What Really Matters
|“The great purpose of school can be realized better in dark, airless, ugly places.... It is to master the physical self, to transcend the beauty of nature. School should develop the power to withdraw from the external world.”|
There have been changes since I was in school, aesthetically ugly or not. Back in the dark ages at Public School Number 131-¾ in New York, during the school day, and both before and after, much of my educational institution’s confines, as well as the inmates (whoops! students – sorry for the slip,) were regulated by the fifth and sixth graders ourselves. We were crossing monitors, schoolyard monitors, line monitors (for entrance to and gathering in the school gymnasium,) stairway monitors and hall monitors, each of us with our badges as patrolees (silver), sergeants (green – I was one of those!), lieutenants (red) and captains (blue) providing surveillance of our charges as some kind of cross between spies and capos. Today, in contrast, a combination of teachers, paraprofessionals, metal detectors and surveillance cameras have taken up the task.
As I relate this to teacher friends of mine, they make clear that trust has eroded since then. In one “good” elementary school, it was reported to me that in order to exercise their natural functions, instead of clutching hall passes, children are required to wear big green visors on their heads with the word “BATHROOM” in capital letters emblazoned across the front. Naturally, some kids will no longer use the bathroom even when they need to, which must do wonders for their ability to learn, perhaps replacing one form of retention with another. When I mentioned this to a homeschool gathering in Woodinville, Washington recently, a homeschooling mom, a former middle school teacher, piped up that in the classroom next to hers, the teacher used to use an actual toilet seat as the hall pass. (And she had never heard an objection from a parent. Now that makes you think…) And just when I think I have found the last word on the subject, along comes a Washington Post article noting that there are schools that will actually give a student extra credit for holding it in. I am not making this up!
The latest in classroom management strategy apparently now has the teacher’s desk sitting behind the students, whereby, as if the surveillance cameras weren’t enough, the teacher can see all without being seen herself. No longer can little Susie attempt to hide in the closet, Mikey throw a spitball or, heaven forbid!, Kenny actually read a book while Mrs. Gorsenberry’s back is turned.
The strategy is reminiscent of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, a new-fangled penal institution of the late 18th Century (several were actually built in the U.S.) whereby inmates were isolated from one another but subject to constant scrutiny by an observer who could remain unseen. The Panopticon, this “seeing-without-being-seen,” represents the essence of power, according to the French philosopher Michael Foucault, for, ultimately, the power to dominate – both globally and individually – rests, he states, on the differential possession of knowledge. So much for free inquiry – watch for a ban on handheld mirrors coming to your neighborhood school soon.
The sixty- four thousand dollar question (adjusted for inflation) is whether unquestioned childhood acquiescence to constant surveillance, while seemingly innocuous, is a telling prelude to a life of servility and subservience, to an existence where one’s freedom can be liberally trampled upon. Since I do not wish to be accused of conspiracy theories, let me just ask the question and leave the answers to you.
|School is ugly because it is, at bottom, an industrial process. It can be gussied up and prettified in various ways, of course, but basically the tool and die are used to stamp and shape the raw material as it makes its way down the conveyor belt, with the imperfect or miscast ingots kicked off the line to be reprocessed again or simply discarded as so much waste.|
Now the surveillance is directed at the teachers as well, and they are not very happy campers. The new “scripted curricula,” such as those being utilized in Chicago Public Schools, have teachers reading instructions to children at preset times of the day in all schools for the identical subject matter for that particular grade. An administrator can know precisely what is happening in every classroom in the program at any time on any particular day and deviation from the script can be severely punished. Teachers’ understanding of, and response to, any particular child’s learning needs is considered irrelevant or, worse, as taking away from the application of the “education technology.”
School is ugly because it is, at bottom, an industrial process. It can be gussied up and prettified in various ways, of course, but basically the tool and die are used to stamp and shape the raw material as it makes its way down the conveyor belt, with the imperfect or miscast ingots kicked off the line to be reprocessed again (in ways eerily reminiscent of the button molder in Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt) or simply discarded as so much waste. When there is too much waste, there is need for greater calibration of the machine, each moving part tested and retested, honed so that the lathes can cut to finer and finer tolerances.
