The Dare of Beauty

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Over the centuries, many have claimed that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” (or something similar), but this formulation seems simplistic. If beauty exists only in the viewer, then it has no ability to bring people together, except haphazardly or by persuasion. But beauty does bring people together, and while it can’t always be explained, it has some principles and paragons.

I find the above picture beautiful: not only the only the shapes of the branches, not only the snow, not only the curves of the river against the line of the wall, but the adult pulling the child in a sled, an accident of timing, since a few seconds earlier they were hidden behind the tree to the right. There was also surprise here; before opening the curtains, I thought, “Today I’ll go out on a long bike ride.” Then, when I saw this scene, I reconsidered and took two photos instead.

A scene can change in seconds from humdrum to songworthy. When crossing the river recently, I saw, from a certain angle, a string of lights reflected in the water; when I took a few more steps over the bridge, these reflections disappeared from view. So I backtracked a little and found the reflections again.

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Beauty comes through at certain angles and times. That doesn’t make it transient; once you find beauty in something, you can find it again. Sometimes–for instance, in a favorite literary work or musical recording–you find it every time you return to it. But even then, it demands your alertness–maybe even more, the better you know it.

Alexander Nehamas writes in Only a Promise of Happiness (2007) that “beautiful things don’t stand aloof, but direct our attention and our desire to everything else we must learn or acquire in order to understand and possess, and they quicken the sense of life, giving it new shape and direction.” Some might take this to subordinate beauty to purpose–beauty is important because it gives shape to our lives–but I see it in reverse: beauty demands that I live up to the seeing. Being an audience member is no easy task; it does not stop when the performers take their last bow. I am responsible for everything I have seen.

Perceivers of beauty cannot be dismissed as naive dreamers or timid escapists; they know (sometimes painfully) what this perception requires of them. Whenever you find something beautiful–be it a film, place, or person–someone else is sure to deride it. How do you respond? Stubbornness will not do; if your defense is too brittle, it cracks. Capitulating is no better; you can’t let others dictate what you see, since there would then be no point in seeing at all. Instead, you must be able to hear others while holding your ground. In this way, the beauty draws you into counterpoint; you hear and see more than one thing at once (and more than you did before).

Someone looking at the picture above might say, “Yes, but look at those ugly apartment buildings.” Yes, the apartment buildings look drab (from the outside), but they seem to answer the trees. The same can be said for the picture below, in which people are gathering with sleds. The high-rise has added some lights of its own to the string.

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To honor those amazements, while also learning and changing: that is the dare of beauty. Not everyone will see beauty in everything, but our glimpses go beyond the personal. They add something to human capacity. There are poems, stories, plays, songs I remember not only for themselves, but for the way they were introduced to me. There are people I remember not just for their stories and jokes, not just for their kind or mixed deeds, but for the things they pointed out.

 

I made a minor change to this piece after posting it.

 

The “Old Verities” and the Lamentation Sprawl

In his prize acceptance speech at the Nobel Banquet in 1950, William Faulkner spoke of a pervasive fear that was taking hold of writers and reducing them to mediocrity: a fear of being blown up in nuclear war. Consumed by this, writers were forgetting “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself,” the only things worth writing about. He continued:

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

We live today not under the immediate threat of nuclear war, but under other threats: in particular, the threat of spiritual and intellectual sprawl. Our intentions, desires, efforts, loves, treasures have no special time and place; they get spread out throughout the day and night and year. Supposedly, the more we get done (no matter what the time), the better. It is as though there were no more seasons. It is common to answer a work-related email at 11 p.m., work through the weekends, and take vacation only sporadically. People even find satisfaction in this; if they make themselves available around the clock, they not only receive kudos but expect some kind of reciprocation. If they are available all the time, then so are others, or so it seems for a while.

In this sprawl of unending availability and accessibility, it’s difficult to make anything matter. Things get flattened because they’re “always there”—and when you look around, they seem to be nowhere. With respect to the classroom, there’s an adage that students don’t need to learn things because they can “always” look them up. Not only is this notion false—they need a store of working knowledge to make sense of texts and concepts—but it robs us of a sense of treasure. When I memorize a poem (or even the conjugation of a verb), I am taking time with it and giving it a place in my mind. I “produce” something—ultimately, the recitation of the poem, and a greater understanding of it—but I hold something as well.

Today we are caught up in production without treasuring and holding.

To stop treasuring things is to stop grieving them, to take up residence in a lamentation sprawl. You can’t grieve what you have never missed. This is why Faulkner says of the writer, “Until he [commits himself to the old verities], he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.”

What does it take to gather oneself up from this sprawl, in education and in life? How does one honor the “old verities”? This may take, among other things, a willingness to set certain activities and roles apart from others, certain times and seasons apart from others, certain works, certain people apart from others. Leon Wieseltier writes in Kaddish:

In Chicago: Kaddish on the road. A lovely little shul near the lake, with the separation of the women from the men cleverly accomplished by a row of plants. I say the kaddish and stroll along the silver shore. I am delighted to have done my duty. Tonight the fulfillment of my obligation does not oppress me. It refreshes me. It occurs to me that delinquency is such a waste of time: all those years spent extenuating, thinking, rethinking, apologizing, refusing to apologize, feeling guilt, hating the feeling of guilt. You can squander a lot of your soul not doing your duty.

