What Really Matters: The Curriculum of Beauty
by Joyce Reed and David H. Albert
David: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever:” wrote the poet John Keats:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Not to belabor the obvious, school is ugly. There is just no way of getting around it.
It’s not just the exteriors, though there is that, too. Steel, gun-metal-gray doors with little, wire-reinforced windows, just a little too high for little people to peer out, but well-positioned for those looking in; concrete-slab sides with long rows of cheap aluminum-frame windows, (they’re frosted in Hawaii), or austere brick-sided windows with black iron grates over the openings, whether to prevent breaking-and-entering or breaking-and-leaving left entirely unclear. Yes, there is the upscale neighborhood school in northern San Diego (LaJolla?) covered in purple bougainvillea, or the suburban school in Scarsdale placed inside its park-like setting, but even here, the inherent ugliness becomes evident through the contrast between the stark “there-ness” of the building and the hints at the riotousness of nature trimmed back to what are perceived to be permissible limits. (“Just cutting back the growth,” said the female maintenance worker who couldn’t afford to live within 40 miles of the place, with words teen-pregnant with meaning.)
Insides are similar, too. Oh, occasionally, the architect hired for the job was allowed to make his mark with an occasional skylight, or a wood-paneled atrium (don’t look for these in East L.A.), or a curved hallway, later deemed unsafe because the hall monitors can’t see from one end to the other. (There are now mirrors mounted that allow the monitors to see around curves.) A teacher often attempts to dress up the place with children’s art (sometimes allowed to stay up too long, becoming a source of embarrassment rather than pride – I can recall that happening to me.) But the “interrogation” rooms are all laid out in rectangles, with tile floors like hospitals. Miniature chairs and desks of a type and size never seen anywhere else in the world are arrayed, eyes front, with purposes as yet to be guessed at by their occupants.
(An aside: Lest you think the chairs are a minor issue, it is worth remembering that Roman educators had a rule that one should never teach either any longer or in any way that a student couldn’t learn what you were trying to get across while standing up. And if today you go to the magnificent Coddrington Library at All Soul’s College at Oxford University (this is the place that houses the elite of the elite, so elite that they have no students, only fellows), you’ll quickly notice that there are lecterns positioned around the library, but absolutely no tables, and no chairs.)
One is tempted to believe that school is ugly because the architects and builders couldn’t get it together, or the school board doesn’t care, or they really aren’t that ugly after all. I’m willing to admit of the possibility, though I would note that the basic design of the today’s school was perfected in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and is no accident. William Torrey Harris, U.S. Commissioner of Education from 1889 to 1906, and probably the individual single-most responsible for the standardization of American education as we know it today, saw the links between poor school environments (bad air and all) and the ‘rightful’ purposes of education some hundred years ago. In The Philosophy of Education, published in 1906, Harris wrote, “The great purpose of school can be realized better in dark, airless, ugly places.... It is to master the physical self, to transcend the beauty of nature. School should develop the power to withdraw from the external world.” We could simply say “ugly with a purpose”, that which links the outer and inner gruesomeness, and we wouldn’t be too far off.
There have been changes since I was in school, aesthetically ugly or not. Back in the dark ages at Public School Number 131 ¾ in New York, during the school day, and both before and after, much of my educational institution’s confines, as well as the inmates (whoops! students – sorry for the slip), were regulated by the 5th and 6th graders ourselves. We were crossing monitors, schoolyard monitors, line monitors (for entrance to and gathering in the school gymnasium), stairway monitors and hall monitors, each of us with our badges as patrolees (silver), sergeants (green), lieutenants (red), and captains (blue), providing surveillance of our charges as some kind of cross between spies and capos. Now, a combination of teachers, paraprofessionals, metal detectors, and surveillance cameras have taken up the task.
Relating this to teacher friends of mine, they make clear that trust has eroded since then. In one “good” elementary school, it was reported to me, to exercise their natural functions, instead of clutching hall passes, children are required to wear big green visors on their heads with the word BATHROOM in capital letters emblazoned across the front. Naturally, some kids will no longer use the bathroom even when they need to, which must do wonders for their ability to learn, perhaps replacing one form of retention with another. And the latest in classroom management strategy apparently now has the teacher’s desk sitting behind the students, whereby, as if the surveillance cameras weren’t enough, the teacher can see all without being seen herself. No longer can little Susie attempt to hide in the closet, Mikey throw a spitball, or, heaven forbid! Kenny actually read a book while Mrs. Gorsenberry’s back is turned.
