Creative Education
2012. Vol.3, No.3, 334-340
Published Online June 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s .
Passion for Beauty: A Model for Learning
Conrad Hughes
International School of Geneva, Gene va, Switzerland
Received May 2nd, 2012; revised May 30th, 2012; accepted June 14th, 2012
This essay investigates the idea that effective teaching entails a passion for the beauty of the subject mat-
ter being taught. The first part gives a summative overview of the last 72 years of constructivism with
references to educational research and discussion on content, cognition and attitudes. This overview is set
against the problem of increasing pressure on students and teachers in an age where university places are
difficult to secure and students are not always motivated. The second part of the essay investigates the is-
sue of student motivation. Forced learning will be discussed, the problems of trying to cater for student
motivation through pedagogy and curriculum, and finally the idea of the muse, arguing that the most ef-
fective learning must involve some degree of passion for the subject from the teacher that the student in-
tegrates and appropriates. The conclusion of the essay considers passion for beauty as the core element of
good learning and how this should be valorized openly and not seen as opposing constructivist pedagogy.
Keywords: Constructivism; Understanding; Passion; Learning; Motivation
This essay aims to do three things. First it will outline a sig-
nificant part of the major thrust of educational practice and
philosophy over the last 70-odd years to show how constructi-
vist pedagogy has been influenced by cognitive neuroscience,
pragmatism and ethics. This paradigm has left us with models
that are based primarily on the importance of students’ under-
standing of content and their ability to harness skills that put
them at the centre of the learning experience. Second, the essay
will identify a significant problem in secondary education
where and when there is little student motivation to learn in the
first place. External pressures such as university admissions
policies tend to be rigid, not allowing for the type of theoretical
practice that constructivism suggests and on the contrary can
easily lead to negative reinforcement that does little to put the
student at the centre of the learning process. Furthermore the
essay will discuss some of the potential pitfalls of trying to
create a student-friendly curriculum in this context and how this
can leave us with a fairly superficial structure in which un-
avoidable content learning is subordinate to catchiness and
inanity. The second half of the essay will argue its third point,
that one of the most important elements of learning is motiva-
tion: because of this, teachers need to teach boldly and with
sufficient passion and acuity to arouse students. Simple anec-
dotal examples will be used to suggest that the teacher has a
role and responsibility in the process not only to facilitate and
develop learning through techniques but as someone mesmer-
ized by the beauty of subject matter to whom students look with
inspiration and passion, wishing to emulate and even surpass.
The conclusion of the essay is that the old model of the muse
needs to be remembered and used if the starting point of learn-
ing is to be successful, for it is from this that all else ensues.
Content, Cognition, Attitudes and the
Missing Link
Education in the 20th and early 21st centuries is no easy dis-
cussion. Debates rage over the type of schooling that will pre-
pare students for the future (Robinson, 2008: p. 6) in such a
way that they will be equipped to function effectively in the
professional world, exemplify attitudes and ethical positions
that will help “make a better and more peaceful world” (IB,
2002), whilst carrying knowledge over to the next generation
that will be relevant to a rapidly changing environment allow-
ing for a transfer of skills across different disciplines (Dewey,
1938; Vygotsky, 1978; Perkins, 2010).
These issues are set against burning philosophical, historical
and cultural questions of content: since stakeholders from di-
verse cultural traditions enter into a global market, clearly one
single cultural framework is not enough to do justice to the
complexity and multiplicity of these current and future rela-
tionships. Whose history should be taught, which language of
instruction should be privileged, which canon should be passed
down to students and why? The problem is particularly nuanced
as debates over what exactly the canon of knowledge should
look like are argued over within cultures themselves (Bloom,
1994; Nussbaum, 1997).
