An instructor holding a foreboding plastic bag greets Wyoming Catholic College freshmen.
“Put your phone in,” the instructor says, indicating the open Ziplock.
After parting with their most-loved appendage, the students embark on a three week camping trip through the Wind River Range — or the more rugged Teton Mountains — ,which they navigate using old-fashioned paper maps and the stars.
Even students who manage to sneak their phone on the trip don’t get an opportunity to use them.
“That is the first detox phase,” said Glen Arbery, president of Wyoming Catholic College. “If students took their phone, it wouldn’t work up there. That is their introduction to classmates and our technology policy. By the time they get back down they have been weaned.”
Wyoming Catholic College is located in rural Lander, Wyoming. Home to only 185 students in a town of only 7,000 people in southwestern Wyoming, it is already disconnected from the fast-paced, modern world. But the college is even more unique — and disconnected — in its technology policy; its students must leave their phones at home and consent to Wifi-free dormitories.
Students are allowed to bring laptops, and can use them with Wifi in the library, and each dorm has a phone that students may freely access. But otherwise, Wyoming Catholic creates an environment where students are intensely present only to the people, places, and ideas that exist directly and physically before them.
This technology policy has undergirded Wyoming Catholic’s pedagogy since its inception, according to Arbery. In 2005, when founders of the college first delineated the policy, there was no such thing as a smartphone, a touch-screen laptop, or an iPad.
Arbery said that the decision to remove cell phones from students was made to improve the college community.
“It seemed like flip phones and texting have a simply observable effect on people,” Arbery said. “As soon as texting became common, our sense of place changed. That is, the philosophical element — the way you are present — is degraded by being expected to answer texts or a ringing phone.”
Arbery added that the influx of new and even more comprehensive hand-held technologies over the last fifteen years has reaffirmed the college’s decision. Arbery has closely followed the neurological effects that smartphones and screens have on the human brain, and now “we are so happy that we made the decision when we did.”
“We wanted to reestablish a sense of being present with the people you’re literally around even if they’re not who you prefer to be with,” Arbery said.
Grace Pfifer ’21, sought out Wyoming Catholic College for its unique position, and was convinced to attend after she was caught out in a thunderstorm while riding horseback up a mountain during a visitation week. The horses spooked and raced wildly down the mountain and back to the shelter of their barn.
“It was one of the most terrifying experiences, but also I had never felt so alive in one single happening,” Pfifier recalled. “I was feeling everything with my whole body and all my emotions, and plus it had been a good week of reading interesting and engaging things, and of poetry expanding our imaginations. I just thought, ‘I want to go somewhere I can feel alive.”’
Pfifer said that attending Wyoming Catholic College was exactly what she anticipated, and that the technology policy largely facilitated her deep and constant interaction with real people and real life.
“It just seems like there was such a creativity that can often be stifled by using a phone too much,” Pfifer said. “It felt like people were so creative with their time. It was typical on weeknights or weekends the guys would come over with their guitars and we would all sit around and sing, and look at the stars — the stars were always really gorgeous — and drink coffee.”
Pfifer transferred to Hillsdale College after her sophomore year at Wyoming Catholic because she felt the desire to test her faith and principles in an environment where not everyone thought exactly like her. However, Pfifer said she retained the sense of creativity and presence that the no-tech policy fostered.
“It did feel weird coming to Hillsdale,” Pfifer said. “There was that feeling of lack of creativity and lack of energy to do more. I felt freedom from this, but then not really an ability to connect right away with all the people around me because I felt like I was coming from such a different walk of life.”
Recent Wyoming Catholic graduate and current admissions officer for the college, Elizabeth Meluch emphasized that the professors and faculty at the college are by no means puritanical luddites.
“We like to think we are not doing it out of fear but rather love of something else,” Meluch said.
The school uses technology where it sees fit, and replaces it where it is unnecessary. For example, Wyoming Catholic uses Google drive for document sharing, Google photos to share memories, and, of course, has plenty of telephones for each student to call home.
“Certainly, the joke is on tech, because we can get what it is offering without getting so hooked on it,” Meluch said. “We want you to be able to call your mom here.”
The administration is not stoic about the policy to its students, either. Glenn Arbery is currently teaching a class on the origins of modernity and its connection with technology that includes sophisticated arguments about the advantages of technology.
On the flip side, assigned reading for all students at the college includes things like Cal Newport’s “Deep Work,” and Nicholas Carr’s book “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.” The latter is an expansive text in which Carr explores how the internet has changed the human mind and human experience. Carr’s exploration stems from his own personal feeling that 10 years of technology have made it harder to think and read deeply. He explains it evocatively:
“Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”
In order to educate a generation of scuba divers rather than Jet Skiers, Wyoming Catholic focuses student’s learning, reading, and information gathering on real things. Their mode of learning is reading great books and having direct encounters with the natural world. A big component of their education is learning outdoor survival skills, like old-fashioned paper map-reading, stargazing, and horsemanship.
Arbery emphasized that students come to know things through their senses and imaginations. They are actually presented with the natural world, and thus are able to understand what they are reading in terms of that experience in the natural world.
“Everything they’re learning is not already mediated to them through technology,” Arbery said. “We want to get them out of the virtual, man-made world as much as possible and to give them the direct experience of what we call God’s first book, the ‘Book of Nature.’”
Maluch already did not have much of a “soft-spot” for technology when she first arrived at Wyoming Catholic College in 2014. But she said it is amazing to watch as technology immediately loses its asphyxiating stranglehold on students — even those who enter the college truly addicted.
“You see students glued to their phones during the whole six hour bus ride up to the mountains,” Meluch said. “When the two weeks are over and we pull them out again, they laugh at them, they pull them out and think, “I don’t need this.”
Undoubtedly, disconnecting from the fast-paced Jet Ski’s of the digital world to descend into the silent murk of the earthly depths is not easy.
“To feel that disconnected-ness can feel sort of frightful,” Pfifer said. “But you have to push past it. It takes a grit to say no to it and realize there will be a greater good that comes out of it.”