A Judgment of Beauty At West Fourth Street Station (And a Rant about Education in These United States)

     Sometimes as a teacher of college students I am ridiculed by my own students. Today I got excited about describing an aesthetic judgment of beauty I witnessed in the cavity of the West Fourth Street Station as the D train sidled into the station - I will explain what that moment was in a moment - and Olivia, a student in the front row, just flat out laughed - you know, in that one-off laugh that does not indicate joy, but rather a mean, derisive laugh (a rough form of "huh") meant to show that she could not relate to what I was saying, so her only response was not to question me why, nor to give me a chance to elaborate, but to laugh in such a way as to communicate to me and the rest of the class, "what is this man talking about?"

     Maybe there was derisive laughter from this student because beauty and the subterranean chaos of the New York City subway system did not equate in her mind with a notion of beauty, or, it seems to me, the notion of beauty, a capacity to appreciate it - albeit in the slum of the West Fourth Street Station. I felt sad and isolated in front of the class. Not because they missed my point, but I felt isolated in that way a kid feels when they have said something wrong in front of a group of adults. As if I had said the wrong thing to a group of fellow human beings - and I do not think I am over-thinking this moment. I think educators, people like me who spend lots of time in classrooms, have witnessed two critical deformations in intellectual seriousness. First, we are educated to be producers, not thinkers. What this means is that a sharing response to what is beautiful is not what we do in classrooms. Notionally, we should be doing other more important endeavors (what this other stuff is exactly I have not fully ascertained but I get the impression it is dull and prosaic). Second, in the name of entertainment, the public sphere has been dumbed down to such a point that beauty is losing its shareability. I actually had the president of the school where I work tell me and a large group of faculty members that first and foremost the students should be entertained in the classroom. Tell a joke, he said. One time during a midterm exam a student got up from her seat and gave me her test. I asked her why she had not finished it and she told me, "if you had made this class more fun I would know this stuff." I never saw her again. She dropped the class.

    I want to add another point to my rant. There is a strange relativism circulating the airwaves. It goes like this. It does not matter what is said (or even what is articulated) because everyone is entitled to their opinion. While I appreciate the sort of relativism that resists absolutism  (X is right and Y is wrong so believe X or we kill you), I have begun to despise the form of relativism that says everyone is right in their own way so let's not talk about it because everyone has their own subjective truth. Maybe these things bother me because I teach Philosophy, but it has happened so many times in the classroom where my objective in the classroom is to get my students to think out loud about something; for example, to think about what is a meaningful life. It's hard not to think of Socrates' adage, spoken to those who will later execute him, that "the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being" but when it comes to a classroom of students not many people like to follow the example of Socrates. I do not mean to say my students are unintelligent. I mean to say they scoff and resent having to articulate why they hold the beliefs they hold so dearly. Thinking is hard belief and there is evidence to suggest we mortals are not so good at it. I get this a lot: I believe in God. That's enough. One student turned in a paper to me that had written on the top in crayon, "this is why I believe in God" and the rest of the paper was a brazen copy and paste of a chapter from the Hebrew Bible. When I asked her why she passed off Holy Writ as her own, she replied, "It's what I believe."
     When I get my students to articulate what constitutes a meaningful life, more often than not they are hard-pressed to come up with an adequate answer. So I say to the class that maybe it is not that everyone has their own opinion nor is it true that one way is right and every other way is wrong (this is the moment where the student who gave me the Bible chapter as a paper leaves and never comes back) but perhaps there is more than one answer to the question. This is the crux of my rant: we have held so dear to this ludicrous notion of subjectivity that lays hold to the claim that everyone has their own truth but it has undercut a greater claim to the freedom to articulate one's truth.
          This brings me to my sharing a moment where I judged something to be beautiful, namely the glint of light that reflected off the window of the motorman's car as the D train sidled into the station at West Fourth Street. My hunch is that we respect everyone's right to have their own opinion - everyone has their own opinion we say! - but we scoff at the notion that someone will actually share it with those around them. The audacity! No one shared my aesthetic judgment because they assumed I was wrong because they could not relate to what I was saying. So I asked them if the "Mona Lisa" is beautiful. Yes, they all said. It's in a museum, one said. They all agreed. Consensus becomes mob mentality.
      Maybe it is because people do not have the leisure to think through their experiences, I thought. Many of us are just trying to get by, I say to myself. It's easier to be told what is beautiful rather than puzzle it out for oneself. But. Wait. We don't read. Yes, we read. I know people read. But we don't read. I do this lesson where I get my students to read an image. Not a book. Not a blog entry (like this one) but an image. It's in an effort to show them the difference between abstract and concrete concepts. An abstract concept, I explain, paraphrasing the dictionary definition, is knowledge of the world that is non-physical, like two plus two equals four. Someone at this point quips that two plus two equals for is not abstract because they can show me two apples in one hand and two apples in the other and that equals four. I shake my head. Maybe they are right; however, I then say concrete knowledge is tangible, I can touch it, I can see it, I can taste it, I can hear it, I can smell it - I can glean through my sensory input that it has shape, color, some property I can construe through my perception of the object. The abstract concept of "two" is different from two concrete objects I perceive in front of me as two objects. As I write this I suspect I am presenting a dubious duality between concrete and abstract, but my point will be more clear in a moment. Without getting into a grand debate between Rationalism and Empiricism, I pull out "Blue Dog" by George Rodrique and I tell them to point out the abstract and concrete aspects of the image. Blue, someone in the back says and I put "blue" under the concrete column. Sad, someone says, and we put that under the abstract column, because sadness is a feeling that is not necessarily something I can sense as tangible, although, as someone points out, I can have a physical reaction to feeling sad, like a pain in my chest.   And the discussion goes on. We are doing philosophy. Awesome we are doing some kind of thinking. Right? And it is in this moment I feel like I am doing something right. Maybe I am an old fashioned liberal humanist educator. But I talk to teachers and principals and so many times they tell me what they want their students to do is "face the real world" so instead of reading fiction we want them to read non-fiction. Apparently, according to an article in the New York Times, teacher stopped teaching Don Quixote because it was easier to teach newspaper articles. My school does not have an art class. It should. Everything I ever learned about non-fiction was through fiction. I learned about the French Revolution through an introduction to David's "Death of Marat" in an Introduction to Art class I took in High School and I learned about mental perception through a viewing of Rashomon (not in a cognitive psychology book).
     What I am trying to say is that the more we want our students to face the real world what is really happening is that the world we seem to be setting up is this crazy future where the real world will have become equated to something like a scene in the A Wrinkle in Time where Meg is on planet X looking for her father and she sees a row full of house and all the children are bouncing a ball at the exact same rate and at the exact same time. I say to this to people and of course, their reaction is "that's dyspotic" but what they don't realize is that the version of freedom that is being championed is an awful like despotism. We want you to feel free to think nothing at all. It's like in some horrifying future we seem to be hurtling toward, it will be wrong to describe a moment of beauty to a fellow straphanger on the platform at West Fourth Street Station. I rather reflect on beauty than conform to ignorance.
    The class has finished. I am spent. I take the train home from West Fourth Street. The train sidles into the station. The glint of light is no longer there like it was this morning before class, before I shared my insight with the class, and I think to myself I am glad I caught it once - before it was gone, because what would it be like to live in a world where I would never be able to catch it, where it is never there to be caught?

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