Aesthetics of education: early thoughts

SHORT: The beginning of contemplation on the beauty of knowledge transfer

And I feel
Quicker than a ray of light

Then gone for
Someone else shall be there
Through the endless years

- “Ray of Light”, Madonna

For many people, lectures are the least “memorable” part of their university experience. This was the case for me as well.

However, I do have a few memories from my time in lecture halls. One of them was a quip from an engineering physics professor about the beauty of four complicated equations. On the projector before the class was the following:

“You see, arts students will look at the Mona Lisa,” the professor said, “and be able to appreciate how beautiful it is. Maybe we aren’t as refined as they are…”

The class laughed.

“… but we’ll be able to appreciate the Mona Lisa for what she is, more or less. Now, when arts students look at this, they have no idea what it is. They might even say it’s ugly. But we can also understand how beautiful this is, and all the complexities.”1

For greater context, those four equations are known as “Maxwell’s Equations”, and taken together describe the phenomenon of light as an electromagnetic phenomenon. What you are looking at is light in mathematical form.

The discovery of those equations, which our education had essentially been retracing from math class in grade school onwards, was a major accomplishment in both physics and mathematics. During that lecture, we were able to “re-discover” those equations, in a way, at least for ourselves. “The” accomplishment wasn’t ours, but there was a collective accomplishment made that day, facilitated by a humorous professor.

But had it not been for that professor’s remark about the beauty of these equations, I probably would not have remembered the moment. Why is that?

The hidden beauty of information architecture

When I was doing some early reading on the topic of beauty in education, I came across an article called “What makes a good course?”. As it turns out, students were easily able to decide on desirable traits for instructors, but when it came to talking about what made a “good” course “good”, the answers were a lot slower in coming.

This holds true in my example as well: the professor was not made memorable by the content, but rather, it was the other way around. I think if we examine our memories from school, many of them that aren’t related to community or funny moments will be related to talented instructors in some way.

But, underneath the entire school experience lies the curriculum. Having been the administrator, teaching assistant, and designer for both courses and training programs, I know that curriculum design is tedious and laborious work. However, the arranging of content, the creation of an experience for the learner, has a beauty all its own, no?

In my own case, somebody had to look at the totality of known physics (and mathematics), then backwards-engineer a curriculum from Maxwell’s Equations down to Grade 1 addition. Then, that content had to be laid out sequentially so it could be taught and learned at scale. Arranging that magnitude of content is on par with the composition of a lengthy symphony, yet not nearly as valued aesthetically.

That said, we do value good delivery, at least when it happens. Whether or not we incentivize and empower instructors to go above and beyond in their roles is another discussion.

Anyway, the concept of beauty in education is something I don’t see discussed much, so I plan to read/think about it in-depth and share my findings on Musica Universalis.

1

This is a paraphrase, from a 10-year old memory.