The Essential Role of the Arts for Sustainability
If one regularly cultivates the art of submission through the reading of literature, it becomes instinctual and undiscriminating so that we apply it in encounters with plants, animals and even inanimate objects. In Chinese philosophy this ability to sympathize with all beings is recognized as innate as well as the mark of a learned person:“The great man regards heaven and earth and all things as one body. He feels sympathy and identification with all humans, animals, plants, and even rocks and nonsentient beings” (Inquiry on the Great Learning). Mencius, the classic Confucian philosopher, wrote that anyone who sees a child about to fall into a well would feel alarmed. The virtuous man that sees animals being led to slaughter will feel pity. When he sees trees being cut down he will feel sorrow. Even if he sees rocks and tiles broken he feels regret. “The virtuous man understands that the will to live that is in the grass is the same as his own” (Kuwako in Tucker 151).
While learning to contemplate beauty can lead us to appreciate the innate value of other beings, does this automatically lead to action on behalf of justice? Love is not a passive feeling. When we love something, our first instinct is to protect it. The beautiful object or person is special and we cannot bear to see it harmed or destroyed. We can relate to this when a place that we love–a grove that we played in as a child, a childhood home, a neighborhood park–is destroyed. The loss is more than the value of the object alone, but it feels as if something in us has been impoverished. Love also compels us to procreation. We want to reproduce the beautiful person or object by sharing it through song, art, or poetry. The most common form of reproduction today is photography. Whene people see a beautiful flower, face, or landscape, they take a picture of it and share it on Facebook. This simple act reflects the desire to share what we have seen so that others may experience the same delight we experienced being in the presence of something beautiful. The feelings excited by beauty—delight, protectiveness, desire, sharing, anger towards those that would harm it—are active. It is like seeing a child about to fall into a well and rushing to save her. Love makes such action instinctual. The opposite of love is indifference.
In the classic treatise on beauty, Plato’s Symposium, Diotima offers that the appreciation of beauty leads us on the path to wisdom and virtue. She says that the lover begins to appreciate beauty through the desire to procreate. The love of a beautiful body leads to the creation of children. But those who are well instructed will progress from the love of an individual body to the love of beautiful bodies in general, and from the love of beautiful bodies to the love of beautiful ideas. And the most beautiful ideas that we can desire are wisdom and virtue, which results in “the proper ordering of cities and households, and that is called moderation and justice” (Nehamas 56). The progression of love from the individual to general and from the sensual to the intellectual is described as a ladder:
This is what it is to go aright, or be lead by another, into the mystery of Love: one goes always upwards for the sake of this Beauty, starting out from beautiful things and using them like rising stairs: from one body to two and from two to all beautiful bodies, then from beautiful bodies to beautiful customs, and from customs to learning beautiful things, and from these lessons he arrives in the end at this lesson, which is learning for this very Beauty, so that in the end he comes to know just what it is to be beautiful. (Nehamas 59)
Diotima concludes that those who love beauty in its abstract form, “not polluted by human flesh or colors or any other great nonsense of mortality,” will no longer be impressed by “gold, or clothing, or beautiful boys or girls,” but instead will want to give birth “not to images of virtue, but to true virtue” (Nehamas 59). Diotima’s verdict is that those who love the beauty of bodies will give birth to bodies, while those who love beauty in all its forms and manifestations will give birth to virtue and justice, which are more immortal than children. If nothing else, the love of true beauty makes us less materialistic.
Today, the love of beauty is rarely the centerpiece of education. We teach students that they need skills that are in demand in a capitalist society in order to become good producers and consumers. We value knowledge over feeling, domination over submission. Funding is given lavishly to business management schools and STEM disciplines while the arts and humanities, disciplines that teach us about beauty, love, and submission, are mercilessly shortchanged. Environmental educator David Orr says that our educational system prefers to render students into technicians that are morally sterile, and it deadens their sense of wonder for the world. Hitler, the inventor of the atomic bomb, Osama bin Laden, were all highly educated individuals. Yet their education had not taught them the fundamentals of being a good citizen and how to live well on the planet. Orr suggests that instead of going to Ivy League universities, we might learn from the Amish, who obtain no education past the eighth grade, but live sustainably off the land and enjoy equal relations with their neighbors.
The planet does not need more “successful” people, in the way that we have come to define success, in terms of money, status, and power. It needs people who knows how to live well within the limits that would ensure a sustainable planet; it needs people with self control and self-awareness, compassion, and a love for social justice (Orr, Earth in Mind). Without this foundation, any knowledge that we gain is useless and will do more harm than good. So far, we have carelessly destroyed habitats and rendered species extinct before we have discovered their value. We have destroyed indigenous peoples and cultures and replaced them with our Western values, languages, fast food restaurants, disposable products, and unsustainable lifestyles. We are erasing the diversity of people and the planet and replacing it with our monocultures of industrial production and mindless entertainment. So far, our education has perpetuated this legacy of domination.The content and method of our education needs to change if we are to create a more equitable society.
So what kind of education do we need to create a more just, equitable, and sustainable society? In short it is an education in the arts, which is threatened as being irrelevant in an educational context that values “training the work force.” It is learning literature, music, art, history and philosophy that awakens our love of beauty and a desire to perpetuate the good. But we cannot study works of literature like specimens under a microscope, dissecting their bodies in order to learn how they are put together. The study of literature in academia has the tendency to be an isolated and escapist pursuit, channeled into PhD programs that feed back into the academy. It no longer references the source, but references itself. Literature, like artifact, is not life itself. In Walden, Thoreau said that reading is good, but real learning comes after the reading, when we go out into the world to test what we have learned. We have to be engaged with the source of creativity, which is in nature, people, and life as it is occurring at this very moment.