The strategy is reminiscent of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, a new-fangled penal institution of the late 18th Century (several were actually built in the U.S.), whereby inmates were isolated from one another, but subject to constant scrutiny by an observer who could remain unseen. The Panopticon, this “seeing-without-being-seen”, represents the essence of power, according to the French philosopher Michael Foucault, for, ultimately, the power to dominate – both globally and individually – rests, he states, on the differential possession of knowledge. So much for free inquiry – watch for a ban on handheld mirrors coming to your neighborhood school soon. The sixty-four thousand dollar question (adjusted for inflation) is, whether unquestioned childhood acquiescence to constant surveillance, while seemingly innocuous, is a telling prelude to a life of servility and subservience, to an existence where one’s freedom can be liberally trampled upon? Since I do not wish to be accused of conspiracy theories, let me just ask the question and leave the answers to you.
Now the surveillance is directed at the teachers as well, and they are not very happy campers. The new “scripted curricula”, such as those being utilized in Chicago Public Schools, have teachers reading instructions to children, at preset times of the day, in all schools, for the identical subject matter for that particular grade. An administrator can know precisely what is happening in every classroom in the program at any time on any particular day, and deviation from the script can be severely punished. Teachers’ understanding of, and response to, any particular child’s learning needs are considered irrelevant or, worse, as taking away from the application of the ‘education technology’.
School is ugly because it is, at bottom, an industrial process. It can be gussied up and prettified in various ways, of course, but basically the tool and die are used to stamp and shape the raw material as it makes its way down the conveyor belt, with the imperfect or miscast ingots kicked off the line to be reprocessed again (in ways eerily reminiscent of the button molder in Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt), or simply discarded as so much waste. When there is too much waste, there is need for greater calibration of the machine, each moving part tested and retested, honed so that the lathes can cut to finer and finer tolerances.
Modern schools and industrial processes grew to maturity together, alongside great military establishments, colonial and imperialist enterprises, penal institutions, and…Wal-Mart. If you desire to understand the vernacular of schools and the culture of schools, you don’t really have to look much further. They all speak the language of domination and control, of extraction of resources, the shaping of raw materials, standardization and process, inputs and outputs, and the protection of God, the destiny of the nation, and the pursuit of profit. They work, too! If the ugliness of school makes you feel uncomfortable, or even talking about it makes you feel uncomfortable, it is because it should.
There are beautiful things in school. Children, of course, and in many cases, teachers as well. Almost none of the latter are in it for the money, but because -- at least initially -- they loved children, or so they believed. The saddest truth I know about the ugliness of school is how, over time, in the process of socialization, beautiful children and beautiful teachers often begin to take on the character of the institution itself. More on that later.
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‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,--that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’
-- John Keats, from Ode on a Grecian Urn
My older daughter Aliyah is a second-year student at Smith College in Massachusetts. She recently returned from South India, documenting our efforts at building houses with flood and tsunami victims, work that began last December/January. (You can read about our work at shantinik.blogspot.com). She would seem to be in training to be a Renaissance male. Her studies have consisted of: Music theory and composition; intensive Italian; medieval philosophy; Renaissance and Baroque vocal and chamber music; Dante; logic; and, of course, that without which no Renaissance male could possibly feel complete, fencing. Beautiful things. If anyone knows of any job openings, please let us know. Honestly, we are not really worried on that score – some of the best minds in the country are working on time travel; and the lack of Y chromosomes is just one of those nasty little details yet to be worked out, and I doubt will prove disabling.
Anyhow, Aliyah shared with me that in her medieval philosophy class, they began the semester by reading Plotinus. Plotinus was an Egyptian, living in Rome in the Third Century, writing in Greek. He is very important in the history of thought because he provides the bridge between the philosophical worlds of medieval Christian Europe and the Muslim Arabic world, where for many centuries, his work was thought to have been written by Aristotle. What I was reminded of (from way back in my college days) was how Plotinus thought of the knowledge quest (to understand Truth, or “The Principle”, as he called it) as, among other things, an aesthetic one, a quest to understand the nature of beauty in the process of becoming so oneself. He writes:
“Beauty addresses itself chiefly to sight; but there is a beauty for the hearing, too, as in certain combinations of words and in all kinds of music, for melodies and cadences are beautiful; and minds that lift themselves above the realm of sense to a higher order are aware of beauty in the conduct of life, in actions, in character, in the pursuits of the intellect; and there is the beauty of the virtues.”