“Doing your duty” is not the same as caving in to every demand that comes your way, or pursuing any particular work without pause. It is different from that; it involves refraining from work just as it involves working; it involves refraining from giving to others just as it involves giving. It involves giving dignity to things.

What does it mean to “do one’s duty” in education? It means to devote oneself, in a structured way, to things that matter—and having the courage to say that they matter. A curriculum should not just consist of “complex” texts; who cares how complex a text is, if it has no beauty or importance? No, a school should dare to teach what is beautiful and important, even if there is disagreement over the selections, and even if the selections change over time.

Beyond that, “doing one’s duty” involves a sense of humanity. In the classroom, we approach the “old verities” obliquely, through the subject matter—but we also encounter them directly, in subtle ways. It takes courage to show interest in a subject when others do not; it takes honor to make good judgments about the direction of a discussion. In all of these things we are fallible; that’s where compassion and pity come into play. The “old verities” surround and fill us all the time; we need only be alert to them.

The greatest threat to the “old verities” is a crass version of utilitarianism: an insistent focus on short-term results that can be assessed quickly by an outsider. Results are important (sometimes immensely so), but it matters what they are and what they mean. One must continually choose from an array of actions, each carrying possible results. These choices hold everything; in their absence, without a sense of conscience, soul, or something worth holding up, one ends up without choices, as they all seem more or less on a level, without height, texture, or abyss.

 

I made a few edits and revisions to this piece long after posting it.

Unthinking Beauty

After decades of “rethinking” beauty, the Team of Real-world Utilitarian Educators (TRUE) has made a unanimous decision to unthink it altogether, to demand that all schools implement the unthinking without delay, and to hold a national conference on the subject.

“Beauty is all economically based,” said TRUE president Lelijk Jones. “I’ve seen fifteen-year-olds who can paint better than Jackson Pollock. But Jackson Pollock’s the one who gets into the museums. It has nothing to do with quality; it’s all about money. I know some would disagree with me and say Jackson Pollock is a great artist. That just proves my point. There’s no agreement here.”

“Also, beauty doesn’t get us to where we want to go,” said Amy Strela, a hedge-fund manager, multimillionaire philanthropist, and founder of TRUE. “Looking good is one thing. Striving for beauty is another—it takes too much time. We need our children to set specific, attainable, measurable goals for themselves. Beauty’s a big hindrance. It isn’t always specific. It’s only sometimes attainable, and it sure isn’t measurable.”

“I agree,” said Elise Verloren, a high school sophomore who had quit the piano in order to devote more time to résumé-building. “I used to spend a few hours a day practicing and listening to music. Then they told me at school that I wasn’t doing enough for my leadership skills or for my community. I started working on those things, but then it was painful to go back to the piano. So I decided to focus on the real-world stuff.”

“Ms. Verloren brings up an authentic problem,” said social psychologist Doug Polezny. “There is a socially based tension between social and aesthetic life demands. It’s important to choose one or the other, because it’s… well, because it is. Since we live in a high-needs world, everyone should serve the social demands, at least for now. Schools should emphasize them in all the subjects.  School districts should advertise the new emphasis. Research has shown that targeted communication relieves people of mental conflicts and results in an increase of the desired behavior.”

Some TRUE dissidents (members who quit after the resolution passed) object that utility and beauty are not mutually exclusive. “I grow vegetables and flowers in my garden,” said one, “and I have no plans to get rid of either. My garden shears are good for both.”

“In an ideal world with gardens, you might be able to have it both ways,” conceded President Jones. “But we’ve only got twenty-four hours in a day, and beauty has a way of stealing an awful lot of those hours, if you let it.”

The “Unthinking Beauty” conference will contain no mention of beauty whatsoever. Instead, presenters will demonstrate strictly useful curricula, lessons, and workplace setups. “We must stress that just because something isn’t beautiful, doesn’t mean it isn’t pleasing to the eye,” said conference planner Tad Neznam. “We like things that you like. The point is not to stop liking things; it’s to stop loving them. You can still be comfortable in your environment. We even encourage it, for productivity’s sake. In fact, we’re all about improving the colors in workplaces and hitting the research-proven noise level.”

In a world without the B-word, according to the TRUE resolution, there’s much more time to get things done. “Just imagine how many hours are gained when you give up Mahler’s symphonies, not to mention Moby-Dick,” said Strela, who plans to donate ten million dollars for the construction of the first national beauty-free library. “Even a Shakespeare sonnet takes up time that could be spent on something else. We’re not talking page numbers. We’re talking time.”

“These people need to read Dostoevsky,” said Jeremiah Porfiry, an outspoken tenth-grader.

“No time for that, especially if there’s any you-know-what in his novels,” replied Strela.