At the core of it all is an increasingly dramatic situation for
students whereby tertiary educational provision, ostensibly
more inclusive, is becoming increasingly expensive across
Europe, whilst in the United States top university places are
more difficult to secure, with students being turned down de-
spite perfect SAT scores (Finder, 2008). Practice in many
countries is judged to be archaic and ineffectual (Fleck, 2010)
as students leave school and university with no real guarantee
of employment. There is an overwhelming sense that the type
of learning that is going on in most schools is out of synch with
the modern world and ministries, organizations, educators and
researchers are looking to new models (Robinson, 2008: p. 4),
signalling ever new directions and soul-searching amidst the
plethora of ideas and potential frameworks that are suggested.
Questions arising from this crisis are not new (What is an edu-
cation for? How do we make education better?) but the context
is perhaps more diffuse, complex and entangled than ever be-
If we look at the advances in education over the last century
we can es tablish thr ee broad st r ands.
On the one hand there is the question of the significance of
the type of knowledge learned at school. From John Dewey
(1938) to David Perkins (2010), educational theory over the last
72 years has witnessed an increasing emphasis on worthwhile
knowledge being concretely relevant. Dewey did not mix his
words on the subject, claiming that “[t]here is no such thing as
educational value in the abstract” (Dewey, 1938: p. 46). Perkins
suggests that effective learning should contain “come-uppance”
(Perkins, 2010) whereby content is aligned with the world in
which we live. Through and beyond these pragmatist ideas, a
good education is seen as a transactional dialogue and not a
monologue, placing students in a meaningful relationship with
content that through carefully designed curriculum and assess-
ments will allow them to take an active part in and, ultimately,
ownership of the learning process (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).
Furthermore, constructivist pedagogy sees the student, not con-
tent, as the central learning agent; knowledge is not something
that exists externally and has to be appropriated by students; it
is something that is created by the student who integrates and
assimilates information, making it applicable through interac-
tion and reflection (Dewey, 1938: pp. 40-42).
On the other hand, in the wake of Jean Piaget (1953), Jerome
Bruner (1960), Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1968) and Lev Vy-
gotsky (1978, 1997), psychology and cognitive neuroscience
have affected pedagogical practice heavily. Researchers and
theorists such as Edward de Bono (1985), K. Anders Ericsson
(1993) and Howard Gardner (1983) have looked at increasing
advances in brain research to tell us how effective learning can
take place. Different levels of motor skill have been researched
thoroughly and learning is seen increasingly as something that
should exercise diverse parts of the brain, allowing students the
chance to shine in various areas. This has been tremendously
influential on teaching in recent years as part of a general sway
to scientific discourse. Gardner’s taxonomy of “multiple intel-
ligences” (1983) has affected the way many teachers evaluate
their students’ abilities. Psychometric testing has moved con-
siderably to non-verbal exercises to try and evaluate perform-
ance and capacity without linguistic and cultural matters influ-
encing the results unfairly. Vygotsky insisted that higher mental
functions could not be understood without breaking them down
into lower mental functions. He therefore discriminated be-
tween “primitive […] biological features in the mind” that re-
spond to stimuli and analytical “higher forms” of “cultural de-
velopment” (Vygotsky, 1997: p. 83). The idea is that if the
learning process is to be understood and facilitated well, then
we need to atomize higher forms into more measurable parts
that all stem from basic chemico-physiological primitive fun-
daments. Hence the modern style of teaching involves breaking
down learning into short activities that allow for stimulus re-
sponse and lesson plans that look at grasping concepts sepa-
rately. We could oppose this to the older method, consisting of
months of monotonous lecturing focusing almost uniquely on
content and expecting the lower mental functions to take care of
Finally there is the question of attitudes. The International
Baccalaureate (IB) Learner Profile articulates ten qualities that
are deemed important to nurture in students if the educational
experience is to be more than simply psychometrical (IB, 2002);
Howard Gardner, in his book Five Minds for the Future (2006)
explores—amongst other things—the importance of ethical
responsibility; George Walker’s writings have emphasized the
types of attitudes learners should manifest (Walker, 2006) and
schools such as the United World Colleges chain place value on
service learning as an essential part of education for very good
reasons (Peterson, 1987). Kurt Hahn’s influence on this aspect
of schooling has been significant and much of the philosophy
behind the IB advocates a holistic education that develops a
caring approach in students (IB, 2006).
