Beauty contested

In today’s political and psychological climate, teaching some liberal arts standards has become an abyss to avoid, says Crispin Sartwell

July 11, 2019
Head and arm sculpture
Source: Getty

This past spring, I taught two courses on beauty and existentialism. Looking back at them now, I’ve concluded that I am likely never to teach the former again, and that if I ever teach the latter, I will do so with extreme care, rethinking the themes, figures and texts. This has to do with who my students are today, and what they’re thinking and feeling in my class and beyond. But it is also to do with who I am: an ageing white male professor at a very politically aware and psychologically fraught moment.

I’ve taught a course on beauty on and off for some time, and I wrote a book on the topic. It’s one of the most traditional philosophical themes (although somewhat out of fashion since the early 20th century). I usually focus on classic accounts by Plato, Plotinus, Hume and Kant, as well as treatments by some non-Western and contemporary figures such as Ananda Coomaraswamy and Dave Hickey. I focus too on the students’ experiences of beauty, encouraging them to bring beautiful things to class and to write about their own intense or quotidian experiences. We concentrate on celebrating beautiful things, the experience of which I regard – speaking only for myself – as the meaning of life.

I start by telling my students that a class about beauty should be a pleasure to teach and a pleasure to take. This semester’s version was neither.

Painting of woman and horse

Now, in each iteration of the course over 25 years, I have spent some time on the feminist critique of male standards of beauty and of the objectifying depiction of women in the arts and elsewhere. But it has not been the dominant theme. I concentrate instead on the exaltation of everyday aesthetic experience, on trees and flowers and food and music. This semester, however, for the first time, there was an amazingly hostile vibe among a number of my female students. They didn’t want to talk about themes other than the feminist critique. Several told me, as a group, that they were disappointed that the course was largely devoted to art (though it’s cross-listed between the philosophy and art departments), and that they had expected it to focus on the sociology of gender oppression. They made it evident that they regarded the entire topic as toxic, and that their only response to beauty was resistance.

I started asking students, “Is it in my head, or is everyone scowling at me?” No, they knew exactly what I was talking about. As a young professor, I often had anxiety dreams in which I was lecturing without trousers, or walked into a classroom to teach a subject I knew nothing about (“Welcome to Calculus 2!” Wait, Calculus 2?). For the first time in decades, I started having such dreams again.

My students focused in class (and in evaluations) on the sort of person who was teaching the course, which, when it is regarded as discrediting, will tend to make one feel trouserless. But they had a point, of course: the person teaching their course was the sort of person I am. I had started my own book (with which I also begin the class), after all, with a description of my boyhood crush on Diana Rigg as Mrs Peel in the British television series The Avengers. And over the first few weeks the students sorted themselves out by gender, which I found disturbing once it struck me. Sixteen kids: all the female students on one side of the room (my left as I faced them) and all the males on the other, with the exception of one who had moved to the far left.

The last thing you want as a lecturer is for a class to degenerate into a hostile twice-weekly encounter between lecturer and students, or students with each other. This had never even struck me as a possibility before the last couple of years. My task is to teach people, not to browbeat them or argue them into submission, or to spend the semester in self-defence. I tried almost desperately to fix the themes and atmosphere as the course went on. I emailed one of the students begging for advice on how to do better, saying things like “I don’t want to be a bad teacher, I want to be a good teacher; help me.” I altered the readings and devoted a good chunk of the semester to Wendy Steiner’s feminist treatment of beauty in the arts. I tried to give sympathetic scope even to bristlingly critical remarks, which I hoped would lead to wide-ranging or provocative discussions, but never quite did.

The modifications and mediations might have helped a little; at least, people seemed slightly happier at the end of the course than in the middle, although the gender segregation persisted. But I have concluded that, at least for the time being, the topic is too difficult for a person like me to teach. I even started to wonder if it was wrong – or showed something wrong about me – that I ever taught or wrote about beauty, although maybe that is also some of my best work. This is bewildering.

The issues with existentialism were quite different. The political themes raised by figures such as Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, Camus and de Beauvoir are myriad, and their positions are often extremely problematic: they appear to be radical individualists, and Heidegger, for example, was a Nazi, while Sartre spent a lot of energy defending Stalin. But we were able to discuss these things in class and office hours and papers in a worthwhile and even illuminating way.

The issues, rather, were personal and psychological. The figures we studied are deeply problematic in that respect too. All of them have a touch of madness, or often write as though they do. They are not primarily concerned with abstract philosophical questions – such as “How is empirical knowledge possible?” – but with experiencing and describing the darkest dimensions of human experience. Kierkegaard, for example, wrote books such as Fear and Trembling, The Concept of Dread and The Sickness Unto Death. I hadn’t quite remembered how death-obsessed the classic texts of existentialism really are until I ran through them again with these students.

