there are more economic opportunities, more new members or donors to attract, and an abundance of opportunities to serve the outside community, but also more distractions, a higher degree of outside dependence and generally higher costs. In more rural locations, there are fewer distractions, costs are generally lower, and a different opportunities are available, both economic and otherwise. If the members are diffuse, they may have to move and get jobs somewhere. If they are concentrated in an urban center and have jobs, or where it is easy to find an income, they can begin there. (I have suggestions for how those with high-level knowledge in a STEM fields can make a decent wage in certain college towns, especially in NYC).

I think an ideal plan is to begin in an urban setting (when money and attracting new members are top priority), and bifurcate to a rural setting when possible (to find self-sufficiency and isolation). The two locations can serve complementary purposes and offer different lifestyles.


  • Are there membership ranks?

Perhaps there can be temporary members and permanent members (or some other system) with different privileges. For example: temporary members may allowed outside wealth, but be afforded fewer privileges and given lower allowances. Permanent members have no outside wealth, but are given higher privileges and higher allowances.

There could be other designations and seasonal members; this has to be worked out with time.

  • How are new members added?

This is something that has to be worked out over time, as it becomes relevant and logistics are clearer.

In any case, expectations from new members should be clear, their goals should be clear, and they should prove some level of commitment. They should not be trying to join to avoid problems in their life, as evidenced perhaps by a psychologists note. They should be given a chance to experience monastic life. Much of this is the norm in certain current monasteries.


  • Does the monastery collect wealth?

Yes–enough to meet its goals. Having the freedom to focus on higher pursuits means not having to focus so much on collecting wealth, but still has costs (living costs, supplies, etc.). Thus the monastery should endeavor to cover these costs while providing a high level of freedom. It seek donations or even try to form an endowment. However, state-level social and economic systems are unstable over the long term, so to be stable over the very long term, a piece of the monastic community should retreat into wilderness and learn to be very highly self-sufficient.

  • What is the initial standard of living? How are private and public space organized?

There needs to be a balance between members’ comfort and economics. The faster the community gathers wealth in the beginning, the better off it will be in the medium and long term. But it must also spend enough to make its members comfortable enough to keep them and attract new members. Being efficient and comfortable with less makes it easier to achieve this balance, so these should probably be fundamental values.

Living together in a frugal and communal manner reduces overall costs. Probably everyone should have a private bedroom, because people have grown so accustomed to it, but other space should be communal to ensure efficient usage of space. The monastery should ideally have communal supplies: transportation, tools, games, food, furniture, clothing. Meals should be communal.

Members may have to get used to reducing high-cost activities to some degree. They may have to learn to share. Perhaps everyone could get a personal allowance for individual projects and personal expenditures, which can grow with respect to length of membership.

  • Is there personal wealth?

Members must be more interested in community gain than personal gain, and this may simply not be for everyone. Some personal wealth should be guaranteed, perhaps in the form of allowances and personal belongings. Perhaps there can be bonuses for people who bring in gobs of cash, but the underlying assumption is that members are not guaranteed personal wealth… at least not initially.

If there is eventually enough money for the community to function at its desired level, and someone wants to get rich. Great. Do it. And contribute some to the further success of the community.

  • Is there personal allowance for each member?

A personal allowance is a great way to make sure everyone gets to take care of personal needs and personal projects, and avoid problems like having ask the community for money every time someone wants to do something. Allowance could depend on the success of the community or length of membership.

If someone wants to join who has significant outside wealth, they may keep it during their trial period. One option is to require permanent members to invest outside wealth in the community. Another is to allow them to keep it and use it as they see fit. There are monastic communities that disallow personal wealth, but this is often to keep them from straying or religious and philosophical reasons. I don’t see other good reasons to ban members from collecting personal wealth.

  • Do founding members have to donate all their personal wealth to the monastery?

One solution is to agree that founding members are temporary members (thus get to keep their outside wealth, but must contribute new income). After some period, founding members become permanent members and then follow whatever the norm is at that point.

  • What work will everyone do?

Initially, most need some sort of outside jobs and perhaps a fraction can pursue inside jobs, like cooking, cleaning, running the house, executing community projects or starting a business venture. Eventually, those who desire can be incorporated into monastery business ventures, along with new members. In the long term, it depends on the shape of the community.

