Source: Margarita Mooney Clayton via thewayofbeauty.org
Reprinted with permission.
The present time of crisis in higher education may tempt us away from pondering fundamental questions about the human person that are essential to understanding what education is all about. But educators should not fall prey to cultural or societal pessimism—it is our calling to acknowledge the complexities of our world and act as hopeful guides for those who look to us as moral exemplars.
To explore this challenge I invited seven fellow scholars and educators to dialogue with me on beauty and education, which led to my 2022 book, The Wounds of Beauty: Seven Dialogues on Art and Education. The themes I discuss include how beauty shaped pagan Roman and early Christian civilization; the rapport between music and beauty and the latter’s connection to other forms of knowledge; and the place of craft making in authentic living. I firmly believe teaching our students to create and to appreciate beauty is a path to cultural renewal and indispensable for their happiness.
Why should educators care about beauty when individual and societal survival are threatened?
In October 1939, just after England entered the Second World War, C. S. Lewis delivered an oration to students at Oxford in which he stated that “if men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun.” Published later as the essay “Learning in War-Time,” Lewis contends that “human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice.” In the midst of suffering, beauty can help us discover the wisdom we need to suffer with joy and bury the dead with dignity.
Lewis’s comments contain a message for any educator who has been questioning what our response should be to the immense suffering of the past few years caused by the COVID pandemic and so much domestic and international political upheaval.
I long thought beauty was irrelevant to the intellectual life and our life in common. I had little understanding of how to connect my intuitive love of beauty to growth in the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, and in the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and courage.
Misunderstandings about beauty have contributed to a contentious public culture and often even a religious culture that is devoid of reverence. As respect for nearly all kinds of authority has waned, respect even for our peers is hard to sustain. Lacking religious reverence and surrounded by contentious political divisions, many people today feel as I once did—incapable of experiencing lasting joy or having hope in the future.
How did I lose and then re-discover my love of beauty?
In most of my time as a student in higher education, the topic of beauty was either absent, treated as yet one more form of selfish aggrandizement, or analyzed as a variety of domination over others.
Not until I first taught a class in 2013 on the psychology, philosophy, and sociology of human happiness did I began to reconsider my understanding of the connection between beauty, the intellectual life, and the theological and human virtues. As a part of that class at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I took a test that ranked my character strengths. I was unsurprised when I scored high on rationality and analytical thinking. But I was dismayed that I scored lowest on appreciation of beauty.
How could that be? I love beautiful sunsets. I enjoy art museums. Singing is one of the main ways that I praise God.
Maybe my honest responses to the test reflected decades of pursuing more and more achievements. The test forced me to say how I actually spent my time, not necessarily how I desired to spend my time. Students taking my class described elevated stress levels and a lack of meaning in life. I worried that my teaching and writing might pass on my analytical skills but would not help my students find their way to beauty.
The test instructed us that focusing on our strengths could increase our happiness. But I knew that my happiness, or that of my students, would not grow simply by virtue of our becoming ever more analytical. I longed to bring a more holistic approach to happiness into my teaching, one which included opening myself more to the joy of experiencing beauty.
Around the same time, I embarked on a new line of research on resilience and suffering. Doing in-depth interviews with young people across the United States, I heard them describe experiences of beauty in the midst of suffering that seemed to provide much more than a coping mechanism for pain. One poignant example was the story of a young man named Jason struggling with addiction to heroin. Although he only saw chaos inside himself and thought about taking his own life, he had felt a kind of peace while being immersed in a beautiful sunset that gave him hope that some kind of meaningful order just might exist outside himself.
At the time I was doing that project, I was living as a resident faculty fellow in one of Yale’s residential colleges. The more students I got to know outside of the traditional classroom, the more I realized that one commonality behind the diverse cultural, religious, and class backgrounds of students was an existential struggle and deep desire for beauty and transcendence that was not being fed.
Too many people are like I was once: caught in the dilemma of loving either reason or beauty—but never both. Many do not know where to go for deep experiences of beauty; even fewer understand that the life of virtue is abundantly beautiful. I longed to share with students how experiencing beauty can lead to moments of self-transcendence, in which we realize that we are not alone in this world and that we did not create ourselves. When we see the world around us as a gift, new possibilities are always on the horizon.
As Pope Benedict XVI argues in A Reason Open to God (2013), a proper understanding of rationality goes beyond analytical thinking to include the openness to mystery so often experienced by encountering beauty. Even for people—like Jason—who had never been involved with a community of faith, encountering beauty helped them see that there must be a creator of the world, and that therefore they are not alone in their suffering. Students in higher education often express a deep compassion for the vulnerable; I wanted them to see that beauty is essential to all human lives, no matter how broken.
Awareness of a transcendent being increases our capacity for joy, even in the midst of suffering. In a 2002 address entitled “The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty,” then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger explains how the ancient Greek philosophers understood this relationship between beauty and pain. Plato, for example, thought that encountering beauty attracts us to something other than ourselves, something that has retained its perfection. Encountering beauty makes us restless to seek out the source of that beauty. That longing, in a sense, causes us to suffer. “In a Platonic sense,” Ratzinger comments, “we could say that the arrow of nostalgia pierces man, wounds him and in this way gives him wings, lifts him up towards the transcendent.” Continuing with the metaphor, he states, “The encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart.”