Modern schools and industrial processes grew to maturity together, alongside great military establishments, colonial and imperialist enterprises, penal institutions and…Wal-Mart. If you desire to understand the vernacular of schools and the culture of schools, you don’t really have to look much further. They all speak the language of domination and control, of extraction of resources, the shaping of raw materials, standardization and process, inputs and outputs, and the protection of God, the destiny of the nation and the pursuit of profit. They work, too! If the ugliness of school makes you feel uncomfortable – and it does me – or even talking about it makes you feel uncomfortable – and it does me – it is because it should.
Don’t misread me. There are beautiful things in school. Children, of course and, in many cases, teachers as well. Almost none of the latter are in it for the money, but because, at least initially, they loved children, or so they believed. The saddest truth I know about the ugliness of school is how, over time, in the process of socialization, beautiful children and beautiful teachers often begin to take on the character of the institution itself.
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Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
John Keats, from Ode on a Grecian Urn
My older daughter Aliyah is a second-year student at Smith College in Massachusetts. She recently returned from South India, documenting our efforts at building houses with flood and tsunami victims, work that began last December/January. (You can read about our work at shantinik.blogspot.com). She would seem to be in training to be a Renaissance male. Her studies have consisted of: music theory and composition; intensive Italian; medieval philosophy; Renaissance and Baroque vocal and chamber music; Dante; logic and, of course, that without which no Renaissance male could possibly feel complete – fencing. Beautiful things. If anyone knows of any job openings, please let us know. Honestly, we are not really worried on that score – some of the best minds in the country are working on time travel; and the lack of Y chromosomes is just one of those nasty little details yet to be worked out, and I doubt will prove disabling.
Anyhow, Aliyah shared with me that in her medieval philosophy class they began the semester by reading Plotinus. Plotinus was an Egyptian living in Rome in the Third Century, writing in Greek. He is very important in the history of thought because he provides the bridge between the philosophical worlds of medieval Christian Europe and the Muslim Arabic world, where for many centuries his work was thought to have been written by Aristotle. What I was reminded of (from way back in my college days) was how Plotinus thought of the knowledge quest (to understand Truth, or “The Principle,” as he called it) as, among other things, an aesthetic one, a quest to understand the nature of beauty in the process of becoming so oneself. He writes: “Beauty addresses itself chiefly to sight; but there is a beauty for the hearing, too, as in certain combinations of words and in all kinds of music, for melodies and cadences are beautiful; and minds that lift themselves above the realm of sense to a higher order are aware of beauty in the conduct of life, in actions, in character, in the pursuits of the intellect; and there is the beauty of the virtues.”
The ancient neo-Platonist philosophers – Christian and Muslim alike – believed that things were beautiful to the degree that they conformed to some unseen ideal or “form,” whether it be the shape of an object or the pattern of a life, or as Plotinus wrote so beautifully, “Harmonies unheard in sound create the harmonies we hear, and wake the soul to the consciousness of beauty.”
The philosophers – ancient, yes, and many of the more modern ones, too – seem to agree that for the soul to be awakened to beauty, there must already be imbedded in the soul that which can be awakened.
|Our children have within themselves, or so I am led to believe by my experience of them, an inner yearning for the beautiful, a potential wonderment and a delicious longing and love and trembling waiting to be empowered on its quest. This yearning is not likely to be fulfilled in a high school hallway or on the shopping mall checkout line.|
The contrary is true as well. A soul constantly confronted with ugliness is, to quote Plotinus again – only because his words are so magnificent – “trafficked away for an alien nature…If a man has been immersed in filth or daubed with mud, his native comeliness disappears and all that is seen is the foul stuff besmearing him.” But when the soul sees anything of which it is truly kin, it thrills with an immediate delight and is stirred to a sense of its own true nature. Above all else, beauty embodies within itself a yearning, just as knowledge represents an inner metamorphosis.