Structure of Daily Life

  • To what degree are members required to interact with each other?

They must fully participate in group discussions and community functions, as is necessary to maintain group cohesion and cultural development. If someone wants solitude, they should be allowed it, given it doesn’t disrupt community functions.

  • What degree can members interact with outsiders?

There are monastic communities that allow varying degrees of outside interaction. Some outside interaction may be necessary to attract new members or to perform community service. Members may desire various levels of outside interaction. Outside interaction may cause distraction or other problems.

The easy answer is that members may interact with outsiders however much they want, given their full participation in the community. But I think inside interaction should be encouraged, over outside interaction.

  • How structured is monastery life? Is there a strict schedule? How is time organized?

There needs to be enough structure to guarantee all community functions work and community expectations are met, and beyond this, it is personal preference. Some may desire extra structure, for example, to help them focus or keep them on a regular schedule. And some claim they naturally prone to certain sleeping habits.

Since, presumably, meals will be communal, everyone should be up to eat at the same time. Everyone should must be available for group dialogs. A common, strict, routine may be highly desirable or necessary for community function. Good sleeping habits keep people from distracting each other. It is probably healthier to experience the full brunt of the sunlight every day, and healthier to sleep regularly. A high level of structure can substitute for the fact humans have low personal control and low ability to keep a routine on their own over long periods, and probably anyone can adjust to a standard sleep/life routine without too much trouble. One might note that social norms regarding seemingly-mundane things like noise are highly culturally-dependent and too-restrictive norms could end up alienating people. The group probably ought generate its own norms, and avoid piling up on those of the dominant culture.

The answer may change over time, and between different settings (ie urban or rural), and may depend on peoples varying work requirements and other special considerations.

  • Can someone go on a vacation or leave to pursue an external goal?

As long as community needs are met, why not? Some monasteries think time away leads to distraction and straying, both from spirituality and monastic values. Others have no problem with it. People might begin to feel trapped or isolated from their families and outside friends if they can’t leave from time to time. Others might feel jealous if someone wants to leave for half the year and be funded by the monastery if they can’t, too. Probably expectations from the monastery should be clear to avoid such problems. Or appropriate social and value system could be deployed: for example, the abbess could decide someone needs a break to resolve a personal crisis, the monastery can afford to fund their time away, and that others have no right complain.

Perhaps special arrangements can be made. Someone could choose more intense seasonal contribution over less intense but year-round contribution. Others could be seasonal members, adhering to a separate set of expectations.

Perhaps there could be sabbatical to pursue outside projects, or the monastery could arrange extended outings (like hiking the Japanese nature trail).

This may be one of the many questions that can only be worked over time and subject to logistics.

  • Is there a TV? Internet access? Phones? other technology?

These are temptations, distractions, highly addictive, time pits, and should probably be banned or highly limited. Technology should be used as long as it benefits furthers the community, and limited when it hinders.

  • What sort of commitment is expected from members?

Members must be committed and personally invested in the success of the monastery, especially the founding members. They must perform community functions and contribute their income if they work externally. They must agree assimilate to the values, practices and culture of the community, and they must submit to the economic realities of the monastery.

Members may have to accept some level of inequality for the community to function, and perhaps not necessarily getting to do exactly the work they want. Someone with particular skill set may be required to perform a specific function that affords them less time to pursue their personal projects. Highly educated Buddhist monks are sometimes required to contribute by holding external jobs, affording them less time for other activities.


  • Do I get to wear a funny hat?

Yes, but you have to get permission from the pope, first.

Social Structure

  • Is there an abbess, abbot or community head?

I suspect a community head would be highly desirable. In the early period, they can organize people, cook, clean while others work, and execute the community projects. Later on they can help resolve problems, and administrate. Probably someone should study small community structures and see what is effective.

  • How are problems worked out?

When people go to outdoor programs often surprised to find they won’t be spending most of their time learning survival skills, but rather social and communication skills. I think this will be a major point that will take time to work out and will probably always be an issue. The answer depends on community size, community norms and values, and the nature of the problem If the community is very small, perhaps problems can be decided by discussion and group concensus.

Are relationships allowed? Spouses? Children?

In theory, yes, but depends on economics, logistics, community values, and so on. Childrearing in an adaptive commune can be much easier than outside.