The objective of this essay is not to give an extensive litera-
ture survey and repeat what has already been said but rather to
say what is not there and why that which is not there is not only
a significant omission but core to the crisis and confusion that
is driving so many to look for yet more taxonomies, shift from
one emphasis to the other, review curriculum in increasingly
short spans of time and look at modern research so keenly,
groping for the magical key that will unlock the nexus and
leave us with an education that is not only effective on paper
and in research journals, but one that keeps the students on the
edge of their seats, crying out for more, wanting to learn and
exemplifying the type of motivation that will make learning a
Constraints and Negative Reinforcement
Since all of this theory is not only about the learning process
but more specifically about the learner, it might be worth con-
sidering what learning means and what it is like from the
learner’s perspective rather than through taxonomies, neuro-
science or academic debates that take place in the stratosphere
of curriculum design, ministerial policies and published re-
search. More specifically, why do we learn what we do in the
broadest sense? Since we have all learnt something at some
point in our lives, anyone reading this can consider the question
in an empirical anecdotal sense by simply reflecting on some-
thing that he or she knows well and then asking why it is that
he or she knows this.
Consider, for instance, why a child learns language, why
someone learns a trade or why we learn certain subjects. There
are, it seems, only two reasons and they are by no means mutu-
ally compatible. The first is because we have to, the second that
we want to. The next few pages will develop examples of
forced learning, explaining why it is so problematic; then the
essay will look briefly at issues of student centered curriculum
as a potential remedy to this before we turn to the second rea-
son of learning through desire.
On the subject of forced learning, many students are open
and frank about the fact that they learn at school simply be-
cause they are told to by their parents, because they are threat-
ened with the idea of not graduating from school and therefore
not being equipped to survive in the world. This sense of forced
pragmatic necessity can actually supersede education in a con-
servative, institutional sense, causing students to drop out of
school and learn a trade to be more competent and competitive.
Efforts to make students interested in traditional academic
subjects are far from simple. As Gardner points out, “‘become
passionate’ is easy to say, hard to do, impossible to compel”
(Gardner, 2010). When teachers find a lack of motivation in the
students it presents a challenge that can become extremely de-
moralizing, a dead end where the battle seems lost before it has
been waged. Indeed, part of the crisis of modern education lies
squarely in this issue: there is a feeling that students are not
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s . 335
motivated because what they are being asked to learn is not
relevant or does not interest them (Robinson, 2008: p. 12). The
problem is that content cannot simply be invented and must be
met, and this leaves the teacher in the difficult position of being
forced to make students interested in prescribed subject matter.
A poignant if not disturbing illustration of this can be seen in
Jean-Paul Lilienfeld’s 2009 film “La Journée de la jupe” when
a theatre teacher, Sonia Bergerac, teaching unmotivated stu-
dents in an inner-city “banlieue” becomes so desperate that she
eventually takes the class hostage with a pistol and forces them
to read Molière.
So why are students not motivated to learn certain subjects?
Again, the reader can ask this question of him/herself. Which
subjects did you never find the motivation to learn and why?
One could argue that one of the chief reasons for a lack of
motivation is to do with curriculum design where the sequenc-
ing of skills and content involves theory before application. To
sit students down and give them years of music theory and then
at the end of the gruelling lessons to place an instrument in their
hands and expect them to play seems strange or at best archaic
in terms of modern pedagogy. Many ancient art forms start with
a rigorous, disciplined approach to theory and small, non-
gratifying exercises that are learnt without pleasure but with
grim determination. This is the world of the conservatory and
classical dance in which little care is given to reflection, rele-
vance, stimulus response, multiple intelligences and trying to
find the student’s strengths, and we are firmly in the old world
of teaching where a lack of interest in academic content is a
given and is therefore instruction is done through corporal pun-
ishment, humiliation, pain and stamina-building marathons of
endurance. This is a universe where the subject is at the centre
and the student at the periphery.
