Learning’s Landscape of Beauty

False Harbor Milky Way

I love it when an experience puts me into what the great Irish writer, James Joyce, would call a state of “esthetic arrest”—when an experience stops time.  I am a teacher by profession but I paradoxically most often find myself in the role of the inquirer, what one might associate more with the student.  This learning state is most often invoked when I am waylaid by experiences that trigger my fascination.  One recent Sunday morning, my intention was to listen to a podcast recommended to me by a dear friend featuring the late great Irish poet and Celtic philosopher, John O’Donohue titled, The Inner Landscape of Beauty.  I found myself repeatedly pausing, rewinding and taking notes.  My sense of wonder was completely awakened and doing backflips as I listened to the soothing flow of masterfully curated words delivered in that euphonious Connemaran brogue of western Ireland, each blooming with the explosive vibrancy of a parched desert valley experiencing a spontaneous floral meadow after a storm.  He mentioned the word for “beauty” in Greek is kalon and how kalon has its origin in kalein, “a calling.”  For some inexplicable reason, that launched my imagination into orbit.  I’ve never heard of this connection and it really spoke to me to the point of feeling abducted by an urgent desire to know more about it.  So after the podcast was over, I started researching this association online.  The next thing I know, hours I had planned to allocate to other activities and tasks had vanished into the time span of a hummingbird’s breath.  I was completely engrossed in my online quest for more information.  My research efforts ultimately uncovered a detailed exploration of this Greek etymology referenced in a book by an obscure French philosopher, Jean Louis Chrétien, called The Call and The Response, which I hunted down and ordered immediately.  In it, he makes a very fascinating philosophical argument that “beauty,” kalon, is derived from kalein, “a calling” which originated from what he suggests to be the first uttered word, kalo, which means “I call.”  The utterance of kalo is suggested to be the original act in the great creation stories of time immemoriam of birthing our world by naming things into being from unbeing.  This “naming” or “calling” is the original act of creation which is described as kalos, “the good.”  I was totally beguiled by the notion that the simplest creative act of “naming” is an origin story for “beauty,” that beauty is animated by the subject calling itself into our attention and awareness when we place our conscious gaze on it.  I thought about how much of what passes in my own visual field on a daily basis goes unnoticed but when something connects with me on the plane of beauty, my vision collapses into a gaze and the subject of my gaze is brought into existence, into my field of conscious awareness.  This mere “noticing” is a creative act.  Chrétien goes onto say that beauty itself is intrinsically imbued with a natural unspoken calling or “homing” mechanism, unique to each person (although there are often certain subjects quite universally regarded as being beautiful), that is triggered when an observer encounters something that puts us in a state of esthetic arrest, what James Joyce would describe as “proper art,” but what the rest of us would simply call “beautiful.”  So when something in our field of vision abducts our gaze and and elevates us into the timeless state of esthetic arrest, perhaps this encounter functions as some kind of strange mirror that enables us to connect with that aspect of ourselves that is a part of the original creative act of the world being named into being from nonbeing.  Beauty, by extension of Chrétien’s philosophical thesis, might be concluded then to be the “stuff” we are made of.  I love to look at these kinds of things metaphorically, to see how they connect to my own experience of life.  What a fascinating narrative to create for a single word.  

