"Beauty is the Gift of God" - Thomas Aquinas. But does it have any role to play in education? Shall we confine it to Art, or is beauty relevant to the entire curriculum?
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Some time ago I read Roger Scruton’s small but well argued book entitled Beauty 1. It is partly a lament for a time when the artists had a divine commission to raise our thoughts heavenward through their work. Scruton argues that in the 20th century, art, architecture and music turned their backs on beauty, making a cult out of ugliness and resigned themselves to self referential mirroring of a world that had lost both its sense of transcendence and its grounding in the wisdom of the past 2 thesis that human reason is essential for appreciating beauty, which is itself a timeless concept. Some might argue that this is an overly rational exposition. There is surely more to our engagement with beauty than a disinterested, irreducible contemplation. Plato’s idea of renouncing desire is lurking close to the surface here and I wonder whether Scruton, for all his erudition and sensibility, has not swung the polemical pendulum too far. I suspect, and the challenge is to underpin this Biblically, that there is an ‘animal joy’ in our response to beauty, to quote Sebastian Smee, the art critic of the Boston Globe 3 this visceral, non rational response to beauty is also present in our aesthetic engagement.
Then again, it is said that philosophers rarely seem to be able to move beyond their intellectually mediated world!
Educators frequently find themselves working in situations where a rounded appreciation of the multiple facets of reality is missing. Once, in early schooling, all things could be integrated and engage freely with one another. With increasing specialisation we have tended to function as if beauty belongs in the Art department and rationality has been commandeered by mathematics and physics. Of interest here was my experience last year of being the rapporteur at a conference near CERN in Geneva with the title, Big Bang and the interfaces of knowledge. The proceedings are, incidentally, now available as a free download from iBooks. One paper was delivered by Jeff Forshaw, Professor of Particle Physics at the University of Manchester. His topic was to speak about the role of beauty in physics.
In a subsequent video interview I did with him, available in full in the ebook, I posed the question, “Does beauty have any role to play in the work of a research physicist like yourself?” His answer was, “Absolutely - it’s the reason I do physics ... I do it because of this phenomenal beauty that is present in the fundamental laws that govern how the elementary particles behave....it is awe inspiring.” He did not quote Einstein, but the latter’s comment, “the pursuit of beauty is a sphere of activity in which we are permitted to remain children all our lives”, resonates with the excitement Jeff, dare I say it, beautifully communicated about his work. God used to be referred to as a mathematician in the days that Scruton harks back to. Perhaps He is still running the universe along such beautiful mathematical lines, but contra Plato, I suspect that God delights in his handiwork and finds joy in both His contemplation of it and His energetic upholding of the beautiful creation we are privileged to inhabit, investigate, subdue and contemplate in turn.
Adrian Brown is a trustee at The Stapleford Centre. A speaker at national and international conferences, his publications include Skills Challenge (1992), Skills Challenge II (1995), God Talk, Science Talk (1997), articles in many educational anthologies, numerous book reviews and articles in journals ranging from the Journal of Education and Christian Belief, RE Today, to Science and Christian Belief and The Swedish Journal of Religion. He was a major contributor to Test of Faith: Science and Religion Meet: Resources for Schools (2010).
Grove Books most recently published his Reassessing the Culture of Assessment: Weighing Pigs Does Not Make Them Heavier (2011).
1 R. Scruton, Beauty, OUP, 2009
2 I first encountered a similar thesis as an undergraduate in H.R. Rookmaaker, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, IVP, 1970.
3 So much for the pleasures of the flesh - The Guardian
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