When did the world stop needing deeper and more beautiful things?
When did we stop believing it was important to create beauty? Perhaps, “beauty” is the wrong word necessary to focus our highly distracted attention. Maybe the right word is transcendence? “Transcendence,” existence or experience beyond the normal or physical level. You know, the kind of experience that stays with us and as they say, feeds the soul.
I get it – we have to make a “living” and that’s harder and more competitive in a global marketplace. Beauty is a luxury in such a world. We stop expecting it – thinking about it. It’s an after-thought.
But can we really live without beauty in our lives? I am not just talking about the arts, either. Beauty in all of its forms – external and internal. Beauty of thought, of language, of meaning and purpose. The breathtaking beauty of a starry sky. The smiles of people when they feel our appreciation. Watching children play.
There is so much beauty in the world – and I wonder why we are not craving more of it.
It’s About Business, Not Beauty…..
For the past decade the liberal arts education has been in decline. A valid argument could be made that its primarily driven by economics. But is that all?
In a New York Times article, As Interests Fades in the Humanities, Colleges Worry, author Tamar Lewin reports that the future of Stanford University’s liberal arts programs appear to be in jeopardy. Lewin reports that although 45% of the undergraduate division is clustered in the humanities, it has only 15% of the students. Computer science is now the university’s most popular major.
This seems to be the increasing fate of more and more universities. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) programs eclipse the humanities and draw ever-growing numbers of students hungry for job credentials. The 2009 recession, states Lewin, helped turn college into largely a tool for job preparation. Administrators are concerned.
I am too. My undergraduate liberal arts education was one of the important experiences of my life. Chekov. Dickens. Darwin. Marx. Architecture. Urban Studies. Modern Art. Worlds within worlds. Wonderful revelations. Rich conversations. New directions. Deep connections.
I’m envisioning a society devoid of writers, painters, poets and historians and it scares me. But mostly I’m worried about truth and beauty. Where will we find it – and most important, will we care?
According to Nathaniel Whittemore, a principal at Learn Capital, the notion of liberal arts began in ancient Greek and Roman societies and emerged from the idea that there were certain fields of knowledge that every free person should have command of.
For thousands of years, enlightened societies have agreed with this premise and organized their educational pursuits around this principle. The idea was not simply about knowing things, but about cultivating certain attributes of the mind necessary to engage the world.
Have we changed our collective minds about this? Are we drifting into a world where education is simply a higher-end version of technical school shaped by the needs of the business community?
Whittemore reminds us that last year, the amount of student debt by Americans surpassed regular consumer debt for the first time in history. In 2013 the average U.S. college graduates owed $35,200 in debt. Economists warn this situation is unsustainable and could be the next debt bomb that derails the economy. Students face years of unwritten indentured employment in jobs they may dislike without mobility or opportunity for change.
Robin Bates, an English professor and author of one of my favorites blogs, Better Living through Beowulf, compares the growing favorability of science over humanities to an earlier technology craze, “It sounds a little like the 1950’s and 1960’s when Sputnik was all the rage and literary studies felt they had to mimic the sciences – which is to say, undertake a cold, formalist analysis – to be taken seriously.”
Increasingly as programs in humanities must prove their worth in societies driven by economic bottom-lines one has to ask – where do passion, inspiration and beauty live?
Room for Beauty
There’s general agreement that beauty is highly subjective – in the eye (and every sense) of the beholder– which positions it at the polar opposite of colder, objective measurements of science. There is no measurement for beauty, which is, part of its wonder.
We experience beauty and our senses come alive. The late poet John O’Donohue wrote that to awaken beauty is the call of our time. In his last book, Beauty, O’Donohue exquisitely stated:
“The human soul is hungry for beauty: we seek it everywhere – in landscape, music, art, clothes, furniture, gardening, companionship, love, religion and in ourselves. When we desire the Beautiful, there is a sense of homecoming. Some of our most wonderful memories are of beautiful places where we felt immediately at home. We feel most alive in the presence of the Beautiful for it meets the needs of our soul. For a while the strains of struggle and endurance are relieved and our frailty is illumined by a different light in which we come to glimpse behind the shudder of appearances the sure form of things. In the experience we awaken and surrender in the same act. ”
We’re reminded that the Greek word for beauty is the same as calling – a homecoming – as John O’Donohue describes it.
Beauty transports us from the world of the prosaic to the transcendent. All that we perceive as beautiful brings us into another frequency of experience. Elusive but timeless – we grasp these moments of beauty because we deeply recognize their inherent value to the centrality of our being
The beauty of beauty is that it grounds us in the present moment. We are – for a brief time – completely engaged. Whether we lose ourselves in the words of great poets or in the resplendent light of artists like Vermeer, or drift away as we listen to the genius of Bach channeling through Yo-Yo-Ma or get lost in the thrilling moments of great oratory or enrich our brain reading the classics or glimpse slices of the heavens as imagined from visionaries like Hubble or step into the cathedrals of the natural world – beauty is who we are. For in beauty – there is great pleasure.
According to writer and philosopher Alain de Botton, ‘At first sight, philosophy and business seem worlds apart. Business is concerned with hard, practical decisions, made under competitive pressure, with imperfect knowledge and always with an eye to the bottom line.” de Botton likens art galleries to “apothecaries for our deeper selves.”
In de Bottons’ treatises he offers an unflinching and compelling analysis of a world increasingly consumed by business interests, “No sane person purposes or has ever proposed, an entirely utilitarian, production-oriented view of human purpose. We cannot merely produce goods and services as efficiently as we can, sell them to each other, as cheaply as possible, and die. Some idea of symbolic purpose, of pleasure-seeking rather than rent-seeking, of Doing Something Else, is essential to human existence.
The division between the office and the ivory tower has gone on too long.
I’m with de Botton, “We need the humanities not because they will produce shrewder entrepreneurs or kinder C.E.O’s but because they help us enjoy life more and endure it better. The reason we need the humanities is because we are human. That’s enough.”
The gods confound the man who first found out
How to distinguish hours – confound him, too,
Who in this place setup a sun-dial,
To cut and hack my days so wretchedly
Into small pieces —-Plautus
Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Consultants