According to Friedrich Schiller, beauty is our “second creator” and a necessary component for both societal progress and our education as individuals.1 In On the Aesthetic Education of Man, Schiller even asserted that “a developed feeling for beauty refines morals.”2 Schiller believed that we spend most of our time alternating between sensation or thought and often trying to fit what we are experiencing into some category or use. Yet, in a genuine encounter with the aesthetic, sense and reason briefly nullify each other and we are “momentarily free of any determination, existing in the condition of simply being open to determination.”3 Real beauty stops us in our tracks.
There are many examples of artists who, forced to pause after encountering something beautiful, walked away changed as a result. A movement of Jean Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony was inspired by an encounter with swans that he described in his diary: “One of my greatest experiences! Lord God, that beauty! They circled over me for a long time. Disappeared into the solar haze like a gleaming, silver ribbon…” The singer songwriter Ray LaMontagne was set on the course of his musical career one morning when Stephen Stills’ “Treetop Flyer” came on with his radio alarm clock. LaMontagne skipped work that day to listen and soon after began learning to play music.
Schiller’s aesthetic experience is a “condition of real and active determinability,” something like a probability wave in physics.4 When we are busy fitting the world into frameworks, the aesthetic experience is what reintroduces us to a world which transcends our senses, thoughts, and uses. It produces true freedom of mind and equanimity. It opens new doors. Schiller thought the aesthetic experience could elevate the human condition and was important for the progress of humanity.
It is also remarkably difficult to foster this kind of aesthetic experience in intentionally educational settings. Classrooms are more often shaped by learning outcomes than transcendent encounters with art. Many people can think of something beautiful which was “ruined” for them by academic study. People have transformative experiences with art, but can we teach for them?
If we look to our contemporary cultural reference points, it seems teachers often have to kill the traditional classroom to foster genuine aesthetic experiences. In Dead Poet’s Society, Mr. Keating gets his students to rip the analytic pages from their poetry textbooks so they can truly experience poetry. Unmoored from traditional academic expectations and frameworks of interpretation, the students find new freedom and a genuine love for poetry. In the play and film History Boys, the teacher, Hector, wants his students to learn in ways that prepare them for life, not for examinations. The students are so charmed by him that they overlook his inappropriate behaviors and imbibe all kinds of culture. Another example of a teacher who gives students the chance to be “momentarily free of any determination” is Jack Black’s Dewey Finn in School of Rock. He guides students out from under the expectations of their parents and anxieties about grades and into personal encounters with rock and roll by dismissing the curriculum and starting a band. As he explains to his friend, “Dude, I serve society by rocking, ok? I’m out here on the front lines liberating people with my music!”5
The “bad boy teacher” type in movies and books is typically able to “liberate” students from expectations and give them space for encounters with art because they downplay grades, master syllabi, and prestigious placements. Parents don’t trust them, administrators dislike them, and students love them. Some would argue that this is a good model for education. The best education is about these aesthetic moments and not the measurable outcomes. American higher education in particular is intended to be more than vocational training, or even vocational training in disguise as practice in critical thinking.
At Christian institutions of higher education, we may especially want to consider the importance of aesthetic experiences. In History and Eschatology, N.T. Wright includes beauty as one of the “broken signposts” throughout human life that point us to something more.6 At my university we recently had an on-campus visitor who asked students directly if beauty was important and what its meaning might be. For many of them, it seemed that beauty’s sense of being beyond the everyday was part of what makes it important. And we certainly want our students to be able to see beyond the everyday.
Yet, students are choosing to attend institutions than to sit around reading Walt Whitman in the evenings. Degrees provide practical opportunities that are a means of making our society more just, and educators’ commitments to meeting clear learning outcomes is part of that work. Teaching with an eye to outcomes is part of giving students tools for succeeding in life. It seems unlikely that we can abandon grades or the traditional academic framework while delivering to our students what they seek at our institutions.
How then can we make space for aesthetic encounters in the academic classroom? One advantage all classrooms have is that when people are exposed to something for the first time, they are also more likely to have an aesthetic experience because they do not always have existing categories what they are encountering. When it comes to approach, educators can foster genuine aesthetic experiences by connecting love and learning. Many people are in their professions due to the passion of a single instructor. There are studies that show a teacher’s work passion can lead to student passion for a subject. To the extent that an educator’s passion is the product of, or includes, an aesthetic experience, students may be encouraged to see the world similarly. In School of Rock, Dewey Finn says about rock and roll that “you’ve gotta feel it in your blood and guts!”7/ When students see a passion like that, it makes them pause, making space for the aesthetic experience. At minimum, it normalizes such an experience.
The foundation of the “bad boy teacher” type, who seems so able to introduce arresting beauty, is unconventionality. Professors need not use Brian Eno’s oblique strategies cards, but may want to consider exposing students to new and unconventional things, with some ungraded experiences. Writing about education, Mark Twain complained that it often “makes a straight-cut ditch of a free, meandering brook.” It may sometimes be appropriate to make space for meandering, as we are able. When it comes to necessary disciplinary conventions, exploration of why they exist could also be helpful to students.
The Christian tradition may have an advantage in enriching the classroom for aesthetic experiences. After all, much of Western art and architecture was shaped by Christianity and intended not only to impress, but to inspire. Great religious art encourages people to look beyond the everyday and it can be readily incorporated in the classroom in a variety of ways. In some classes, more visual or audio content can be brought into lectures and discussion. But for all kinds of subjects, we can put more thought put into the décor and setting for spaces where we encounter academic disciplines. Why must our walls be bare? Why must our screensavers be generic? There is no rule against starting class with an arresting work of art as a backdrop.
Much of the New Testament also encourages a way of viewing the world that makes space for looking at things in ways which are beyond immediate determination. Jesus encouraged people to contemplate the lilies of the field, to ponder the value of the sparrow, to consider the mustard seed which begins small but becomes a tree full of vibrant life. All of this is a way of seeing the world that short circuits our immediate understanding of the objects within our visual range and helps us connect the seemingly small and insignificant to the larger nature of existence and meaning of life. The New Testament mustard seed that teaches us about the Kingdom of God is not unlike William Blake’s universe in a grain of sand.8 If we can learn to see the world in the way that it was animated in the parables, we can be open to many more aesthetic experiences.
We are far from the Romantic era in which Keats could suggest that “beauty is truth, truth beauty.”9 Schiller’s belief that appreciation of beauty can refine morals for all of society did not pass the test of twentieth century events. Yet, aesthetic experiences can still be transformative and meaningful. We likely agree that education at its best is transformative, on the personal—not just professional—level. It is worth considering how we can teach in ways that foster, rather than frustrate, aesthetic experiences. Whether or not transformative encounters can be guaranteed, professors can always ask themselves what it would look like to make room for beauty when planning a semester.
- Friedrich Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man and Letters to Prince Frederick Christian von Augustenberg, trans. Keith Tribe (UK: Penguin, 2016), 78.
- Schiller, 33.
- Schiller, 74.
- Schiller, 75.
- School of Rock, directed by Richard Linklater (Paramount Pictures, 2003).
- N.T. Wright, History and Eschatology: Jesus and the promise of natural theology (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2019), 223-225.
- School of Rock, directed by Richard Linklater (Paramount Pictures, 2003).
- William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence.” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43650/auguries-of-innocence
- John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44477/ode-on-a-grecian-urn