There is a Peanuts comic from April 16, 1972 where Peppermint Patty asks Charlie Brown what he thinks the secret of living is. Charlie Brown’s answer is “A convertible and a lake.” His reasoning is simple. When it’s sunny you can drive around in the convertible and be happy. When it’s raining you can think “oh well, the rain will fill up my lake.” Peppermint Patty asks Snoopy the same question and, committed sensualist that he is, he kisses her on the nose.
Charlie Brown, a character written to be constantly ground down by the world around him, is not seeking to maximise his happiness, he is seeking to minimise his unhappiness. Given his life, this is an understandable philosophy.
But what of beauty and, in this context, beauty in education? I’ve already introduced the term ‘ugly’ as the opposite of beauty but it’s hard for me to wrap my head around the notion of ‘minimising ugliness’; ugly is such a strong term. It’s also hard to argue that any education, when it covers any aspects to which we would apply that label, is ever totally ugly. Perhaps, in the educational framing, the absence of beauty is plainness. We end up with things that are ordinary, rather than extraordinary. I think that there is more than enough range between beauty and plainness for us to have a discussion on the movement between those states.
Is it enough for us to accept educational thinking that is acceptably plain? Is that a successful strategy? Many valid concerns about learning at scale focus on the innate homogeneity and lack of personalisation inherent in such an approach: plainness is the enemy. Yet there are many traditional and face-to-face approaches where plainness stares us in the face. Banality in education is, when identified, always rejected, yet it so often slips by without identification. We know that there is a hole in our slippers, yet we only seem to notice when that hole directly affects us or someone else points it out.
My thesis here is that a framing of beauty should lead us to a strategy of maximising beauty, rather than minimising plainness, as it is only in that pursuit that we model that key stage of falling in love with knowledge that we wish our students to emulate. If we say “meh is ok”, then that is what we will receive in return. We model, they follow as part of their learning. That’s what we’re trying to make happen, isn’t it?
What would Charlie Brown’s self-protective philosophy look like in a positive framing, maximising his joy rather than managing his grief? I’m not sure but I think it would look a lot like a dancing beagle who kisses people on the nose. We may need more than this for a sound foundation to reframe education!