I’m a traditional student. A 3 Subject notebook and a Pilot g2 pen (.05) are all I need for class.
However, I can’t help but see the bright screens of the students sitting in front of me in class. While the professor may be under the unique impression that they are studiously transcribing his or her every word into a meticulously outlined word document, that is far from true. Spoiler alert: they are all on Pinterest.
Blame it on students not wanting to pay attention, I’m sure there is a partial truth there. I would argue that something else is going on that perhaps we haven’t noticed.
Do you ever take a look around the classroom and feel incredibly uninspired by the variations of beige painted on the wall? Or look down at the desk you are sitting in with it’s unappeauling two-tone seat and desk surface in a color you couldn’t quite put your finger on. Is that blue? Green? And I’m positive that yellow is the same as the cabinets in my grandmother’s kitchen. Nothing about these rooms are appealing. They provide utility, and a place I can sit down and listen, but aside from that they have no aesthetic value.
Compare this scene to the perfectly composed photos that Pinterest lives for. In an instant I can be removed from the mediocrity of the physical classroom to a world of floral arrangements, awe inspiring libraries, dreamy coffee shops, or even the streets of Italy.
Focusing on Italy for a moment, the aesthetic quality of the country on a whole brings pleasure. Dietrich believes this is so because of “the unique marriage between architecture and nature that is a specific characteristic of Italy (2).” Who would not rather be there than in class?
Please do not misunderstand me. As I said I am a traditional student who listens, takes notes with a pen and paper, and enjoys what she studies. I write for a philosophical blog, does that not scream “NERD” to you? I do however believe that the learning environment should not only engage the mind but raise the soul through its aesthetic appeal. Beauty has the power to broaden and liberate the person (4). What better place should that effect be engaged then in conjunction with enriching the mind?
The value of aesthetics in our environment is one that seems to me to have been lost somewhere along the line. We have replaced beauty with utility. Everything has a quantifiable goal. Take this in terms of the classroom from a faculty perspective. They need more space, to get more students, to increase revenue, to pay the professors. The cycle continues. It calls to my mind the point of education. Is it to make a profit? Is university a business? On some level, of course, a university needs to be fiscally responsible. But, the primary goal of a university is and should be to form students as persons.
Beauty has the power to push the person beyond mere utility and unlock a depth of meaning. A utilitarian mindset speaks of a level of superficiality. The superficial person, in the words of Dietrich, “dreads the effort involved in penetrating the depths of being; he wants to remain on the periphery… he passes with a light touch from one thing to the other (5).” We should move from talking in the classroom about the existence of depth of being, to attempting to understand it. Bring beauty back into the classroom and allow it to do its work.
Beauty does not cause a mere effect in us but it creates the experience of being-affected. The difference lies in an understanding of the relationship of beauty to the person. If I were to push someone and they fell, their falling would be the effect of my pushing. Being-affected is an intentional relationship which takes place when the person steps into contact with something meaningful in itself. This might be easier to understand in comparison to the experience of love. When you enter into a relationship and fall in love with the other, you would not call this a causal relationship. Your care for the beloved is a response to the value they possess as another human person. Beauty also has value intrinsic to itself. It affects us when we step into meaningful relationship with the beautiful object - or in this case a classroom.
If you are one of the students that pinterests during class, I don't condemn you. Human persons desire the beautiful. That is not to say I encourage you to not pay attention to your lectures, but I would suggest that our desire to drift away is at least partially due to the lack of beauty in the classroom. Without beauty we experience an absence. There is a depth to the person that cannot be understood in terms of utility. Do not wait for your classrooms to be redesigned to delve into this depths. Take opportunities to step into that intentional relationship with beauty, and allow yourself to be affected.
1. Image one
2. Dietrich von Hildebrand, Aesthetics Volume I, 324
3. Image Two
4. Ibid, 364
5. Ibid, 240
6. Image Three