Some may be of the mindset that all worldly things are distractions and thus should be avoided. Or maybe the monastery will take after bonobos and no one will even know whose children they are, and they will be the community’s children, adopted by all.

Jimmy Mathews   November 23, 2016


  1. Overview
  2. Duration and season
  3. Location
  4. Facilities
  5. Daily practices
  6. Relation to technologies
  7. Scale
  8. Participation and membership
  9. Classes
  10. Funding
  11. Economic activities
  12. Intellectual activities
  13. Legal structure
  14. Administration


This is a proposal for a planned scholarly community, different from a school, a research center, or a corporation.

It is felt by many people that I know that the topics and manner of one’s study and research are too strongly constrained within the academic and industrial universe. It would be desirable to have an environment promoting

  1. Free scholarship. The choice of solitary and collaborative programs of study is expressly permitted based on one’s own evaluation of their importance.
  2. Critical inquiry. These programs of study are expressly permitted even if they entail scrutiny and judgment of prevailing institutions.
  3. Open participation. The right to participate is not predicated on the outcome of competitive or ideological demonstrations.

The importance of (1) is not that particular individuals’ values and judgments of importance are always superior to those of the group, but rather that all individuals’ values and judgments of importance are often rendered irrelevant by institutional forces. Hence, also, the importance of (2) and (3).

These goals are not really controversial. Yet they are still unmet in the environments that I know.

If this is some inevitable price to be paid for the material and pecuniary support of groups of researchers not otherwise engaged in an economic activity, then perhaps we are just getting a bad deal for ourselves. The primary obstruction to the establishment of a community promoting free scholarship, critical inquiry, and open participation seems to be the absence of a viable economic model, and the (I think, incorrect) presumption that pre-existing models like the school, the research center, or the corporation are adequate for these purposes.

I claim that the monastic economic model is basically adequate. Viability is evinced by the fact that the monasteries were a stable, dominant presence in England and Ireland for several hundred years. Their end was not some gradual decline against the rise of modernism, but rather a very well-documented series of violent institutional actions taken by King Henry VIII of England and his civil servant Thomas Cromwell over about 5 years starting in 1536.

The proposal draws heavily from what I imagine to be the monastic economy, especially the aspects which are related to interaction with external agents, updated to account for the conditions of existence facing contemporary economic agents. There are significant differences with the monastic economy at the level of internal social organization, on account of the apparent failure of actual monasteries to promote the 3 goals enumerated above. I have attempted to emphasize pragmatism, compromising ideology where necessary in favor of increasing the likelihood that the project will actually get started.

Duration and season

There is a sizable group of individuals, students and faculty, belonging broadly to “academia”, for whom there is a notable long season during which many formal and professional obligations cease: the summer. It is not entirely a coincidence that this season exists and that it would seem to be useful for this proposal. For, this time is widely hailed by students and faculty alike as a good time for personal research and non-traditional collaboration not unlike that being proposed here.

The organization should operate a main facility for approximately 3 summer months, as opposed to permanent year-round activity. This dramatically increases the probability that the project will meet a minimum degree of success, as measured by the ability of the members to continue to participate in the activities of the organization, by allowing many members to participate without compromising prior long-term familial and professional commitments.

Far from being a financial burden on poor participants, this arrangement is expected to be regarded as a partial reprieve for scholars who would otherwise have to work in a demanding service-sector environment or the “gig economy” during this time.

If the project succeeds in establishing a seasonal community, it is not hard to imagine how the same facility could be converted to a permanent year-round community with reduced membership. I think that this transition (if it is ultimately desired) would be relatively easy in comparison with the initial establishment. Moreover, the seasonal limitation seems to make it likely that the participants would be willing to experiment with more radical practices than if they were committed more permanently. For these reasons, I will consider only the initial establishment here.


The location of the main facility of the organization should be remote in the sense that transportation between the main facility and the nearest social or economic units (e.g. towns) should be prohibitively difficult for casual travel or interaction. This arrangement is expected to encourage camaraderie among the members by limiting their casual interactions to the group and limiting their relations with outside entities to deliberate actions taken by the group as a whole (at least for the duration of the season).

Ideally the soil and vegetation conditions would be agreeable to some agricultural activities, and the climate would be mild enough to reduce the need for extensive heating or cooling systems. There would be no paved access to the main facility, which would be located approximately 15-30 miles from the nearest town. A route to the facility, intended to take a couple of days on foot, should be carefully chosen with respect to both utilitarian and aesthetic considerations.

