Speaking of beauty
   And the mission of schools

I helped the adjudicators at the District Music Festival held in Polson this past weekend. It was like climbing out of a slummy little village into an alpine meadow.

After each performance, the adjudicators talked with students about their music. One older gentleman told the high school kids that that they would not really understand the intensity of love that a person could feel toward grandchildren until they had grandchildren of their own, but that it was that sort of intensity that he felt during their performance.

He went on to discuss technical aspects of their work, and they stood in their gowns listening respectfully and attentively. Awakened by his forthright talk about beauty, my own mind wandered. I began to think of a backcountry trip I had made a few years ago. I was helping with the search for a small plane that had vanished into the Mission Mountain Wilderness in western Montana. We were days past the time where we believed any of the passengers might still be alive, so our mission was recovery rather than rescue. The plane had been carrying three children besides the pilot and his fiancee. I had been in the mountains for several days, bushwhacking through rugged terrain, wearily and somewhat grimly doing what I believed needed to be done.

And then, descending the foothills at the base of Mount Harding, we came around a bend on an overgrown logging road and into utter astonishment.

Western Meadowlark

The air was sweet with the perfume of late May blossoms?so sweet that without speaking all three of us slowed, then stopped. Awakened by the aroma, we suddenly saw that all around us the dense greenery of underbrush was graced by white of service berry blossoms, violet-blue of clematis flowers, and red of honeysuckle blooms all set ablaze by the afternoon sun. Even stranger, the entire scene vibrated with the fluttering of thousands and thousands of butterflies. Above us in mixed conifers the sky thrilled with the pulsing twitter of grosbeaks and rock wrens, the calls of nuthatches, and the piercing throb and receding echoes of waxwings and thrushes.

I have never experienced a moment in nature when all the senses combined in such profound beauty. The three of us without speaking each apprehended in an instant the sublime reality into which we had stumbled, and we stood still and silent, taking it in. What to make of it was hard to think, let alone to say.

Intelligence flowed into us directly, without words, letting us know beyond argument that life and the earth were good.

This didn’t contradict the sad event that had drawn us to this place at this moment. It included it, unifying it in our minds with a reality we could only glimpse that was nonetheless vivid around us. Life was sorrow and tragedy, and the sorrow was suffused with something deeper and higher which was a joy through all our being.

Though we all experience such moments, they are hard to talk about--either we repeat cliches, or we find ourselves wrestling with large and formidable abstractions. And so, profound beauty tends to have no official reality. In the public realm, where decisions affecting our common life are made, beauty is rarely mentioned.

It’s hard to get far at a school board meeting by talking about rock wrens and clematis blossoms when we are up against earnest guys with charts. We can be sure they are safe. They’ll never make anything happen.

Beauty, on the other hand, is dangerous. It moves us to the depths of our beings. It changes us. It changes the world.

It occurred to me watching the program how much students learn from an insistence that performances be beautifully done. I’ve spent time in schools where the unofficial motto for everything was “that’s good enough,” and where everything tended toward shabbiness.

Leaving the festival, I felt that strange combination of hope and sadness that beauty often triggers hope because we glimpse the realm from which sublimity emerges and to which it is native, so we know that the better world we dream of really does exist. And sadness because for now it is momentary, the beauty unforming as it is formed.

Beauty, after all, is not a value. It’s an intuition. It’s a perception of a higher reality. It’s a message that our truest hopes are not false.

The best scientists know that beauty and elegance are crucial to developing sound scientific theory. They are important enough that beauty sometimes serves as a guide when things get too complex for the intellect. Some scientists believe that it’s better to achieve elegance even if the theory then doesn’t quite fit all the known facts. It’s more probably that the “facts” may contain measurement errors or other abnormalities than it is that an inelegant solution is true. Beautiful and elegant theories can be wrong, but ugly and complicated ones are almost certainly so.

I would like to hear teachers talking more about the role of beauty in teaching. We have too many ugly and klutzy solutions in schools and too little striving for breathtaking beauty. It is beauty that inspires longing for the ideal, and it is in attention to the ideal that critical thought and wisdom become important.  (And they do become important. Very important. Lousy people long ago learned the power of art of to make lousy things seem good. I think of the Third Reich’s preoccupation with music, painting, and architecture, or of much of today’s music created by commercial and cultural spin masters. As I said, beauty is dangerous.)

High schools have the potential to play the central role in the lives of American communities. Because concern for our young is the strongest value that might bind us together, they are the places with the most power to bring us together, out of our various churches and anti-churches, into a common culture.

For them to do the work that perhaps only they can now do, teachers and principals need to live among young people in ways more profound than the purveyors of tests are likely to imagine. They need to ponder beauty. They need to accept Adam’s curse and labor to create beauty. This labor includes the study of ideals

At this time in history we are awash in floods of material goods but often confused by our inability to form strong purposes as to what our lives are for. If we don’t engage high schools students in creating cultural artifacts of enduring beauty, we may be miseducating them. It is in beauty that they may understand their purpose, without which time and money too often become a curse.

Beauty gives them hope, which is the lifeblood of purpose.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey






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