Some people who don't understand the concept of monastic life, religious life, cloisters, etc., assume that cloistered religious are selfish, unsociable people who are concerned only with saving their own souls. When they credit the monks for some degree of scholarship, it is often linked with blame for keeping books away from ordinary people. Here are some examples from one book (these are relatively mild examples, generally more frustrating in their implications and what the author fails to credit the monks for, than outright attacks on the Church)...
From The Story of Science: Aristotle Leads the Way by Joy Hakim (2004, Smithsonian Books, 282 pages, hardcover)...
In 529, the Christian Roman emperor Justinian closed the last of the traditional Greek schools. In Athens, the academy that Plato had founded almost 900 years earlier was shut down. Hardly anyone in the Christian world read the Greek philosophers anymore; they were labeled pagans (nonbelievers). Some of Plato's ideas did get incorporated in Augustine's philosophy, but the science of Aristotle and Ptolemy was now off-limits. These scientific ideas were thought to be dangerous...The Greek thinkers would soon be almost forgotten, except by a very few scholars - such as a learned Roman statesman named Boethius who translated Aristotle's writings on logic (but not science) into Latin and kept them from disappearing altogether. (pg. 201)
The first abbey founded by St. Benedict (Monte Cassino, in 529) started a European trend toward keeping knowledge behind closed doors. (pg. 201)
In Europe, for a few monks, there was a challenging life of the mind. Aristotle was responsible for that. His ideas on logic set rules for orderly discussions and arguments. Using Aristotle's logic, the monks learned to think analytically. They examined abstract ideas. That skill will be very useful in later centuries when science makes a comeback (pg. 203)
In the monasteries, clerics are focused on saving their souls through prayer, study, and isolation. When it comes to science, they quote Pythagoras, Plato, and Augustine. That trio all concentrated, on one way or another, on ideal forms in nature, which often kept them from considering the real world. (pg. 230)
How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization by Thomas E. Woods, Jr. (2005, Regnery Publishing, 280 pages, hardcover) has an amazing chapter called "How the Monks Saved Civilization." To backtrack just a little, though, I want to point out that Woods doesn't whitewash faults of the church or pretend that every Catholic was a saint. Here is how he put it...
"No serious Catholic would contend that churchmen were right in every decision they made. While Catholics believe that the Church will maintain the faith in its integrity until the end of time, that spiritual guarantee in now way implies that every action of the popes and the episcopate is beyond reproach. To the contrary, Catholics distinguish between the holiness of the Church as an institution guided by the Holy Spirit and the inevitable sinful nature of men, including the men who serve the Church." (pg. 2)
Modern man, particularly in the past few years, has become painfully aware of sinners in the Church, but has forgotten many wonderful contributions made by Catholics to civilization. This book seeks to remedy that through careful research, often citing non-Catholic sources who have documented these contributions.
Back to the monks...
The truth is that, even on a spiritual level, monks (on the whole) - and cloistered nuns for that matter - aren't just trying to save their own souls, but setting their lives aside for God to pray for others. The Poor Clare Monastery of the Sacred Heart of Mary, in Los Altos Hills, California (who we were priviledged to see a video about) live a life of work, prayer and poverty. They live away from the "real world", but one of the sisters has the job of keeping up with the news in order to have the sisters pray for problems in the world. I've had the privilege of meeting cloistered nuns on a few occasion through their "screen" (Carmelites in both instances) and was overwhelmed with the peace and beauty of their vocation. This isn't something "the world" will understand or appreciate.
But even on practical levels (ranging from preservation of ancient scholarship to the advent of a wide variety of practical technologies), as evidenced by Woods' book, the monks made amazing contributions throughout history - especially during the "Dark Ages." Here are a few samples (but you should get the book - it is well footnoted besides!)...
...there can be little doubt that the sixth and seventh centuries were marked by cultural and intellectual retrogression, in terms of education, literary output, and similar indicators. Was that the Church's fault? Historian Will Durant - an agnostic - defended the Church against this charge decades ago, placing blame for the decline not on the Church, which did everything it could to reverse it, but on the barbarian invasions of late antiquity. (pg. 9)
When the Mycenaean Greeks suffered a catastrophe in the twelfth century B.C. - an invasion by the Dorians, say some scholars - the result was three centuries of complete illiteracy known as the Greek Dark Ages. Writing simply disappeared amid the chaos and disorder. But the monks' commitment to reading, writing, and education ensured that the same terrible fate that had befallen the Mycenaean Greeks would not be visited upon Europeans after the fall of the Roman Empire. This time, thanks to the monks, literacy would survive political and social catastrophe. (pg. 44)
The oldest surviving copies of the most ancient Roman literature date back to the ninth century, when Carolingian scholars rescued them from oblivion..." (pg. 17)
... almost any classical text that survived until the eighth century has survived until today." (pg. 17)
Gerbert of Aurillac, who later became Pope Sylvester II (r. 999-1003) [said] "The just man lives by faith but it is good that he should combine science with his faith." Gerbert placed great emphasis on the cultivation of man's reasoning faculty, which God had not given him in vain. "The Divinity made a great gift to men in giving them faith while not denying them knowledge," Gerbert wrote. "[T]hose who do not possess it [knowledge] are called fools." (pg. 23)
In the eleventh century, the mother monastery of the Benedictine tradition, Monte Cassino, enjoyed a cultural revival, called "the most dramatic single event in the history of Latin scholarship in the eleventh century." In addition to its outpouring of artistic and intellectual endeavor, Monte Cassino renewed its interest in the texts of classical antiquity: "At one swoop a number of texts were recovered which might otherwise have been lost for ever; to this one monastery in this one period we owe the preservation of the later Annals and Histories of Tacitus ... the Golden Ass of Apuleius, the Dialogues of Seneca, Varro's De lingua latina, Frontinus' De aquis, and thirty-odd lines of Juvenal's sixth satire that are not to be found in any other manuscript." (pg. 42)
Although the extent of the practice varied over the centuries, monks were teachers. Saint John Chrysostom tells us that already in his day (c. 347-407) it was customary for people in Antioch to send their sons to be educated by the monks. (pg. 44)
Monks did more than simply preserve literacy. Even an unsympathetic scholar could write of monastic education: "They studied the songs of heathen poets and the writings of historians and philosophers. Monasteries and monastic schools blossomed forth, and each settlement became a center of religious life as well as of education." Another unsympathetic chronicler wrote of the monks, "They not only established the schools, and were the schoolmasters in them, but also laid the foundations for the universities They were the thinkers and philosphers of the day and shaped the political and religious thought. To them, both collectively and individually, was due the continuity of thought and civilization of the ancient world with the later Middle Ages and with the modern period." (pgs. 44-45)