The “crisis in the humanities,” whether unprecedented and dire or perpetual and overblown, plays out as a controversy over how long people like me will have a job, and whether we’ll be missed once we’re gone. But it also has subtler and more immediate effects on how we understand and talk about our own work on a daily basis, under the shadow of these dark predictions. This essay is not about the corporatization of the university or the terrible contingency of academic employment (covered from many angles here in Hybrid Pedagogy); rather, it’s about what gets left out of the conversation — or, worse, out of our teaching — when so many of us feel the roof over our heads is threatening to cave in. It’s about beauty.
Beauty is at the heart of the humanities: we spend time with our students gazing at slides of beautiful objects, helping them craft beautiful conclusions to their essays, deconstructing the influence of gender stereotypes and body politics upon notions of beauty, and analyzing philosophical theories of aesthetic judgment. The experience of a great class discussion feels, to me, much closer to beauty than to the mere satisfaction of time used well in the pursuit of learning outcomes. But to name it as such in our current climate feels odd, even dangerous.
In fact, there are many reasons for beauty to flee the scene. On the one hand, precarious terms of employment and the need to justify our disciplines point us academic worker bees towards describing our work in market-friendly terminology such as “effective” (with the occasional, and now obligatory, nod towards “innovative”) rather than using supposedly softer, vaguer concepts such as beauty. On the other hand, in the midst of the current and highly necessary explosion of attention to identity, language, and bias, talk of beauty can quickly be associated with injustices such as the well-documented bias towards people perceived as more physically attractive (in the parlance of our era, this is now called “beauty privilege”). The “war on beauty” in the academy actually began decades ago and in tandem with critiques of the canon — those works of art and literature, mainly written by white men, considered so timeless and incontestable in their beauty that they retained a near monopoly over the “great books” in most disciplines, even as the faces and backgrounds of the students encountering them changed dramatically.
In a set of lectures at Yale in 1998 — later collected into the book On Beauty and Being Just — Elaine Scarry, an English professor at Harvard, set out to prove that beauty could in fact be rescued from these incriminating associations. In her analysis, the self-aware perception of beauty (which is different from the problematic ways in which beauty circulates as a commodity) is not an unthinking act of bias but rather a complex process of discovery, error, and revision.
“To misstate, or even merely understate, the relation of the universities to beauty is one kind of error that can be made,” Scarry writes. And while her own book dwells more on literary works, paintings, and gardens than the classroom, there is no better place to make beauty of the kind she describes than in a classroom. Beauty isn’t just the window-dressing of academia, the leafy paths and grand architecture (whether stone-and-ivy or glass-and-steel) of our campuses. It is central to the endeavor, and, once brought into the light, a powerful organizing principle of teaching and learning:
Beauty is why we teach, and how we learn. I remember reading the philosopher Michel Foucault for the first time, and finding his ideas so challenging and compelling — so beautiful, really, in their explanatory power — that I could not help but think of them as I sat in classrooms, navigated the dining hall, or exercised in the university gym. After Foucault, my world was teeming with micro-practices of surveillance and normalization, meaning that my own perceptual processes had been altered to include micro-practices of surveilling the surveillance all around me.
As educators, we choose the discipline, topics, and texts we teach based not only on our interests, but also on the beauty we see in them. We teach at our best not when we conceive of ourselves as lecturers delivering content, but when we invite our students to explore with us the internal logic, complexity, and beauty of the subject matter we teach, whether it’s organic chemistry or the contemporary Japanese novel. Scarry writes that the fundamental reaction people have to beauty is to seek to replicate it. I could not help but do it when Foucault was prompting me to re-map my world, and none of us can help but do it when we are teaching what we love. To want students to read something and then think differently about the world is to want them to find beauty in a text and replicate it at moments when they are not reading the text. (Insert “conduct an experiment,” “have a conversation,” “perform a monologue,” or any other pedagogical technique in the place of “read something” in that sentence, and the same holds true.)