A useful education should teach us something about living well and living simply, on our own and in relation to others. It might teach us how to solve some of the practical and philosophical problems of life, instead of how to throw money at them (Thoreau). For example, what is required for us to have our daily meal, how can it be prepared in a way that is nutritious, delicious, and not harmful to the planet? What is our passion? And how do we live by it so that we find lasting fulfillment instead of the empty calories provided by a consumerist society? How do we deal with the emotional crises that beset all of us at some point in our lives such as depression, self-doubt, anger, lust, and anxiety? How do we resolve conflicts, have fulfilling relationships, live healthy lives, and gain inner peace without a whole army of doctors, lawyers, and psychologists to do the work for us? Would not the dysfunctions of our society be less if we educated everyone in the art of self mastery and compassion? Would we not have citizens that can contribute better to society if they were allowed them time to discover who they are?
I think that as a society, we have not discovered what is essential, but we keep pursuing that which we think we is essential. We are willing to trade universal healthcare and quality public education for lower taxes, and we are willing to sacrifice the health of the environment and the health of our children for profit. We would rather have climate change than have to lower our emissions. As a society we believe that we need unlimited economic growth, but find that growth happens at the cost of ecological health and our own physical and mental well-being. We hire doctors, lawyers and psychologists and build a huge prison system to deal with the dysfunctions of our society, but don’t pay attention to the source of these dysfunctions, such as education and a basic standard of living for all. “People need, among other things, healthy food, shelter, clothing, good work to do, friends, music, poetry, good books, a vital civic culture, animals, and wildness,” says David Orr, “But we are increasingly offered fantasy for reality, junk for quality, convenience for self-reliance, consumption for community, and stuff rather than spirit” (168).
Increasingly, the demands of life for Americans today are so hectic, that we have no time to pursue the needs of the spirit. Activities such as reading, hiking, praying, or even spending quality time with family and friends are replaced by the demands of work, parenting, and domestic duties. University offers one of the few refuges where a person could spend a few precious years thinking for himself what it means to be human. Yet even that privilege is taken away as schools increasingly focus on vocational training and building fancy facilities while saddling students with impossibly high debt. A liberal arts education is increasingly a luxury accessible to the few. While students need to be prepared for employment, it should not be fulfilled at the expense of a liberal arts education which should be the common denominator for a democratic society.
Instead of more wealth to the top in the name of economic growth, we need more justice, more equality, more beauty, more time, and more wilderness. “The ecological crisis, in short, is about what it means to be human. And we can only win this battle if we forge an emotional bond between ourselves and the world we live in—for we will not fight to save what we do not love” (Stephen Jay Gould 1991 as quoted in David Orr 14).
In addition to learning from textbooks and lectures, we might learn as much from real people and real places. As Rachel Carson said, “it is less important to know as it is to feel.” How can we teach students to respond to the world of nature with their hearts as well as their minds? How do we impart knowledge without taking away the sense of wonder? It is difficult to love something without fully experiencing it. So instead of reading and listening, we might take students out into the field and examine nature in its own context, and talk to the people who are a part of that context. Not merely talk and walk, but spend time living in a place, repeatedly visiting a place, and be immersed in all its changes. We might read the writings of people who have immersed themselves in place, such as Thoreau, Edward Abbey, and Gary Snyder. We can’t ascend to the top of the ladder of beauty overnight, but we can begin by learning to love a particular place and from there progress to love many other places that we have never seen.
The world of nature is worth protecting. According to Thoreau,
At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us. We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder-cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produce freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.
We would not be who we are as a human race today without nature to have inspired us, educated us, and sustained us. Part of what we need to teach is how to see and appreciate this gift that has been given to us.
At the same time we can teach that one does not need to be President of the United States or Mother Theresa in order to make a difference. We can make a difference where we are, in our own community, with every choice we make. Start with yourself—produce less waste, use less energy, eat less meat, vote with your dollar. The power of your example will affect others. Then find others who are like minded and work together. Even at the university right now there are a million opportunities to make a difference. Finally, we might learn how to slow down. We might all be like Elizabeth Bishop, who responded to the world with an open eye helplessly filled by light, and when we catch that fish out of the water, have the courage to throw it back in.
Bishop, Elizabeth. The Complete Poems 1927-1979. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983. Print.
Blake, William, and Geoffrey Keynes. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. London: Oxford UP, 1975. Print.
Harrison, Jane Ellen. Ancient Art and Ritual. New York: Henry Holt and, 1913. Print.
Orr, David W. Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect. Washington, DC: Island, 1994. Print.
Plato. Symposium. Trans. Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff. Cambridge, MA: Hackett, 1989. Print.
Revell, Donald. Invisible Green: Selected Prose of Donald Revell. Richmond, CA: Omnidawn Pub., 2005. Print.
Scarry, Elaine. On Beauty and Being Just. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1999. Print.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004. Print.
Tucker, Mary Evelyn., and John H. Berthrong, eds. Confucianism and Ecology: The Interrelation of Heaven, Earth, and Humans. Cambridge, MA: Distributed by Harvard UP for the Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions, 1998. Print.