The ancient neo-Platonist philosophers – Christian and Muslim alike – believed that things were beautiful to the degree that they conformed to some unseen ideal or “form”, whether it be the shape of an object or the pattern of a life, or as Plotinus wrote so beautifully, “Harmonies unheard in sound create the harmonies we hear, and wake the soul to the consciousness of beauty.”
The philosophers – ancient, yes, and many of the more modern ones, too -- seem to agree that for the soul to be awakened to beauty, there must already be imbedded in the soul that which can be awakened. The contrary is true as well. A soul constantly confronted with ugliness is, to quote Plotinus again, only because his words are so magnificent, “trafficked away for an alien nature…If a man has been immersed in filth or daubed with mud, his native comeliness disappears and all that is seen is the foul stuff besmearing him.” But when the soul sees anything of which it is truly kin, it thrills with an immediate delight, and is stirred to a sense of its own true nature. Above all else, beauty embodies within itself a yearning, just as knowledge represents an inner metamorphosis.
So what if we were to set about as our task, as parents and as educators, as acquainting our children with the beautiful without, and the cultivation of the beautiful, the yearning, within? How might we go about our homeschooling lives differently if we were to conceive of what we are doing as primarily an aesthetic task?
Our children do need some basic skills to get along in the world. Understanding and filling out a job application, adding up the grocery bill, and doing the laundry would likely rank high on anyone’s list. Though I am sure the kids need to learn all three, I have grave doubts as to whether, other than the last, they actually need to be taught them. That could be the subject of another essay, or several. But what if, even in the context of skill-building, we saw ourselves actively attending to that yearning within? The possibilities are virtually endless.
First, perhaps, we can relearn with them to see beauty in the creations of the human mind. No, I don’t mean art and music, or at least not yet, but what would, on the face of it, seem more mundane, such as mathematics. There is that beautiful space where children as young as three, four, five, or six come to realize that numeric depictions -- little squiggles etched on flat surfaces -- can stand for sounds (virtually all of your kids learned to read them without, and prior to, phonics); signs (Room #12 might not have anything “twelve” about it, and it might just as well have been called “Room Gladiolus”); a series in time or in space (as in the first, second, and third day of Christmas, or the six days of Biblical creation, or the six serial but not parallel wives of Henry VIII); relationships theoretical (two is half of four) or practical (half a candy bar is not as desirable as the whole thing), the names of quantities (as in two sisters or five cousins), or in combining or unpacking groups in the arithmetic operations – addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.
Often, the early confusion children experience in mathematics is not about the arithmetic at all, but in coming to terms with knowing which domain of signifiers the little squiggles are representing. How often I remember classmates of mine who could compute baseball players’ batting averages in their heads to the thousandths of a point, but seemed totally stymied by the long division problem on the printed page.
If one survives the basic computational stages, there is even greater beauty to be found in the higher order of things, the conception of the number zero, the invention of base 10, and the design of geometric solids, the elegance of proofs, the mystery of the Fibonacci sequence. My experience has shown me that if I can help my children appreciate the beauty to be found as they continue the travel excursion of the mind, the computational difficulties which plague them from time to time eventually simply disappear, virtually without resort to any of those workbook pages whatsoever.
The process of science is one of those beautiful creations, though it is sometimes easy to miss. Yes, there is a kind of beauty in the explosion that results from shaking up the vinegar and baking soda, in observing the butterfly garden, or, for some, in dissecting a frog or sheep’s brain, though I must admit this last never did much for me. There is beauty in the very multiplicity of the natural world in all its glory, and learning the simple ecology of its parts – one can think of it as nature’s symmetry – and how one fits into it.
But at the core of science is its childish character. There is observation and, especially, the attempt to understand phenomena with new eyes. And there is wonderment, as many scientists have noted, a holdover from childhood, which provides the prime impetus for the scientific quest. Most of all, however, the scientific method itself is a celebration of errors, a religion of learning from one’s mistakes. Without error, sometimes hard won, there is no progress in science. The beauty of science lies not in the amalgamation of facts or in attachment to them (to be regurgitated on demand on bubble tests, a tried-and-true method for destroying scientific creativity), but in the playing of hunches in constructing hypotheses, and in the sometimes frustrating, sometimes rollicking, game of trial and error.
