When you find out you are expecting your first baby—before you tell anyone else—the Internet already knows. It also assumes that you will be making space in your home to facilitate the presence of this new life, thus commencing a bombardment of advertisements for all manner of materialistic goods that pretend to assure you: all you need to be an excellent parent is a clear commitment to a nursery theme.
There is a part of me that despises nursery themes. This is simply because I believe it is very hard to engage this visual enterprise in a manner that results in a product that is actually good. But when I thought about how I wanted to approach the organization of my son’s room, I realized I wanted to surround him with artifacts of beauty—things that might form his sensibilities from his earliest days.
Even as this desire motivated my organizing and purchasing decisions, I received much (often good) advice from other experienced parents. Whether they said, “All you need is a bunch of diapers” or “He really only needs you and a blanket,” I felt a real and pervasive tension: on the one hand, keeping a baby alive doesn’t require much in the way of material accoutrement. Yet, this minimalist approach—rooted in the pragmatic prioritization of function—left me longing for something more.
Aside from the fact that it can be overwhelming to receive differing advice from everyone and their cousin regarding how to bring up a new baby, I’m glad for these comments. They reveal a crucial set of assumptions about what one regards as necessary for human living. In the estimation of many, it is those things that facilitate an infant’s being clean, fed, and put to sleep that are essential. As mere “ornaments,” however, the appearance (and even existence) of beautiful accessories is secondary, and therefore not required.
A similar tension regarding what is necessary pervades conversations in higher education today. Faced with dropping enrollments, chronic budget deficits, and an increasing number of students who want to graduate in fewer than four years, administrations are encouraging their faculty committees to assess curricula and remove anything not absolutely essential for the success of their programs (success defined here by sufficient enrollment). Depending on the situation, these decisions instigate the end of anything ranging from a single course to an entire department (e.g., West Virginia University). Our colleges and universities are becoming increasingly minimalistic, but I’m not sure that we’re always keeping the right things. Furthermore, our conception of what is necessary is shaping more than just our courses or the future of higher education; it is affecting our individual students in detrimental ways.
A few weeks ago, I asked a group of college freshman to describe their understanding of the purpose of education. (These students are training to become educators.) The main response I received was: “a piece of paper.” This answer arrested my attention as I realized they were entirely serious—there was no sarcasm. After I pressed further, they also voiced a general notion that critical thinking is ostensibly helpful.
Given the amount of time I (and many others) spend meditating on how we might best engage a species of teaching and learning that is animated by our pursuit of Christ, this exchange persuades me that there is still much work to be done.
It is easy to be dismayed in response to the students who sit in our classes, looking utterly detached, accompanied by seemingly little curiosity about the enterprise of learning we are endeavoring to put before them. I wonder, though, if it is likely that we are more responsible than we realize for our students’ belief that education is about fulfilling what is required to receive a paper certificate so they can leave college as soon as possible to secure future employment. Have we made the mistake of thinking that what they most need is to be practically prepared for a life of work, in much the same way we assume our youngest children need only to be fed, clothed, and provided the opportunity to sleep (emphasis on opportunity)?
It is here that I would like to propose a suggestion: could it be that a new attentiveness to the reality of beauty would reinvigorate our understanding of the nature and end of education, reorienting our conception of what is necessary, and infusing our classrooms with the wonder we have inadvertently banished in our zeal to meet minimum requirements?
This consideration is attended by some measure of difficulty, in great part because beauty and necessity have been placed opposite one another in a variety of contexts—both secular and religious. In the world of lifestyle and design, one is periodically faced with a push toward minimalism. Consider the force with which Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up has arrested the attention of many over the last decade. The reprioritization of space is motivated by the belief that if you get rid of what is “extra” (especially material goods), you will be increasingly able to incorporate that which is more meaningful into your life.
Beauty is also deprioritized in some Christian circles, where money is regarded with both fear and idolatry and where invisible virtues are elevated over visible, material goods. Scripture passages such as, “Store not your treasures on earth”1 or “Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry…but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart”2 are interpreted to mean that spiritual simplicity leaves no room for ornamentation.
One is also presented with an ethical dilemma: is it right to spend money on something that is merely beautiful (read: “extra”) when there are people everywhere in the world who are struggling to obtain food and other real necessities? This is famously captured in Judas’s response to Mary, after she poured out the entirety of her perfume on the feet of Jesus, when he exclaimed, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?”3
While the virtues of simplicity and compassion for the poor prioritized in these contexts are certainly vital, I wonder why vehicles for beauty are regularly positioned in opposition to them and treated as though they ought to be done away with, for the sake of their preservation. Why is food considered by all to be necessary for physical sustenance, but the flowers that might adorn one’s dining table are relegated to the domain of that which is optional? Have we similarly regarded beauty as extra, ornamental, not absolutely necessary for human flourishing? Or are we willing to reexamine our conception of necessity, striving to place our students in the path of beauty?4 Are we teaching them to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord?5
Even as I offer these questions for consideration, it is also worth noting that for some, the difficulty lies not in a proclivity to regard beauty as unnecessary. Rather, it is just as harmful to be too easily consoled by the taste of beauty, which—when encountered in the life of learning—is so beguiling, it is treated as a final good. But, in Lewis’s reassuring words, “If we thought that for some souls, and at some times, the life of learning, humbly offered to God, was, in its own small way, one of the appointed approaches to the Divine reality and the Divine beauty which we hope to enjoy hereafter, we can think so still.”6
- Matthew 6:19-21, English Standard Version.
- 1 Peter 3:3–4, English Standard Version.
- John 12:5, English Standard Version. (It should be noted that, while Judas’s statement highlights the ethical tension, the next verse clarifies that his concern was feigned, as he was interested only in his own benefit.)
- Described by Elaine Scarry, in her book, On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 7.
- Psalm 27:4, English Standard Version.
- C. S. Lewis, “Learning in Wartime,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1949, revised 1980 C.S. Lewis Pte. Ltd), 63.