Our children have within themselves, or so I am led to believe by my experience of them, an inner yearning for the beautiful, a potential wonderment and a delicious longing and love and trembling waiting to be empowered on its quest. This yearning is not likely to be fulfilled in a high school hallway or on the shopping mall checkout line.
So what if we were to set as our task – as parents and as educators – acquainting our children with the beautiful without and the cultivation of the beautiful – the yearning – within? How might we go about our homeschooling lives differently if we were to conceive of what we are doing as primarily an aesthetic task?
Our children do need some basic skills to get along in the world. Understanding and filling out a job application, adding up the grocery bill and doing the laundry would likely rank high on anyone’s list. Though I am sure the kids need to learn all three, I have grave doubts as to whether, other than the last, they actually need to be taught them. That could be the subject of another essay, or several. But what if, even in the context of skill-building, we saw ourselves actively attending to that yearning within?
First, perhaps, we can relearn with them to see beauty in the creations of the human mind. No, I don’t mean art and music – or at least not yet – but what would, on the face of it, seem more mundane, such as mathematics. There is that beautiful space where children as young as three, four, five or six come to realize that numeric depictions – little squiggles etched on flat surfaces – can stand for sounds (virtually all of your kids learned to read them without, and prior to, phonics;) signs (Room #12 might not have anything “twelve” about it, and it might just as well have been called “Room Gladiolus”;) a series in time or in space (as in the first, second, and third day of Christmas, or the six days of Biblical creation or the six serial but not parallel wives of Henry VIII;) relationships theoretical (two is half of four) or practical (half a candy bar is not as desirable as the whole thing;) the names of quantities (as in two sisters or five cousins) or in combining or unpacking groups in the arithmetic operations – addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.
Often, the early confusion children experience in mathematics is not about the arithmetic at all, but in coming to terms with knowing which domain of signifiers the little squiggles are representing. How often I remember classmates of mine who could compute baseball players’ batting averages in their heads to the thousandths of a point but seemed totally stymied by the long division problem on the printed page.
If one survives the basic computational stages, there is even greater beauty to be found in the higher order of things – the conception of the number zero, the invention of base 10 and the design of geometric solids, the elegance of proofs, the mystery of the Fibonacci sequence. My experience has shown me that if I can help my children appreciate the beauty to be found as they continue the travel excursion of the mind, the computational difficulties that plague them from time to time eventually simply disappear, virtually without resort to any of those workbook pages whatsoever.
The process of science is one of those beautiful creations, though it is sometimes easy to miss. Yes, there is a kind of beauty in the explosion that results from shaking up the vinegar and baking soda, in observing the butterfly garden or, for some, in dissecting a frog or sheep’s brain, though I must admit the last one never did much for me. There is beauty in the very multiplicity of the natural world in all its glory, and learning the simple ecology of its parts – one can think of it as nature’s symmetry – and how one fits into it.
But at the core of science is its childish character. There is observation and, especially, the attempt to understand phenomena with new eyes. And there is wonderment – as many scientists have noted, a holdover from childhood – which provides the prime impetus for the scientific quest. Most of all, however, the scientific method itself is a celebration of errors, a religion of learning from one’s mistakes. Without error – sometimes hard won – there is no progress in science. The beauty of science lies not in the amalgamation of facts or in attachment to them (to be regurgitated on demand on bubble tests, a tried-and-true method for destroying scientific creativity) but in the playing of hunches in constructing hypotheses, and in the sometimes frustrating, sometimes rollicking, game of trial and error.
|Einstein once said that more than 90 percent of the physics a person ever learns, is learned before the age of three. I like to think of this experience of learning as the beautiful scientific symphony of the sandbox.|
Einstein once said that more than 90 percent of the physics a person ever learns, is learned before the age of three. I like to think of this experience of learning as the beautiful scientific symphony of the sandbox.
