When you see something stunningly beautiful, what's the first thing you reach for? Like many people, I reach for a camera. But why? And what might this tendency have to do with why we go to university?
In a recent article, R. J. Snell (Director for the Center on the University and Intellectual Life at the Witherspoon Institute) provides 5 suggestions for what a successful college career looks like. Among his advice is: “Find the best professors, read the best books, study the most beautiful music and art, struggle with the first and most abiding questions.”
There’s a lot to consider in this single sentence. For example, Snell (pictured here) doesn’t advise seeking out classes with the easiest exams, the most entertaining PowerPoint slides or the most modern technology. Instead, he says to search for classes that assign the best books (which may have been written more than 5-10 years ago!). He also suggests that students select subjects oriented not simply to the job they might finally end up with, but to “the first and most abiding questions.” That might mean fitting some philosophy and theology into one’s class schedule.
But I want to focus on Snell’s recommendation for university students to pursue what’s beautiful. What does beauty have to do with education or the quest for truth?
Let’s return to our tendency to take photos of beautiful things. According to Harvard Professor Elaine Scarry, we do this because beauty stimulates replication. That is, beauty inspires the desire in us to repeat it by bringing copies of itself into being.
When we go somewhere beautiful, we take a photo so that we can, in a sense, freeze that moment and repeat it for ourselves later, somehow making the experience of that beautiful thing last. Ludwig Wittgenstein said that when the eye sees something beautiful, the hand wants to draw it.
Plato even thought that when the eye sees someone beautiful, the whole body wants to reproduce him/her, and this helps explain the desire for procreation!
It also explains the basic phenomenon of staring. Staring reveals our desire to continue to behold the beautiful object in our perceptual field a little bit longer.
In her book On Beauty and Being Just, Scarry claims that we so desire beautiful things to remain in our perception that we seek out opportunities to place ourselves in the path of beauty. This desire, she argues, is the basic impulse underlying education.
“One submits oneself to other minds (teachers) in order to increase the chance that one will be looking in the right direction when a comet makes its sweep through a certain patch of sky.”
When we catch a glimpse of beauty—whether from a profound idea, an elegant mathematical formula, a captivating work of literature or music, or even a law that is fair (notice the word can denote both a just rule and a beautiful face)—we want not only to replicate that experience, but also to gain further clarity about it. Beauty convicts us and motivates us to pursue its truth, and so we seek out those who can help us toward this end.
In short, beauty is a starting place for education. That's why I think Snell is right about a successful college career:
“Trust me, in twenty years, no one, not even you, will care about your [grades or marks]. But the books you read will form you now and remain with you then. Find the best professors, read the best books, study the most beautiful music and art, struggle with the first and most abiding questions. … If you graduate and can count Plato, Aristotle, Dante, Austen, Augustine, and Moses as your friends, and are a student of those professors who count those same people as their friends, you’ll have succeeded.”
That’s advice worth repeating.
Register for Beautiful Arguments and
Dancing at the Witherspoon Fellowship!
Registrations are filling up for this year's Witherspoon Fellowship. Hosted by the Millis Institute on 23-24 June, this program offers Year 10-12 students a 2-day course on "leadership through the liberal arts." During this time, emerging leaders take part in Socratic discussions over great texts, debate and public speaking exercises, an Oxford-style formal hall dinner, and ballroom dancing lessons!
See here for information on how to register.