Einstein once said that more than 90% of the physics a person ever learns, he learns before the age of three. I like to think of this experience of learning as the beautiful scientific symphony of the sandbox.
There is the beauty of the arts, or rather, one might want to say, two kinds of beauty, that inhering in the processes of creation and that of the creations themselves. The key here is to ensure that our children have the experience of both before them. Many children decide they want to learn music or dance (or sculpture or painting) because they have heard beautiful music or seen beautiful works of art. A problem I have often witnessed in practice, however, is that once children begin what is often the long and slow process of acquiring musical or artistic skills, not enough attention is paid to continuing their exposure to the best of the domain. After all, that is where they hope they are headed! Lessons may be important, yes, though remember that it is not all that common that children will continue this experience on into adulthood, and the number who seek to do so as a profession is a tiny fraction indeed. So the experience of beauty, and the knowledge that it requires times, energy, and effort to produce it is what is important. If there are music lessons, ask the teacher to end each lesson with her playing something that is beautiful. Go to concerts; purchase compact disks. I even think it is a good idea to have your child choose a piece of music that is well above her level of playing, and just have it around the house. If your child is a budding visual artist, bring art books home from the library, and read them together, and visit not only museums, but galleries, where the living traditions are alive in the marketplace.
When I was growing up, however, the imbalance for me went in the opposite direction. I was taken to many museums, but I had no clue how the paintings and sculptures were fashioned – how the pigments were applied, colors produced, perspective created, stone worked. There was nothing human about them; they might just as well have been artifacts from Mars. The same was pretty much true for music as well. As those who are familiar with me either personally or through my writing will testify, I have spent much of our homeschooling days correcting this oversight for myself, and I can assure you that it takes a courage and a fortitude that I might have had greater capacity for when I was younger. (I might have proved more adept as well, but that’s beside the point.)
There is beauty to be found in human relationships. It starts with the beauty of families, of each individual playing an utterly unique role in that whole which should always be greater than the sum of its parts. As a subgroup within the entire society, this is something at which homeschoolers should be particularly adept. Or at least we try.
If you are not spending as much time thinking about ways to help your children develop these beautiful relationships as you are about their reading, chances are you may be robbing them of one of the great gifts of homeschooling. Take this as an invitation to enlarge your home (and your heart), not simply by adding rooms, but adding people to inhabit it.
Finally, there is moral and ethical beauty. Only so much can be done by lecture, even aided by our churches, mosques, synagogues, and meeting houses. The beauty of the virtues is best realized through the experience of those who personify them. Seek out not only opportunities for service in your community or your world, but contact for your children with those who work, in their own ways, big or small, for peace, justice, and equity, often at risk to themselves or in sacrifice of their own creature comfort. You can find them in books – 10- and 11-year-olds often love books about those who will break beyond the social norms of their society and culture in striving for a greater good. But such people are frequently to be found in your community as well, if you keep your eyes out for them. Invite for dinner the person from your church who leaves a comfortable job to work among AIDS victims in Africa. Meet up with the people who organize the Muslim-Christian (or Muslim-Jewish) dialogue group in your town. Befriend those who are striving to sustain native cultural heritages. Seek out the “giraffes”, those willing to stick out their necks for the public good, and make sure your kids learn to seek them out as well, and learn to appreciate the beauty of risk-taking and sacrifice. And who knows where it might lead?
This is the curriculum of beauty: beauty in the creations of the human mind and the pursuits of the intellect; in science and the natural world; in the world of the arts; in human relationships; in the conduct of life and ethical values and actions. These are what add dimensionality to our lives. If our children become acquainted with the forms of beauty, they will learn to freely quest after them, because they conform to an inner yearning, or as Plotinus would say, “the soul seeking after itself”, so that they may find the beauty that is within, and enshrine it in that temple, which they are in themselves, for all to see.
One last thing must be said about the curriculum of beauty. Unlike the ugliness of school, it can know no coercion. Whether you witness the great works of art or listen to music, or examine the processes of science, or look to the beauty of relationships, or of character or of virtue, you quickly come to recognize that there is no beauty that is not born in, and does not embody, the spirit of freedom, and the expectation of it.