There is the beauty of the arts or, rather, one might want to say, two kinds of beauty – that inherent in the processes of creation and that of the creations themselves. The key here is to ensure that our children have the experience of both before them. Many children decide they want to learn music or dance (or sculpture or painting) because they have heard beautiful music or seen beautiful works of art. A problem I have often witnessed in practice, however, is that once children begin what is often the long and slow process of acquiring musical or artistic skills, not enough attention is paid to continuing their exposure to the best of the domain. After all, that is where they hope they are headed! Lessons may be important, although remember that it is not all that common that children will continue this experience on into adulthood, and the number who seek to do so as a profession is a tiny fraction indeed. So the experience of beauty, and the knowledge that it requires time, energy and effort to produce, is what is important. If there are music lessons, ask the teacher to end each and every lesson with her playing something that is beautiful. Go to concerts; purchase compact discs. I even think it is a good idea to have your child choose a piece of music that is well above her level of playing and just have it around the house. If your child is a budding visual artist, bring art books home from the library and read them together. And visit not only museums, but galleries, where the living traditions are alive in the marketplace.
When I was growing up, however, the imbalance for me went in the opposite direction. I was taken to many museums (hey, I’m a New Yorker!) but I had no clue how the paintings and sculptures were fashioned – how the pigments were applied, colors produced, perspective created, stone worked. There was nothing human about them; they might just as well have been artifacts from Mars.
The same was pretty much true for music as well. As those who are familiar with me either personally or through my writing will testify, I have spent much of our homeschooling days correcting this oversight for myself, and I can assure you that it takes a courage and a fortitude that I might have had greater capacity for when I was younger. (I might have proved more adept as well, but that’s beside the point.)
There is beauty also to be found in human relationships. It starts with the beauty of families, of each individual playing an utterly unique role in that whole which should always be greater than the sum of its parts. As a sub-group within the entire society, this is something at which homeschoolers should be particularly adept. Or at least we try.
But there is so much more. The beauty of relationships transcends chronological age. Indeed, if there is a violence, an inherent ugliness at the heart of school that goes beyond its compulsion, it lies in the arbitrary and enforced grouping of human beings by chronological age. It is a social practice that, in former times or in other cultures, we would dismiss as downright silly, if not also ugly, though the proliferation of “adult communities” may to some extent represent the seepage of this unnatural notion into our collective lives. (Note that anyone under 55 – “pre-adults!” – does not qualify; we are, or were, at least as it applies to me, simply post-pubescents, though I find something strangely satisfying in the notion that we are still children until our own kids are grown.)
Our children need the opportunity to experience the beauty of relationships with people unlike themselves – with elders who can share with them stories of what has gone before and who imbue objects from the past with meaning; with people from different racial and ethnic and religious communities who bring their own histories, culture, rituals and ways of being and seeing to a present moment that is shared; with people with different abilities and disabilities who have found through courage and perseverance ways to move forward in a world that often seems ill-constructed for them; with older children and youth who can provide role models into which our kids come to understand they can grow and with younger children with whom they can share what they know.
|If you are not spending as much time thinking about ways to help your children develop these beautiful relationships as you are about their reading, chances are you may be robbing them of one of the great gifts of homeschooling.|
If you are not spending as much time thinking about ways to help your children develop these beautiful relationships as you are about their reading, chances are you may be robbing them of one of the great gifts of homeschooling. Take this as an invitation to enlarge your home (and your heart) not simply by adding rooms but by adding people to inhabit it.
Finally, there is moral and ethical beauty. Only so much can be done by lecture, even aided by our churches, mosques, synagogues and meeting houses. The beauty of the virtues is best realized through the experience of those who personify them. Seek out not only opportunities for service in your community or your world, but contact for your children with those who work, in their own ways, big or small, for peace, justice and equity, often at risk to themselves or in sacrifice of their own creature comfort.