The title of my book, The Wounds of Beauty, is taken from these words. Physical or psychological sufferings point to deep wounds in our soul, and it is here that beauty meets us, offering transcendence. The wounds of beauty do not erase pain and loss but instead show us their significance and affirm the meaningfulness of our lives.
There are thousands of people just like me, my students, and the people I encountered in my research on resilience who are desperate for this encounter with something sacred. Too often we are fed the junk food of entertainment, not the nourishing food of true beauty.
Too often during my educational experiences, I heard professors and students say that truth and beauty are merely aspects of ideology or power. But my interviews with people who had endured long suffering, and my work with students of various backgrounds, has shown me time and again that experiences of beauty in the midst of suffering can happen to anyone. Hence Benedict XVI’s insistence that “a pressing need of our time” is the rediscovery of beauty as a form of knowledge, as an encounter with reality.
I have spent a lifetime running away from suffering, only to fall back on my knees countless times begging for relief from my own self-inflicted wounds of pride. Rather than wallowing in self-pity for my analytical delusions of perfection that fail to correspond to the complexity of human life, I have been led to fall in love time and again with the beauty of nature and great works of architecture, art, and music.
Perhaps it is only human that we never overcome the fear of suffering. But often embracing the reality of my imperfections and accepting the inevitability of somehuman suffering has led me out of a place of darkness. The wounds of suffering thus have become for me an opening to encounter a transcendent reality.
In a time of crisis, the message that beauty is not the opposite of suffering and that beauty can lead us to the truth becomes more important than ever. Nurturing our love of beauty is part of becoming whole. An education that neglects beauty can never be holistic.
Can Beauty Help Education Transcend Ideology?
Contemporary movements in education that see truth as nothing but an ideological weapon or a form of power have contributed to a hopelessness and divisiveness in our culture. One key idea in my book The Love of Learning is that the neglect of transcendence, as seen in the work of influential figures such as John Dewey and Paulo Freire, results in equating reason with ideology.
In contrast, thinkers like Jacques Maritain and Luigi Giussani both argue that humans long for a transcendent source of beauty that opens us to mystery. An education where the creativity behind art, music, architecture, and scientific discovery is connected to reverence for creation and for other human beings builds a culture of joy and true solidarity. Recovering beauty as central to education would help fill the void in people’s hearts, reform educational institutions, and lead to stronger social unity.
We learn from moral exemplars. We learn through stories. We learn from questions and answers in dialogue with other scholars and our own minds. In order to integrate beauty into our lives, classrooms and mentoring, all educators should ponder questions such as these and discuss them with each other and with our students:
· Is it possible to have more time for beauty in a hyper-competitive educational system?
· If experiencing beauty is not subject to quantitative measurement, does the impact of beauty on education then escape all forms of objective evaluation?
· If beauty is a mystery, does that mean it cannot be understood, studied, taught, learned?
· Is experiencing beauty purely contemplative or do we have to create beautiful things in order to really experience beauty?
· What are some common contemporary misunderstandings about beauty?
· How is beauty related to truth?
· Is beauty objective?
· Does beauty speak for itself or does understanding beauty require higher-order philosophical or theological principles?
· Is beauty different from mathematics and science or somehow related to them?
· Why is beauty important to counteract abstractions about truth and goodness?
Recovering the Vocation to Teach
The best teachers love their subjects and are inspired to share what they have learned to mentor the next generation. Students are also longing for mentors who pursue beauty and wisdom, and who practice creativity in their own callings.
The vocation to teach includes leading others to the truth, helping them find the sacred in experiences of beauty, living with joy, entering deeply into leisure, and forming a coherent identity.
If we take some time to educate our own attraction to the beautiful, we will expand our awareness of the many gifts of everyday life that we often take for granted, thereby living every moment with a greater sense of vocation. Our intuitive love of beauty can and should be formed, purified, and connected to our vocations to teach. Beauty can purify our minds and hearts for God and help us to serve others. Experiencing beauty is fundamental to education because it is fundamental to being human.
Benedict XVI. A Reason Open to God: On Universities, Education, and Culture. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2013.
Lewis, C. S. “Learning in War-Time.” Sermon given at the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, Oxford University, October 22, 1939. In The Weight of Glory. New York: HarperOne, 2001.
Mooney, Margarita A. The Love of Learning: Seven Dialogues on the Liberal Arts. Providence, RI: Cluny Media, 2021.
______. “Narratives, Religion, and Traumatic Life Events Among Young Adults.” Social Thought and Research, Volume 33 (2014).
Mooney Suarez, Margarita. The Wounds of Beauty: Seven Dialogues on Art and Education. Providence, RI: Cluny Media, 2022.
______. “A Crisis of Beauty” (March 25, 2020). Available at https://margaritamooneysuarez.com/2020/03/a-crisis-of-beauty/
______. “Why Choose Mystery Over Ideology?” Comment (October 15, 2021). Available at https://comment.org/why-choose-mystery-over-ideology/
Ratzinger, Joseph. “The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty.” Message to the Communion and Liberation Meeting at Rimini (August 24, 2002). Available @ https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20020824_ratzinger-cl-rimini_en.html
This article is an adaptation of Margarita Mooney Clayton’s 2022 book The Wounds of Beauty, published by Cluny Media, which explores the ideas of suffering, beauty, and mystery, and their contributions to education.
Header image: Oxford University via classic.fm