And what’s in it for you? Simply the recognition that the great teachers have always had, to quote the inaugural address of Ruth Simmons on assuming the presidency of Brown University, “Nothing is so beautiful, nothing so moving, as the observance of a mind at work.”
We shall not cease from exploration
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So now, because of your ‘Curriculum of Beauty,’ I have a confession to make. I have always told my children and my students, and even written in homeschooling articles, that I personally had loved my school experience! But reading your words prompted me to reflect about why and how I had loved school . . . and frankly you forced me to realize (to my shock) that I hadn’t. I didn’t love school; I loved learning. I was just another school survivor, albeit very ‘successful’ in terms of grades and honors (my ‘self-defense’ mechanism), who fled the clanging steel-reinforced doors each day gasping for air and nutrition. These I found in the dusky library next door, or in the stacks of borrowed books piled on my desk or by the bedside in my comfortable bedroom. That green room housed my pride and joy . . . my father’s walnut desk which flipped open to reveal cubbyholes that I neatly filled with my own poetry . . . and (blessings) then locked it with a key!
For me, solace lay in escaping the dark brick walls and that peculiar school smell of William Hall High School in West Hartford, Connecticut – yes, still almost 50 years later this old edifice is considered to house one of the best high schools in the nation. The smell, the dim halls (always slightly threatening) confined my lungs and gave me my first taste of asthma and the fear of being unable to breathe. Almost daily and as often as possible, I ran away to the library to sink down on the floor in the stacks, smelling the books, finding my dearest friends there, waiting for me -- Sophocles and Sappho, T.S. Eliot, and Bucky Fuller. As clearly as I know my present room, I remember the sweet, dusty smell of the old books, the sound of my shoes in the stacks (which I tried to stifle), and the crisp new feel of each month’s edition of Poetry magazine which seemed to be there just for me -- no one else seemed to crease the cover. Truly, young people find their friend and compatriots without regard to age grades!
So I have to comment that you chose to end your “The Curriculum of Beauty” with my favorite four lines of poetry -- I mean my FAVORITE -- ever since I heard T. S. Eliot read them aloud in his dry, scratchy voice back in the late 1950s, in a hall at Brown University. In spite of all the barrenness that Eliot saw in the late ‘30s and through World War II, he affirmed the hope that we would at some point arrive where we could ‘know the place for the first time’.
Wait a minute now! isn’t this what we are all yearning for? Surely this was my constant longing throughout my teen years when I felt distinctly as though I had ended up on the wrong planet, that I must have gotten off the elevator on the wrong floor, that this messy place/business/life COULDN’T be where I belonged! Now I recognize that many young people (indeed, perhaps most) have this same sense of horrible disconnect with life as they are required to live it during those daunting, dislocated years.
Yet somehow they/we survive. Somehow in spite and not because of these institutions of “learning”, our culture produces (some) creative individuals willing to undertake responsibility for discovering and developing a ‘self’ and for the consequent need to acknowledge and respect the ‘other’, whomever that may be. What a miracle a fresh person is! How many are wasted!!
Doesn’t Plotinus’ “Principle” still hold sway? I think so. I have worked with young people ages 15-25 all of my life, and the percentage of them who have expressed to me an intense yearning to discover the depth and passion and purpose of life is extremely high.
When I think back to some of my most exquisitely and indeed sensually satisfying moments, they are those rare but powerful, really really BIG experiences when thought went so deep that I could literally feel the synapses firing off in my brain. For me, that was ecstasy. It defined being alive. After reading and rereading your article, David, I have to admit to myself that I have no recollection of one of those major ‘synapse explosions’ happening in a classroom . . . not even at Brown. It was in that old library, or sitting up late in bed reading in an utterly quiet room, when those synapses fired off. And that experience is what I loved, and which motivated me to graduate first in my class in order to earn the scholarships to allow me to continue my secret rites of relationships in a university library. This was a heavy realization for me, David. You forced me back into William Hall High, back even to my elementary school in Toronto Canada, back into the lines, the suspicions, the jostling, and the oh-so-rare moment of inspiration or compassion from a teacher! My joy in learning had nothing to do with those schools, and everything to do with my ‘secret life’ outside their walls. This was a profoundly important personal realization for me, David, and I am grateful to you for prodding and prompting it.
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