You can find them in books; 10- and 11-year-olds often love biographies about those who will break beyond the social norms of their society and culture in striving for a greater good. But such people are frequently to be found in your community as well, if you keep your eyes out for them.
I suggest tea parties, lots and lots of tea parties. Not dinner – you’ll think too much about the food and not enough about your guest. Make it a rule that the tea party is not to be used as an excuse to clean the house! Invite for tea the person from your church who leaves a comfortable job to work among AIDS victims in Africa. Meet up with the people who organize the Muslim-Christian (or Muslim-Jewish) dialogue group in your town. Befriend those who are striving to sustain native cultural heritages. Seek out the “giraffes” – those willing to stick out their necks for the public good – and make sure your kids learn to seek them out as well and learn to appreciate the beauty of risk-taking and sacrifice.
Where do you find ‘em? Well, they are all around you. But if you feel really stuck, gather three homeschooling friends and regularly watch the “communities” or “neighborhood” section of your newspaper. When you find one you think you’d like to have tea with, if all else fails, either call the newspaper or use your phone book. This will take a little extra nerve, but once you’ve done it once or twice, you’ll find out how easy it really is.
You don’t have to make your children sit through it (though, chances are, your 10- to 12-year-olds will love to participate.) Just make sure they are around the house and see you doing it. You’ll be modeling behavior regarding what you value, and worst come to worst, you and your friends have had some nice tea parties with some interesting people whom you might never have met otherwise. Who knows? You might end up running a salon (not a “saloon” but a “salon”) and become known as the Gertrude Stein of the neighborhood! Who knows where else it might lead you or the kids?
This, then, is the curriculum of beauty: beauty in the creations of the human mind and the pursuits of the intellect; in science and the natural world; in the world of the arts; in human relationships; in the conduct of life and ethical values and actions. Plot them out for yourselves and in your homeschooling lives, and see what you can do to enhance them, not only for your children, but for yourselves as well.
The curriculum of beauty will add dimensionality to our lives. If our children become acquainted with the forms of beauty, they will learn to freely quest after them, because they conform to an inner yearning, or as Plotinus would say, “the soul seeking after itself.” They will find the beauty that is within and enshrine it in that temple, which they are in themselves, for all to see.
One last thing must be said about the curriculum of beauty. Unlike the ugliness of school, it can know no coercion. Whether you witness the great works of art or listen to music, or examine the processes of science, or look to the beauty of relationships, or of character or of virtue, you quickly come to recognize that there is no beauty that is not born in, and does not embody, the spirit of freedom and the expectation of it.
And what’s in it for you? Simply the recognition that the great teachers have always had, to quote the inaugural address of Ruth Simmons on assuming the presidency of Brown University: “Nothing is so beautiful, nothing so moving, as the observance of a mind at work.”
The kids might get to teach us a thing or two and, in the spirit of freedom, we get to bask in the afterglow. And so they join us in the great journey, to quote T.S. Eliot:
"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started.
And know the place for the first time."
~ T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”, The Four Quartets
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Thank you so much, David, for this deeply moving piece. I so appreciate the way you lay forth information, layered between and laced with vibrant experiential tales, entrancing your reader and making your points unforgettable (that poor lad wearing the green visor with “BATHROOM” on it, walking the endless school hall!) Telling stories is vitally important, because each one finds its own resonance in individual listeners.
So now, because of your “Curriculum of Beauty,” I have a confession to make. I have always told my children and my students, and even written in home- schooling articles, that I personally had loved my school experience! But reading your words prompted me to reflect about why and how I had loved school…and frankly you forced me to realize (to my shock) that I hadn’t. I didn’t love school; I loved learning. I was just another school survivor, albeit very successful in terms of grades and honors (my self-defense mechanism,) who fled the clanging steel-reinforced doors each day gasping for air and nutrition. These I found in the dusky library next door, or in the stacks of borrowed books piled on my desk or by the bedside in my comfortable bedroom. That green room housed my pride and joy: my father’s walnut desk, which flipped open to reveal cubbyholes that I neatly filled with my own poetry...and (blessings) then locked it with a key!
|The smell, the dim halls (always slightly threatening) confined my lungs and gave me my first taste of asthma and the fear of being unable to breathe.|
For me, solace lay in escaping the dark brick walls and that peculiar school smell of William Hall High School in West Hartford, Connecticut – yes, still almost 50 years later this old edifice is considered to house one of the best high schools in the nation. The smell, the dim halls (always slightly threatening) confined my lungs and gave me my first taste of asthma and the fear of being unable to breathe.