Beauty has a vitally important presence in the great learning experiences.  Our contemporary educational model is often hostile to inviting the presence of beauty in learning.  What exactly is this “beauty” I am referring to that is to be found in learning?  In the Greek sense of the word for beauty, kalon, each person’s unique approach to how they learn from the world is honored.  Great teachers are agents in the creation of the experience of kalon in a learning environment through their ability to truly see and respond to each student’s uniqueness with respect to how they learn and the unique purpose and path they have in the world.  Great teachers have an ability to recognize each student’s genius that is trying to emerge and through the acknowledgement of the uniqueness of each student’s learning style and speed, I like to think they, in a sense, are “calling forth into being” that student’s uniqueness from a state of nonbeing, or in this case, anonymity.  Anonymity and not feeling seen are, to my mind, among the biggest barriers to an individual’s development and this is probably the area where our education system fails our students the most.  Teachers are often not encouraged, trained or given permission to meet students at the level of unique individuals but are instead often obligated to follow a set track (via rigid curriculums) that disregards the needs of the individual for the identity of the collective.  Teaching is reduced to being merely transactional in that the goal is the sterile transfer of information coupled with convergent collectively informed conclusions about how to interpret that information.  Learning, in its highest form, recognizes knowledge to be the dynamic process of assimilating organic cells of information to create a relationship to a new organism that is alive within us rather than being reduced to the accumulation and “warehousing” of inert data points.  From this perspective, knowledge is a living entity that one cultivates rather than acquires.  When this natural process is replaced by an educational model that is transactional, all students are treated the same and each student’s uniqueness is lost and unacknowledged. With the contemporary model of education, there is an agenda—a rigid destination and objective that is so unyielding, it does not permit teachers to consider how their students are responding.  Such a disconnected approach to education often feels akin to a forced march.  True learning includes a destination but where it departs from our conventional educational models is that there is a recognition that how each student may arrive at the destination will likely be unique.  The goal of the teacher practicing her craft in its originally intended spirit of creativity is to shepherd the student and support them on their own particular journey rather than force everyone to march single file on the same path toward a collectively defined destination.  True learning also honors the fact that the pace at which each student moves toward the destination will vary.  Some will move faster.  Some will move more slowly. Some will appear to be stationary.  There is an absence of the comparative preoccupation that contemporary education approaches become obsessed with because each person is inimitable and ineffable.  The acknowledgement of the uniqueness of the individual is beautiful, in the Greek sense.  It is to have one’s uniqueness called into being–called into recognition.

As teachers, I truly believe when we are deeply connected to our own sense of wonder about life and the subject matter we teach, which for me and the teachers who work with Premiere Language is language, culture and their intersection, we are calling forth into being flint moments of imagination and creativity that light the inner flame of our students’ curiosity and sense of wonder.  We escape the prison of the cafeteria style learning experience where every class is rigidly planned and measured out and everyone gets the same predictable standardized experience.  I remember my time, years ago, teaching freshman and sophomore English in South Korea at Yonsei University.  The temptation was to be efficient by creating your lesson for your first class and then duplicate that lesson for the subsequent classes so you could theoretically be on “cruise control” for the rest of the week. That never really sat well with me because it was so unstimulating.  Everything would start to feel highly repetitive and boring to me.  I always feel that I can’t expect my students to be engaged and excited about the lesson I’m teaching if I’m not excited about it.  Education reformist Sir Ken Robinson satirically explains to great effect that we have to distinguish between the “task and achievement senses” of verbs in this popular TED talk which I also referred to in my earlier blog post titled, Rekindling the Wonder in Learning.  He says, “Teaching is a word like that. You can say, ‘There’s Deborah, she’s in room 34, she’s teaching.’ But if nobody’s learning anything, she may be engaged in the task of teaching but not actually fulfilling it.  The role of a teacher is to facilitate learning. That’s it. And part of the problem is, I think, that the dominant culture of education has come to focus on not teaching and learning, but testing.”  I could write a whole separate blog post about the pathological obsession our education system has on standardized testing so I’ll refrain from diving too deeply into that.  Suffice to say, testing is really a symptom of the much larger problem of a dominant culture of education that has become highly preoccupied with efficiency.  Efficiency is an undeniably phenomenal tool that modern human beings have mastered to make incredible advancements that have elevated the quality of life exponentially in the last few hundred years.  Learning, however, is an old “legacy” process we are genetically hardwired with that remains stubbornly resistant to how much it can be enhanced by efficiency (which happens to be the topic of my next blog post).  Giving students iPads and providing interactive smart boards for teachers has not resulted in more engaging learning environments.  In many reported cases, it’s had the opposite effect.  Students are more disengaged than ever.  Preoccupation with efficiency creates a hyper-arid environment that is hostile to learning being able to flourish.  An engaging learning experience, for me, naturally starts with the presence of beauty which is a carriage pulled by the horses of imagination and creativity.  If the imagination of the student isn’t activated, boredom begins to germinate and dull the mind.  Imaginative learning environments start with teachers being engaged and fascinated with the subject matter they are teaching.  Moreover, I believe great teachers have a general spirit of curiosity about the world around them.  All great teachers are ultimately great students.  This is a key to repairing the marriage between education and learning.  We, as teachers, become agents in this process through actively stewarding and cultivating our connection to curiosity, wonder, and kalon.  Let’s call into being a new era of deeply engaging learning experiences for a generation of thirsty students waiting for the rehydrating rains of imagination to rescue them from Sir Ken Robinson’s bleak “education’s Death Valley.” 

All photos © Chris Franek

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