Pretty Useless

I mentioned in an earlier post that last fall marked my final go-round with the core capstone, a required seminar in which students evaluate the meaning, significance and worth of their liberal arts education.  We begin the new core curriculum next fall and I am on a department chair load reduction for spring semester; so I've taught the capstone's unit on the value of the aesthetic dimension for the last time.

I will miss it.  Many of my students, of course, have a kind of learned helplessness when it comes to a critical appreciation of the arts.  Confronted with a painting, a piece of poetry or--worse--classical music and they just shut down.  Curiously, I seldom get this reaction when I try to engage them with architecture. I suspect it’s because they have seldom thought about buildings as aesthetic objects or expressions of ideas and values. Even so, they have experienced a lot of buildings and aren't intimidated by them.

I usually start by dragging in any of the dozen sets of blocks I own and asking them to design structures that express an emotion like playful or an idea like dangerous, sacred, or secure. Later we breakdown the design choices they made. Often, too, we'll take a walk through campus talking about buildings as forms of communication.

For many of my students, this is the first time they have ever thought deeply about objects divorced from a use. And we certainly live in a society that equates value with usefulness. My campus tour usually begins in a very plain fire code stairwell. It's a simple transitional space that people never give a second thought to. It's just there to allow people to move between floors in case of emergencies. I always end the tour on a large, sweeping, semi-circular staircase with stained glass siderails. It's something a showpiece in the newest building on campus and a beautiful if inefficient use of space. A less appealing staircase would have taken people to the second floor just as well—perhaps better.

The contrast between the two staircases is a concrete way to talk about the value of the aesthetic and symbolic content of architecture. Of course, we all respond on an unconscious level to beautiful things, but with a little effort we can also better understand what these things communicate and even how they work. Perhaps the value of this kind of deeper aesthetic understanding is that it reminds us that “usefulness” isn’t the entirety of human life. Indeed, many things that we value deeply—music, art, and even friendship—are often quite inefficient and useless. I guess the question is this: are we educating human beings who are incidentally accountants, nurses or business executives? Or are we educating accountants, nurses and business execs who are incidentally human beings?

Speaking for myself, I sure hope it’s not the latter.


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