The selections I assigned from Heidegger’s Being and Time (the most readable and, arguably, central passages of this wickedly difficult book) were about death, which the existentialists take to be a or the defining human reality; for all of them, knowledge of our own deaths is both distinctively human and in some sense impossible. Either way, they explore the theme centrally and continuously. The course began with Kierkegaard asking “What does it mean to die?” It ended with Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, which argues eventually that one should not commit suicide. Before that, though, it seems to praise suicide as in some sense an honest or even courageous response to the absurdity of the human condition, the difference between what the world is and what we need it to be.

Right from the start, I had students in my office, hesitantly broaching their own psychological struggles along these lines or even describing their own suicidal moments. Two of them directly indicated to me that they thought reading texts on these themes could be dangerous for them. One was crying as she said it.

Now, unlike the course on beauty, it’s probably been almost 20 years since I taught existentialism. College-age people have changed a lot in the meantime; I don’t know whether they are more fragile, or simply more willing to express their fragility.

I modified the course in response, although less dramatically than in the case of the one on beauty, partly because I felt more restricted to figures and texts now regarded as canonical. Early in the semester, I said that I would not be hostile to anyone who felt that they needed to drop out, and would try to make sure it didn’t prevent them completing their credits for the year. Later, I suggested, for example, that if students thought they should not read The Myth of Sisyphus right now, they could read and write papers on Camus’ The Stranger or The Plague, which raise many of the same issues but with a bit more fictional distance. I also introduced de Beauvoir’s Pyrrhus and Cineas into the class for the first time. This consists largely of abstract considerations of issues such as the meaning of “transcendence” but also contains searing passages about death and suicide. I emphasised the abstractions and, on a couple of occasions when the students asked about the other material in class, deflected back to them.

Man Smoking

To be honest, I pictured some of my students attempting suicide, or ending up hospitalised with an emotional crisis. I didn’t think I could bear it, and I worried that I was actually harming people. Admittedly, I would be harming them by teaching them classic works of philosophy. But I try (with mixed success, of course) to avoid harming people at all.

It’s one thing to read or even produce screeds about today’s “social justice warriors” and “snowflakes”, or sneer at talk of class materials that “trigger” or “traumatise”. It’s another thing to encounter real people, to whom one has a personal and professional responsibility of care, who are politically hostile (often for defensible reasons) or genuinely struggling psychologically (as I have myself at different times of my life). When a student is in your office telling you about their despair or their history of self-harm, there is no possibility (I hope) of yelling “Snowflake!” at them or not taking what they are saying seriously. These students were obviously sincere, obviously struggling, and generous and brave in their self-revelation, and even in their political resistance.

I believe I am under some sort of absolute duty to think about effective ways to teach the actual students I have now. They are not political opponents to triumph over, or people at whose cost I might make some sort of point about the culture today. They are people I have a duty to challenge, but intellectually rather than psychologically. I am obligated to try to bring them to a point where they know more than they did before, or think more clearly. Beating them down politically or damaging them psychologically is completely incompatible with what I see as the job, and with what I want to be as a human being. If a classroom descends into a semester-long political battle between students and lecturer, or if I help cause people to drop out of college straight into treatment facilities (which has happened with a couple of my students over the last two years, though I do not hold myself responsible in those particular cases), I have certainly failed.

Obviously, whole new dimensions of difficulty for my own teaching have opened up around me like abysses. I was having to think a lot more carefully about things other than how to make Kant’s Critique of Judgment clear as we went over the texts again in anticipation of the mid-term exam: about classroom dynamics, about what my students are feeling, about my own role and persona and identity. These are all important things, and we college teachers have no real choice but to take our students as they actually are. But I still wish I could teach that beauty course.

Crispin Sartwell is associate professor of philosophy at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. His most recent book is Entanglements: A System of Philosophy (2017).

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Reader's comments (2)

Wow. You write with passion. I would wish to take your new underwritten course. Thank you so much for sharing. The subject of Beauty is one I am very interested in. See my work in progress, In Beauty, hermionelaake.wordpress.com I feel there is so much more to understand about beauty. Jane Eyre is a deeply philosophical work on the subject; you mention text books; I'm familiar with Kant, and will research the specific texts you mention. Given Freud's observation when inventing psycoanalysis, that writers had already written much of what he was observing in his patients, why not include works such as Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea, or even my sequel, Bertha's Journal: A Perfect Immelman Turn, "How could I succeed if beauty was all? (Bertha's Journal: A Perfect Immelman Turn, page 34, Sbpra, 2012).
Hey, I'd quite like to take the classes too... and I'm a computer scientist :) With the class on Beauty, the challenge there is to get hostile students to express their hostility to the subject matter in a rational and reasoned way. If they can learn how to explain, with supporting arguments, what they find objectionable and why, then you'll have succeeded in teaching them something useful (even if not quite the learning objectives you'd set at the beginning of class). To do that, of course, they need to understand the subject matter, to know who has said what and discern their intentions. If they are prepared to put the effort in, they will be capable of building compelling arguments against things they find distasteful rather than falling back on the shrill wines you find on the likes of Twitter (which in a philosophy class should attract a failing grade!).

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