Beauty Plus Education Equals a More Sustainable World?

By allowing beauty to play a role in education, we may find the answers we need to foster more sustainability in the world.

Beauty Plus Education Equals a More Sustainable World?

The two statements I hear most often whenever I bring up the subject of beauty are "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder" and "Beauty is only skin deep."

Beauty, in other words, is subjective and superficial. End of discussion.

But until about the seventeenth century, most people thought that beauty was objectively present in things. In the East and the West, beauty was associated with holiness — and with the harmony and patterns of wholeness. The Buddha's friend and first disciple, Ananda, once remarked to his master that, "Half the holy life, O master, is friendship with the beautiful, association with the beautiful, communion with the beautiful." To this, the Buddha replied, "Say not so, Ananda, say not so. It is not half the holy life. It is the whole of the holy life."

For Westerners, beauty existed in the world because of God: God was understood as being both perfectly beautiful and the reason for all created beauty. The work of God was the kosmos, literally, the order of things, in contrast to primordial chaos. Now, the word "cosmos" has been claimed by the beauty industry: a cosmetologist is someone who puts your face in order. Likewise, the word "aesthetics" now refers to the art of manicure, facials, and eyebrow shaping. But the word literally means "to feel" — its opposite is anaesthetic.

For many reasons, beauty has lost its status as elemental to the structure of the universe. Our dominant value system today is one in which money and material goods are most coveted. We live in a world in which "time is money" and in which attention to detail and to the demands of beauty is considered unnecessary extravagance. Science tells us that beauty isn't objectively real because it can't be weighed or measured. In a scientifically oriented world, we are trained to seek clear definitions before we enter into sustained inquiry, but one of beauty's most notorious deficiencies is that it seems to be resistant to definition. Many feminists as well have happily washed their hands of beauty, having experienced the demeaning effects of beauty on women. In a world of genocide and ecological decline, many artists have felt that beauty is hardly adequate to the psychological and political landscape of modernity.  

Any effort to teach about sustainability presupposes the resurrection of the natural world and its value. The shift from nature as machine to nature as organism must also include a shift from beauty as a subjective value, only in the eye of the beholder, to beauty as the value that clothes life itself. This is a dramatic shift, since we have practically lost our language for beauty and our confidence in speaking of it. But beauty is intrinsic to an ecological paradigm. Life is not value-neutral; to be alive is to embody intrinsic value.

While life and beauty are not one and the same, they dance cheek to cheek. In a rhythm of reciprocity, beauty enhances life and life reaches toward beauty. Life that runs away with itself, as in the unchecked growth of cancer cells, is self-destructive; it is life against life. Life that exists in harmony, coherence, and balance (all words associated with beauty) with other life is life-promoting. This is life that wears the mantle of beauty. We have called it by the name of health, too, and of wholeness, words that are in kinship.   

If we endeavor to mould a civilization in which wholeness, coherence, relationality, and feeling are central concerns, in which refining and enlarging our sensitivities to the life that surrounds us and is in us, then beauty must be embraced as a guiding principle — not an aside or an "also" — but as a core aspect of inquiry in our educational systems.

Teaching about sustainability, then, requires more than teaching about ecosystem relations, biological processes, and policy development. Sustainable education involves teaching strategies for life affirmation. Such an approach moves us away from excessive dependence on what has become the standard goal and tool of modern education, critical thinking — which also has its philosophical home in a mechanistic worldview in which knowledge is the detached examination of parts. When critical thinking is our primary tool for understanding the world, we must wonder how we can avoid the mess on the shop floor — the motors, flywheels, screws, and gaskets lying helter-skelter after the lesson in taking the world apart. Education that is beauty-centric will not neglect to study the parts, but it will not mistake the part for the whole or the whole for a mere collocation of parts. Such wholeness is an aspect of both an ecological worldview and a beauty-centric education.

Wes Jackson, who runs the Land Institute in Kansas, often shows his audiences a photo of an old oil tank, rusting away in the middle of a farmer's field. For him, that tank is a symbol of the kind of farming that he is against — farming that depends on oil rather than renewable energy. But the tank is not only an image of unsustainable farming practices; it is also an image of ugliness. There is a relationship between sustainability and beauty, and we need to begin to speak that relationship in order to give emotional honesty to our ecological work. If we do not say, "This tank is ugly, and so are these buildings, and this land use," we continue to be yoked to the mechanistic worldview which deprived the intellect of an emotional life.

The psychotherapist James Hillman has posed the sorts of aesthetic questions that must be added to our educational agendas. "What is the cost," he asks, "to physical well-being and psychological balance of careless design, of cheap dyes, inane sounds, structures, and spaces? To pass a day in an office under direct glaring light, in bad chairs, victim of the constant monotonous hum of machine noise … among artificial plants … and then, at day's end, to enter the traffic system … fast food, project housing — what does this cost? What does it cost in absenteeism, in sexual obsession … overeating and short attention span, in pharmaceutical remedies and gigantic escapism industries of wasteful shopping, chemical dependency, etc? Could the causes of major social, political, and economic issues of our time also be found in the repression of beauty?"

For the past two hundred years it must be admitted that we have failed beauty. We have allowed it to remain in the background of almost every human endeavor. And in failing beauty we have become a culture that cannot distinguish between longing and craving. Perhaps worst of all, we have made way for a singular value system — economism. What has been left empty by the death of beauty has been filled by relentless acquisitiveness. Indeed, until beauty becomes part of the foreground of our cultural life, we will not see a successful shift to an ecological paradigm.  

If beauty is a core dimension of life, then to diminish it and belittle it is to diminish and belittle our own lives. Allowing beauty to play a role in the kind of education that we offer, encouraging our students to contribute to the beauty of the world, is, I believe, one of our most important strategies for sustaining the world.