Areas meeting these basic requirements and lying within the sphere of my personal cultural familiarity include some parts of:

  • Inland New England; Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, northern New York
  • Quebec, New Brunswick, and western Canada
  • the U.S. Northwest; Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon

Some areas more than others would seem to have the advantage of a local culture broadly agreeable to the aims of the project. Local affiliations would no doubt prove valuable in the long term.

It may not be necessary or desirable that the organization obtain legal title to the land on which we intend to operate:

Federal land. In the United States federally-administered lands cannot be purchased, but the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management regularly grants easements to both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations in explicit agreements. If we decide to pursue a site located on federal land, in my opinion it is unlikely that the federal authorities would disapprove. For tiny non-profit ventures, their (and our) principal concern is effective and responsible land stewardship.

Reservation. The descendants of the people who lived in North America before the European colonization retain formal control of certain small areas as a result of treaties with the United States and Canada, mostly ratified in the 1800s. As a result of a famous geographical mistake, the living descendants are still called in English “Indians”. Hence the “Indian reservation” system in the United States and the “Indian reserve” system in Canada. Because these more native cultures did not sanction large-scale private property contracts before the European arrival, trading schemes involving symbolic capital representations of land did not exist at that time. To the extent that their contemporary heirs still value land stewardship, as distinct from the more familiar land ownership, they might be willing to sanction a proposed site on reservation or reserve land on the condition of responsible use. If we decide to pursue this, I recommend a native employment preference for the full-time administrative positions described in the Administration section. (See also Related Reading [5]).

On the other hand, purchasing rural land in the United States is relatively easy, and may be the only option in the end. It is cheaper than you might think: a couple dozen wooded acres can occasionally be found listed for as little as $50,000. The disadvantage would be the absence of certain formal barriers to intrusion by for-profit interests (e.g. pollution from logging, drilling, or mining).


It may or may not be necessary for the organization to build new buildings to comprise the main facility.

Building all new buildings would probably require an initial period of 4 or more seasons during which the participants, numbering approximately the same as the the eventual typical operating capacity of the facility, would labor under the direction of a hired or volunteer architect in consultation with a hired or volunteer site planner. All would presumably live, for the duration of the construction, under fairly primitive conditions.

One argument for acquiescing to modern capital-intensive building methods, involving oil-burning machinery and imported manufactured materials, is that in principle they could be used just at the beginning, in order to get the project started given a social environment poor in expertise about less capital-intensive methods. I largely accept this argument. Only, however, if the actual plan withstands the type of scrutiny described in the Relation to Technologies section. That is, the completed state of the facility should be, as much as possible, operable without the assumption that external agents will be available for consultation or maintenance using external resources.

If a site is found already possessing buildings meeting our criteria, occupation would most likely require engagement with landownership.

In either case, a sizeable capital accumulation and expenditure would be required to initiate the construction or site preparation phase.

It is conceivable that the amount of effort, capital, and the number of seasons required for the construction phase could be drastically reduced by selecting a sufficiently primitive design, intended to be improved gradually after opening as a scholarly community, during the normal course of the organization’s activities. This may be the most practical option.

The most minimal setup would still include

  • a main study and meeting hall, with a library, kitchen, and storage cellar
  • detached cottages for sleeping or private study

They should be sufficient to accomodate, say, as few as 10 and as many as 40 participants.

Depending on auxiliary economic activities, additional buildings could include utility or storage houses, a woodworking or electrical workshop, a cheesery, a brewery, … .

Daily practices

The participants should conform to a schedule of communal meals and labor which is rigid in that specific times are chosen for specific days, but partial in that the period of scholarly time is self-structured and exempt from this schedule. Those used to certain types of employment will be correct in interpreting this, not so much an imposition of labor time, but rather as a way to constrain the labor time with a hard upper bound.

Relation to technologies

I strongly advocate the delibrate instrumental use of technologies, old and new, for the solution of technical and logistical problems facing the establishment and daily practices of the organization. The unequivocal denial of what is perceived to be a harmful technology on the basis of its being unfamiliar is what doomed the followers of the Luddites in the early 1800s, and many similar groups since then.