Pre-registration for Unthinking Beauty is now open; the cost is $2,500 per registrant, regardless of age. Registrants receive access to the VIP Room, admission to twelve speed networking events and three seminars, and a reserved seat in the state-of-the-art auditorium.

Puttering, Responsibility, and Beauty

In a recent satirical piece, I described an imaginary movie called “Won’t Quiet Down” (a dark spoof on “Won’t Back Down”), in which two disaffected students launch a “student trigger”: namely, they talk nonstop in class until the school, weary of efforts to “engage” them, converts itself into a computer lab without teachers. This was not a commentary on my own students, though some of them do get chatty. Rather, it was a tongue-in-cheek look at the consequences of distractedness and disruption in schools and beyond. It was also a parody of propaganda films, so the message was intentionally crass. But it had a serious element.

Incessant talk runs into serious trouble. It can’t honor things, because there’s no “sacred space” for them (to quote someone with whom I spoke recently). There’s no sense of a time for quieting down and listening. Thus, there’s little room for taking anything serious in. Instead, people vie to be heard—but no one’s listening anyway, so no one gets heard. This is an exaggerated representation, of course, but it’s largely accurate.

The problem is not just that people talk, talk, and talk. (Nor is it a problem of extraverts versus introverts, as many who qualify as introverts have a great propensity for chatter.) It’s that there’s so much rush, so much overload of work and information, that people don’t even have a chance to ruminate, to sift through experiences, to read books for pleasure and interest, or to test out ideas. I have discussed this in my book and elsewhere; I see it as one of the primary problems of education.

Teachers and students have little time to think. They scamper from one thing to the next. During the week, I am on a gerbil wheel; I can think of little more than the things I have to get done for the next hour and next day. Over the weekend, I have hundreds of assignments and tests to correct. (I really mean hundreds, since I have about 260 students, whom I teach twice a week.) I love teaching philosophy; at its best, it’s illuminating. Listening to my students discuss the Book of Job, Pascal’s Wager, and Kant’s categorical imperative has given me hope. These kids are reading and pondering the texts and analyzing them keenly.

But what I don’t have, and what they probably don’t have, is time to putter around. (Today’s an exception. I am intentionally puttering today, since I need it badly. I don’t teach on Fridays, and last night I was at school until late for a glorious Hispanic cultural evening.)

Most of my good ideas come out of puttering. I love to mull over lesson planning: I read the text, think about it, think about different ways to present it and things to pull out of it, think about how my students might respond to it, and start to shape the lesson from there. I putter when coming up with ideas for writing and when revising existing pieces; they take various shapes in my mind, and I seize the one  that seems best. Puttering allows me to reread books, listen to music, memorize a poem, work on a math problem, and so forth; and each of these activities can expand into something more.

Of course, you can’t spend your whole life puttering. You must also be able to pull things together under pressure. I like deadlines and performances for that very reason. Sometimes they bring things out that would not have been brought out otherwise; at the very least, they can help you get things done.

But I long to take my time with things, including lesson planning. I consider this a staple, not a luxury. Yet our society seems to treat it as either a vice or an afterthought. As a culture we place more value on doing, doing, doing than on thinking; more value on certainty than on uncertainty; more value on saying something than on taking something in; and more value on results of any kind than on slow and soulful labors.

Throughout the school system, throughout the country, from what I have seen and heard, teachers strain under unreasonable workloads, as do students. Not only do teachers have large classes and many of them, but their “prep” time during the day comes to little, if anything. In urban districts, a quiet place to work is a rarity; teachers often share classrooms and may not even have a desk. As for students, they are in class every minute of the school day except for lunch. They stay after school for electives and sports. Then, when they get home, they have several hours of homework. Students with college aspirations must build resumes and portfolios; in many cases, they must show not only their academic ability and interest, but their ability to lead a club, initiate a project, and speak on video. On top of it all, they have many digital distractions.

I do not recommend eliminating homework or extracurriculars (or, for that matter, technology), but something has to give. How is it that in high school I took Latin, Greek, French, history, physics, math, and English (sometimes two English courses at once), practiced cello for two or three hours a day, sang in the school choruses, participated in sports, and still had time to take long walks, see friends, and write stories and poems? Part of it is that the school trusted us with free periods during the day, so our schedules were not packed. Some of our frenzy today comes from a perceived need to fill everyone’s schedule, to make everyone accountable for every moment.

If we want to relieve some of this pressure and live more sanely, we need to move from accountability (where you must give moment-to-moment account of your actions, on someone else’s terms) to responsibility (where you honor your conscience and duties, relying primarily on an internal guide). Accountability has its place, but as a way of life it will squeeze the best out of us and drive us to exhaustion. Responsibility is much more difficult to build and sustain, but it allows for tranquility, though it puts us to serious tests.

But building responsibility—in society as a whole—is a complicated matter. It involves strengthening one’s solitude and learning not to give in to every passing craving or demand. It also requires having something to live up to, something worth the responsibility, something beautiful to carry as though it were our own.

Note: On March 5, 2013, I deleted the original first paragraph, as it was about the blog, not about puttering.