In a course about children’s rights that I am currently teaching, I had my students read Ivan Illich’s classic critique of compulsory schooling, Deschooling Society. We then made two visits to a local democratic school, Philly Free School, where we saw a learning environment with no curriculum or classes, no rule by adult teachers or administrators over students. As I write this, my students are at work on an assignment responding to the question “What should a school be like, and why?” — a prompt I have encouraged them to answer by drawing up blueprints for a school and explaining what happens in each room, creating a website for a fictional school, or even writing a letter to our college’s president outlining a vision for our institution’s future. In this triad of activities — reading Illich, seeing some of his ideas reflected in the space of Philly Free School, and finding their own setting (real or imagined) in which to articulate what it all means to them — the students are reenacting the model of encounter, recognition, and replication that Scarry finds in our most life-changing (and, in her words, “lifesaving”) experiences of beauty.
Beauty is critical. “Beauty has a built-in liability to self-correction and self-adjustment,” Scarry argues, pointing out that when we are wrong about beauty, and then realize our error, we experience it as both memorable and profoundly disconcerting. The lecture classes I often attended as an undergraduate at a large research university, though rarely models of great pedagogy, worked best when they produced this kind of crisis in my classmates and me. Watching art historian Vincent Scully weep underneath a projected slide of a Frank Lloyd Wright building, hearing Russian literature scholar Vladimir Alexandrov uncover the life-and-death stakes embedded in what seemed like the most boring sections of Tolstoy’s War and Peace: these were experiences of wonder and productive shame. They left those of us in the audience with the sense that we were walking around missing things. Beauty wasn’t just going to deliver itself to us — it demanded that we think, feel, and find our way towards it.
To the extent that we are all looking to cultivate critical faculties in our students, is it possible that beauty, which Scarry shows can “bring…us into contact with our own capacity for making errors,” is a better tool than the poor grade that students “earn” for errors in understanding? I offer students unlimited opportunities to revise their papers for me — and the chance to replace their old grade with a new one every time they do so — in order to stress that recognizing our errors and “self-adjusting” them is more important than rewarding quick understanding and penalizing slower understanding.
Beauty is integrative. There is a scene in Hayao Miyazaki’s animated masterpiece Spirited Away in which the film’s protagonist, a girl named Chihiro, boards a train with rails that run just under the surface of the ocean. Chihiro and her companions share the interior of a train car with shadowy, semi-transparent travelers who say nothing as they slowly gather their bags and disembark. For a long time, I had nothing to say about the scene except that it was lonely and beautiful, and felt like a slow punch in the gut. Years later, after a lot of time and reading — including from sources that had nothing obvious to do with an animated film — I eventually came to see the train scene as of a piece with other things Miyazaki was saying in Spirited Away about alienation, labor, and the worlds of consumerism. But the punched-in-the-gut feeling was the unavoidable first step in this integrated understanding, and the reason I felt the need to return to that scene over and over, and from multiple angles.
As the American Association of Colleges & Universities states, “There is a growing national emphasis on fostering undergraduate students’ integrative learning through multiple forms of engaged educational experiences.” In practice, this means faculty are being encouraged to provoke those moments where, for example, a student realizes that the tensions between republicanism and popular democracy, introduced to him in an American Politics class, actually provide a lens for his sociology research into online communities for gay youth. It used to simply be assumed this kind of thinking was taking place, in coffee shops and late-night dorm conversations between students. But according to the current thinking, integration needs to be taught, or at least intentionally prompted.
Connections, even quite sophisticated ones, are made through the senses and emotions, especially when they are activated by beauty. Whether in pocket notebooks or Instagram feeds, we can now pick and choose from various forums where we create integrative streams of images and reflective text, poetry and political argumentation. It thus seems strange that so many integrated learning schemes present themselves as portfolios collecting only those acts of writing already marked off as an “assignment,” walling off intellectual production and ignoring the connective power of the sensory, the sublime.