That means subjecting technical practices and artifacts to constant scrutiny, in order that the ones that are actually chosen be the ones that we, the humans, decide we can responsibly use to further our aims.

As an example, it may be reasonable to set up a wind-electromechanical or photo-voltaic-solar electrical power system for the purpose of powering a refrigerator in order to address the food coordination and preservation problem. Yet, the whole system:

  • refrigeration
    • acquisition,
    • daily use; equitable access,
    • long-term maintenance,
    • eventual disposal or dismemberment, and
    • recycling of the components and refrigerant capture
  • power generation and storage

should be scrutinized and planned such that the system would not be adopted if the community decides that it does not have the resources to carry out all aspects of the interaction responsibly. This will almost always (but perhaps not always) imply a non-computerized, non-networked, non-electrical version of the technological solution to a given problem; not categorically, but as a consequence of specific scrutiny. The same goes for

  • water acquisition, storage, and distribution
  • human and other organic waste disposal
  • structural maintenance and repair of buildings

Because it is so difficult to differentiate instrumental and instrumented uses of the internet, I recommend a complete absence of internet-connected and cellular-phone devices. After a few seasons of that, the participants would be in a better position to judge precisely what aspects of internet access, if any, would further their aims, and how to incorporate them.


Some typical operating capacity of the main facility should be chosen, say N=30 members. A potential scalability plan:

  • If the group of participants exceeds, say, (5/3)N, then new plans are drawn up for a clone of the main facility in a separate location, so that (5/6)N would remain and (5/6)N would populate the new facility.
  • If the group of participants drops below a certain predetermined number, the physical community is disbanded for the season (“apoptosis”).

Participation and membership

Participants of all different ages, genders, and backgrounds should expect to be welcome in the main seasonal community. Though all participants would labor in the community economic projects, the emphasis on scholarly study means that some prospective participants might be more comfortable in a more “general-purpose” community like Twin Oaks.

It is true that the participation of people who have full-time careers would be severely limited by the seasonality stipulated in Duration and Season section. To justify this limitation, consider the logical alternatives:

  1. An arrangement for the participation in the program itself to replace the full-time careers of willing participants. Defined correctly, this is a desirable and not impossible goal for the organization.
  2. Opening the general activities of the organization to casual participation by a presumably more general public.

I strongly suspect that (1) is an impossible goal initially. In the case of (2), the organization would probably not be able to promote the goals (1) and (2) stipulated in the Overview.


I propose a flat social hierarchy, with the exception of a single director with the responsibility of direction and delegation of daily activities. In matters arousing controversy, the director must generally listen and decide and not advocate.

The main purpose of the small scale of the proposed community is to create conditions under which this simple structure can succeed, without the director becoming overwhelmed and without creating a sensation of injustice among the directed. The director must generally labor to the same degree as all other members.


The organization would seek to raise funds for startup and major continuing expenses (like staff) from grant-making foundations and individual donors, including perhaps some of the really-dedicated members.

Individual participants in the seasonal community would generally be expected to contribute a sum of money in advance of actual participation in the program, intended to cover expenses establishing a minimum level of community operations, including, for example, food, for the season. I expect that this would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $2000-$3000 (in 2016 dollars).

No special member status would be conferred on those who can afford to do this. Participants who cannot afford to pay from personal income sources would not be barred from participation. They would, however, be encouraged to petition a sponsoring institution to cover the cost, like a foundation-based scholarship program if the participant is a student, or a university research/travel fund if the participant is a faculty member.

Economic activities

Obviously a detailed plan of the economy would have to wait until the legal structure, membership network, site proposals, and funding models are in place.

In accordance with an expectation of an approximately half-and-half split of the participants’ labor time between unmandated scholarly projects and mandated economic ones, we should hope to raise about half of our daily operating costs from donations and participant contributions and the other half from time-tested monkish professions like:

  • Growing fruit trees, vegetables, or grains
  • Not growing grain, but buying it and milling it
  • Raising chickens for their eggs
  • Raising cows for milk
  • Not raising cows, but buying milk, then making, selling, and eating cheese
  • Making and selling furniture

A note for expert utopians and economists: I think it is important to insist on a basic plan which is reproducible by a more or less arbitrary group of reasonably competent and interested 20-40 individuals with diverse skills. The overall plan or the actual economic activities themselves should not be so complicated as to require a PhD in Operations Research.