Clearly this type of instruction cannot be considered seri-
ously in modern schooling, particularly if low levels of motiva-
tion are there to start with. It would make learning not only
ineffectual but profoundly unpleasant, possibly turning students
away from knowledge and skills acquisition even more forcibly.
At the same time, it seems disingenuous to pretend that students
will become excited about content of their own accord.
Very often one of the key reasons that we do not learn con-
tent well is that it is not taught well or not taught at all. Many of
us look back and think “I could have become interested in that
subject if I had had a different teacher”. Another, possibly more
superficial reason is to do with the intrinsic nature of the sub-
ject, hence we find clichés along the lines of “I was never good
at mathematics” or “I am not really a literary sort of person”.
These deterministic assumptions may or may not be true, a
problem residing in the fact that often they were not studied in
depth hence the quasi-tautology of disliking a subject that we
know little about.
The problem in school education is that syllabi are presented
to a group of students that is expected to learn them without
necessarily wanting to do this. In the old paradigm the way
around this problem was simply to force the students to learn
the prescribed content because their needs and desires were not
factors to be considered (Dewey, 1938: p. 44). If progressive
educational methods are looking away from negative rein-
forcement and punitive methods, then huge skill is required to
somehow make students want to learn that which they have not
chosen and do not yet know. Gardner suggests that the teacher
requires interpersonal intelligence in order to know the students
well (Gardner, 2006: p. 50) but how feasible is this when con-
ditions are not optimal? The teacher is also faced with the
daunting task of getting the students “hooked” on national or
international history, pure and social sciences, mathematics,
languages and the arts, and in some cases there are over thirty
students in a class, so realistically the skill cannot always reside
in close contact, but must also lie in the ability to captivate a
wide audience and hence draw interest from the subject matter
Often what happens is that when students do not respond the
way teachers would like them to, with enthusiasm and an appe-
tite to learn, the type of close relationship engendered between
teacher and student entails the negative reinforcement tactics
that should be avoided: students are warned that if they do not
study they will fail, not be able to secure a place in the profes-
sional market, leave school without diplomas and skills. More
primeval still, students are deprived of free time and made to
work in detention, and in less felicitous cases they are scolded,
suspended and ultimately expelled.
The pressures do not only come from poor conditions or un-
ceremonious attitudes from teachers; university places are most
often not offered to students according to their strengths and
willingness but more frequently according to inflexible stan-
dards, tests, tariffs and entrance interviews. This is where con-
siderable angst, fear, stress and unhappiness come into the pic-
ture: students have to perform well on SATs, they have to come
out of their schooling with a certain grade average or points
score, at least if they wish to integrate high-status institutions.
Despite efforts to the contrary, the structure of many univer-
sity admissions mainly correspond to the old world, hardly a
constructivist paradigm where learning is enhanced through the
instructor finding the student’s interests and nurturing them, for
quite obviously the student’s interests will not always fall
neatly into the subjects that are taught at school. We could also
discuss, as does Jane Johnston, the predilection education sys-
tems have for “sequential” and “precise” thinking (2009: p. 122)
but this can still be considered as a subset of the dictates for
achievement that come from universities as well as the kind of
subjects taught at school that will be recognized (or not) by
most European universities. These issues are delicate and one
who owns up to them or endorses them might be branded a
traditionalist (a type of dirty word in school education nowa-
days), wanting to bring back the stuffy lessons of the past with
little pedagogy but more top-down vertical instruction with the
teacher as the font of knowledge who lectures at students sitting
in rows, possibly ordered in rank file, trying to force achieve-
ment that is associated with the immutable givens of post-sec-
ondary school reality. It might be easy to quote Jean-Jacques
Rousseau who said that the setting should fit the child and not
the child the setting (Johnston, 2009: p. 123), but this is cer-
tainly not the way mainstream tertiary educational provision
functions in most parts of the world, nor does the job market
offer opportunities for people to be themselves and to expect
the infrastructure to accommodate them. Such a situation
should not be celebrated, but we need to argue within realistic
parameters if we are going to come up with a discussion that is
helpful for the millions of students in the world trying to gain a
place in the world’s global market but also to surpass them-
selves and become excellent at something that is recognized
and validated.