In an article about teaching middle school English under the Common Core, Claire Needell Hollander writes, “The basis for higher-level learning — for philosophy, psychology, literature, even political science — is the emotions and impulses people feel every day. If we leave them out of the picture, reading is bled of much of its purpose.” This is even more true about integrative learning: for students to do the cognitive work of linking the scientific concepts they encounter in biology to international relations or to a musical idea, they must have some emotional investment: some tie of feeling that binds their experiences. What if, instead of the dry “reflections” they are sometimes asked to write to accompany their electronic portfolios, students were asked to reflect on moments in their learning — or their college experience more broadly — when they felt that punch in the gut of the sublime (or when they felt angry or hopeful, ashamed or dignified)? In a Beauty Portfolio, a Revelation Portfolio, or a Portfolio of Loss, how might a student come to organize, connect, and even gain some critical perspective on her college experience? Perhaps giving students the space for this kind of integration would even prove superior than demanding that they spend the final days of every semester cramming content into their heads to spit back out on an exam, or rushing to complete research papers that they will deliver into a professor’s inbox and never hear about, or engage with meaningfully, again.
Beauty demands attention to particularity, context, and diversity. Scarry’s own epiphany about beauty came when she realized, after a lifetime of thinking that palm trees were ugly, that she’d been wrong. The ugly palm tree in her head “was a composite palm that I had somehow succeeded in making without ever having seen, close up, many particular instances.” This example is an instance not just of the critical thinking that can occur when we are wrong about beauty, as described above, but also of a particular type of error that beauty must confront if it is to be aligned with justice rather than injustice. The making of a composite out of fragments of information — filling in the gaps of our ignorance with our own projections — is, of course, the essence of stereotyping.
It is all the more significant, then, that it was a single, specific palm that showed Scarry she had been wrong about palm trees: “When I now say, ‘Palms are beautiful,’ or ‘I love palms,’ it is really individual palms I have in mind.” Likewise, when we want people to expand the horizons of their empathy — to see new forms of identity and experience as real, complex, and beautiful — the sharing of composite narratives or “big data” seems to fall short. In fact, sometimes statistics, for example about black Americans’ experiences in the criminal justice system, can actually be funneled back into previously held beliefs; our brains are amazing machines for the reconfiguration of new facts into preexisting narratives.
By contrast, a student who finds specificity and beauty in the Quiché language of the Maya may wind up, over the long term, more attuned to their struggles for justice in Guatemala than the student who is told of their oppression in a monolithic narrative — or worse, subjected to photographs of Maya children, deprived of the particularity that makes them beautiful and transformed into another anonymous example of the “poor child who needs your help” that still plague the visual landscape of humanitarianism.
The further I get into the writing process with students, the clearer it becomes that the best and most beautiful version of one student’s paper is not the same as the best and most beautiful version of her classmates’ papers — that the beauty to be found there is a complex dance between my assignment and the student’s own emergent voice. When a student really “gets it” — by which I mean not simply that she grasped the course content, but that she found a way to make it her own in writing or in speech (to replicate it on her own terms) — that moment is marked not merely by the satisfaction of an expectation fulfilled. It’s beautiful. It is as if something present but not yet visible in the early versions of the essay has now emerged, full of colors and moving wings — ready to go out into the world. Scarry spends a portion of her book exploring the connection between beauty and greeting; but as a teacher, I often experience the beauty of my students’ writing as a fond farewell.
Lately, after class, I’ve taken to gazing at the chalkboard for a minute before I erase it. The scribblings I see are messy, incomplete. They are the product of many minds working independently, bumping into one another briefly, and then departing again—making something that seems only to exist for a moment, though in reality we will each be replicating and reenacting it in different ways during the next hour, or a decade from now. “When you make an error in beauty,” Scarry writes, “It should set off small alarms and warning lights.” Not to recognize the centrality of beauty to classroom teaching, and then seek to make it happen over and over again, is to let all the shouting about a crisis drown out the sound of that small alarm.