Beautiful truths are key to a wider world

9th January 2004 at 00:00
Creativity and confidence must be fostered in young people to make them more than just passive consumers, says Ewan Aitken

ust before Christmas I had the privilege of being at the civic reception put on by Edinburgh City Council to mark the elevation to Cardinal of his eminence Keith Patrick Cardinal O'Brien. Keith O'Brien is a man of great gravitas, faith and wisdom. As a former teacher he is committed to education. And he looked resplendent in his glorious red vestments.

I said to the Cardinal that I never wore robes as a minister. Presbyterian black and blue simply reminded me of the battering our Calvinist forebears gave to many a soul. But if we could have worn red as he now does, I'd never have been out of my cassock.

I have always thought that my Roman Catholic colleagues had something special in their explorations of the mysteries of faith with their use of colour, movement and symbols. These things speak powerfully of the divine and the significant without trapping meanings with words.

The Roman Catholic eye for liturgical colour and drama is something not only Presbyterians could learn from. It is an indicator of something that all of us have lost sight of, but yet is so fundamental to our fulfilment as human beings; the mystery of beauty.

Socrates said that the search for goodness begins with truth and beauty. If we understand the nature of truth and give ourselves time to be fed by that which is beautiful, the goodness in us all will be real. We will know what is good and therefore we will do good.

This search for meaning in beauty is wonderfully articulated in a book by the best-selling philosopher John O'Donohue, Divine Beauty. I read a review over Christmas which inspired me to buy the book, an ironic response given its challenge to consumerism. O'Donohue begins with Christmas as his prime example of why we need to rediscover beauty to begin again to be really human.

He argues that "our insatiable acquisitiveness, never more evident than at Christmas, is not only self-defeating but bars us from the depths of human experience. More than that, the relentless pace at which greed has begun to drive us blinds us to the source of our growing anxiety.

"The presence of beauty stops us in our tracks, reminding us that we might be alive for reasons other than productivity or consumption."

O'Donohue argues that "classically, understanding of life, identity and creativity was articulated through the metaphor of journeying. . . but the digital virus has truncated time and space. We have become marooned on each instant and forfeited the practice of patience. Our lives are becoming abstract package tours devoid of beauty and meaning."

Powerful words that challenge all of us to sit back and take stock. If ever there was an argument for personal learning plans, it is O'Donohue's words about journeying. We need to know the journey that each child is taking, planning against each one's potential, talent and aspiration and building in time for thinking, reflecting and appreciating the beautiful things. The time to experience beauty.

As O'Donohue says: "When we hear some beautiful piece of Mozart, admire a beautiful building or simply experience a personal moment of kindness, we are suddenly present in ourselves." Thankfully, so much is already happening in schools. Recent monies for music, for example, will create more spaces for the appreciation of a spectrum of musical beauty far wider than simply Mozart. I heard recently of a school that turned round one difficult group's attendance by introducing breakdancing classes. Another worked with the careers service and changed the education experience for another group on the edge by getting them to build a garden in the school.

And there are many more such examples.

The work of Tapestry to bring creativity to schools, the embedding of emotional intelligence in the curriculum, the understanding of the role of self-esteem (or self-worth, as Alan McLean would have it) are all faces of the same coin that place the importance of our ability to experience being alive at the heart of education.

Most importantly, we need to constantly challenge the assumption that school or even learning is all about perpetuating the activities of consumerism. There is a connection between the health of the economy and skills learned in school. But far more important is the connection between the health and confidence of the nation and the quality of the whole education experience.

Young people who have had the opportunity to explore the meaning of truth and beauty will be good citizens and so a better nation is formed. It is an understanding of life you cannot buy - you can only experience it.

Ewan Aitken is executive member for education on Edinburgh City Council and education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

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