Almost daily and as often as possible, I ran away to the library to sink down on the floor in the stacks, smelling the books, finding my dearest friends there, waiting for me – Sophocles and Sappho, T.S. Eliot and Bucky Fuller. As clearly as I know my present room, I remember the sweet, dusty smell of the old books, the sound of my shoes in the stacks (which I tried to stifle) and the crisp new feel of each month’s edition of Poetry magazine, which seemed to be there just for me – no one else seemed to crease the cover. Truly, young people find their friends and compatriots without regard to age grades!
So I have to comment that you chose to end your “The Curriculum of Beauty” with my favorite four lines of poetry – ever since I heard T.S. Eliot read them aloud in his dry, scratchy voice back in the late 1950s, in a hall at Brown University. In spite of all the barrenness that Eliot saw in the late ‘30s and through World War II, he affirmed the hope that we would at some point arrive where we could “know the place for the first time.”
Wait a minute now! Isn’t this what we are all yearning for? Surely this was my constant longing throughout my teen years when I felt distinctly as though I had ended up on the wrong planet, that I must have gotten off the elevator on the wrong floor, that this messy place/business/life couldn’t be where I belonged! Now I recognize that many young people (indeed, perhaps most) have this same sense of horrible disconnect with life as they are required to live it during those daunting, dislocated years.
Yet somehow they/we survive. Somehow in spite and not because of these institutions of “learning,” our culture produces (some) creative individuals willing to undertake responsibility for discovering and developing a “self” and for the consequent need to acknowledge and respect the “other,” whomever that may be. What a miracle a fresh person is! How many are wasted!!
Doesn’t Plotinus’ “Principle” still hold sway? I think so. I have worked with young people ages 15 to 25 all of my life, and the percentage of them who have expressed to me an intense yearning to discover the depth and passion and purpose of life is extremely high.
When I think back to some of my most exquisitely and, indeed, sensually satisfying moments, they are those rare but powerful, really really BIG experiences when thought went so deep that I could literally feel the synapses firing off in my brain. For me, that was ecstasy. It defined being alive.
After reading and rereading your article, David, I have to admit to myself that I have no recollection of one of those major synapse explosions happening in a classroom...not even at Brown. It was in that old library, or sitting up late in bed reading in an utterly quiet room, when those synapses fired off. And that experience is what I loved, and which motivated me to graduate first in my class in order to earn the scholarships to allow me to continue my secret rites of relationships in a university library.
This was a heavy realization for me, David. You forced me back into William Hall High, back even to my elementary school in Toronto Canada, back into the lines, the suspicions, the jostling and the oh-so-rare moment of inspiration or compassion from a teacher! My joy in learning had nothing to do with those schools, and everything to do with my secret life outside their walls. This was a profoundly important personal realization for me, David, and I am grateful to you for prodding and prompting it.
David Albert is a homeschooling father, writer and speaker. He
is the author of a number of books, including And the Skylark
Sings with Me, Homeschooling and the Voyage of Self-Discovery
and Have Fun. Learn Stuff. Grow. Homeschooling and the
Curriculum of Love. He lives, works and writes in Olympia,
Washington. Visit David’s
website to purchase his books.
Joyce Reed is the parent of five successful home educated college grads. She served for 14 years as Associate Dean of The College at Brown University where she reached out to homeschooled teens. After retiring, she began consulting with primarily international and homeschooling families seeking to attend college. Visit Joyce’s website.