The economy planner should also be explicitly cautious of situations in which marginal efficiency improvement with overall labor reduction is achieved by replacing a desirable labor activity with an undesirable one (as defined by the membership).

Intellectual activities

This community might inherit an emphasis on mathematics on account of the expected demography and the physically minimal nature of mathematical study, but this is by no means a requirement. One of the benefits of the community structure proposed here, in comparison to, say, a research center, is that it is supposed to support the full range of scholarly endeavors:

  • specific and technical science or mathematics (e.g. Invariants of quaternary forms in dimension 4 under the symplectic group in characteristic 5)
  • broad and interdisciplinary science (Category theory and implementations of social choice systems)
  • historical research, linguistics research, women’s studies, music composition …

I will recommend specifically The Azimuth project. This is a network run by competent and esteemed mathematical physicist John Baez (that looks suspiciously like with the goal of saving the planet from human growth externalities using open-participation science. This is a rather serious task, much more important than a lot of other things you might be thinking of, and we should all consider contributing.

The legal structure of an organization is important because it establishes some predictability for the interactions that the organization will have with other agents. In the United States, the federal government is still one of the most significant other agents with which an organization will interact, because it serves as the ultimate guarantor for most contracts. Although organizations with especially large influence in a given industry are subjected to special scrutiny from regulatory authorities, the vast majority of the federal interest in most organizations just concerns taxation. For this reason, formal organizations are largely classified by the federal government by means of the Internal Revenue Service tax code (Internal Revenue Code, IRC).

Both for-profit companies and corporations and not-for-profit organizations must generally incorporate in and register with a given state in order for contracts and agreements involving the organization to be enforceable. Most not-for-profits fall under the category described in section IRC 501(c), “Religious, Educational, Charitable, Scientific, Literary…”.

Oddly, there is a separate exemption class, described in section IRC 501(d):

  • “Organizations exempt under IRC §501(d) are ones organized for the purpose of operating a communal religious community where the members live a communal life following the tenets and teachings of the organization.”
  • “All of the organization’s property is owned in community and, each member, upon leaving the organization, is entitled to no part of the community assets.”
  • “Activities often consist of farming and manufacturing.”
  • “The income of the organization goes into a community treasury that is used to defray operating expenses and the cost of supporting and maintaining the members and their families.”

I imagine that it is not a very popular class (although the IRS data on 501(c)(3)-(9) organizations is readily available, the data on 501(d)’s is not, so I don’t know for sure). It is nevertheless a relatively accurate description of the community proposed here, at least from the point of view of an external regulatory body.

The main consequence of these designations is that

  • Income received by the organization, even profit as a result of sale of goods, is generally not subject to federal income tax (and presumably state income tax, in most states).
  • Private donors to the organization can claim income deductions on their federal and state tax returns in the amount of their donation.

To obtain and maintain the designation, non-profit organizations must meet certain requirements. For example, they must have a board of directors, typically unpaid and separate from staff, meeting at least once a year. The board is ultimately responsible for decisions affecting the structure and activities of the organization. Technically they authorize the staff, e.g. a “chief executive officer”, to direct the daily activities of the organization on their behalf.

Those of you who are interested in supporting this project, but feel that you fall into the category of people pursuing full-time careers that would prevent your participation in the main community, should consider serving on the board.


The organization should have 1-2 full-time administrative staff in an office in a nearby town. They would coordinate agreements with the local government officials and businesses concerning land use and supplies, maintain the organization’s accounts, file tax disclosures, communicate with donors, etc.

I think it is important that these tasks are delegated to some sort of staff physically remote from the main facility and not to a member participant, because they principally concern the organization’s interface with other organizations and agents. These administrative tasks would probably distract the participants’ attention from the main scholarly and economic activities, just as these activities would probably distract an administrator from carrying out these tasks effectively.

Next post:

  • Detailed comparison with other institutions
  • Recreational activities
  • Budget proposal
  • What can we do now?
    • Incorporation
    • Field trips
  • Related reading
  1. The Communistic Societies of America. Charles Nordhoff, 1875
  2. Foundation. Isaac Asimov, 1951
  3. The Dispossessed. Ursula Le Guin, 1974
  4. Anathem. Neal Stephenson, 2008
  5. 9/10ths of the Law. Hannah Dobbz, 2012