So if forcing students to learn becomes a less than satisfac-
tory de facto principle that we want to but cannot necessarily
avoid, then teachers at some stage will have to make content
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s .
interesting to students and will not be able to rely on pedagogi-
cal methods alone for this because students need to become
interested in subject matter if they are to excel in these prereq-
uisite domains both at school and further down the line.
The Potential Pitfalls of Perceived
Student-Centered Curriculum
If (and it is a big “if”, especially in national curriculum
where syllabi are often dictated by political and economic
pressures) schools are given flexibility and are able to create
their own booklists, topics and courses, as is the case in the
IB’s Middle Years Program (MYP), then there is another risk,
that of trying to put together an offering that is within students’
reach, reflecting their environment but ultimately because of
this, no longer educating in the etymological sense of “rearing”
them out of one state towards another, higher one.
One of the problems of supposedly modern student-friendly
curricula, privileging ostensibly modern skills over content,
throwing Latin and Greek literature out the window and instead
teaching trendy works written in slang with references to You
Tube is that we assume that what the student wants to learn or
will find interesting and relevant is that which is already around
them. Is this always the case? Can we be sure that a student will
be more motivated to learn about global warming and how to
set up websites than the rate at which metal expands when
heated or how Aurelian defeated Zenobia? Dewey does not
consider all types of experience as valuable in a pedagogical
sense and even goes so far as to brand some as “mis-educative”
(Dewey, 1938: p. 13), going on to warn of those pleasures that
draw us in but create a “slack and carele ss attitude” (14). There
is a danger that allowing students to dwell so much in the centre
of the learning process where all is pleasurable, a reflection of
the digital age and current affairs that students are asked to try
and learn what they already know.
Micah, a student interviewed in Kathleen Kushman’s Fire in
the Mind tells us that “if you are getting the answer without
really realizing why it’s important, it’s empty. You are not
really learning. You are going to drop that later because it has
no importance in your life” (Kushner, 2010: p. 11). This essay’s
only reservation is at the basic level of how teenagers (or any-
one) can know exactly which piece of knowledge is important
in their lives with such conviction. Can all learning be pegged
on what is deemed important by the learner? Furthermore, not
knowing what lies in the future, can we be sure that what we
think is important or unimportant now will still be so later? It is
difficult to know which language, skill or piece of information
will be useful at some unforeseen corner.
Trying to prepare someone for an unknown entity is not only
somewhat fallacious but could create practice as ineffective as
that which looks back at knowledge acquisition without notions
of immediate relevance. After all, the more you learn the
greater the repository of information at your disposal for some
potential application, so surely it would be better to learn as
much as possible (even including what Deweyists would shun
as abstract and meaningless) rather than attempting to cut out
ideas that are deemed no longer relevant (to whom?). Ken
Robinson says that we need an education that “connects people
with their true talents” (Robinson, 2008: p. 8), but surely talent
comes with and through education and not before it: how can
an educational provision meet talents before we know what the
talents are? And if we are going to establish these talents be-
forehand though testing, then we come back to the problem of
these tests favouring one type of intelligence over another. At
the centre of it all there could be confusion but more critically a
distinct void, surrounded by eddies of jargon and recent un-
tested theory. Despite attempts to make it all fun and colourful,
the situation could leave both the teacher and the student with a
suspicious feeling that the erudition and beauty of learning has
been lost somewhere along the way, that trying to reform edu-
cation too quickly instead of building on what has gone before
will leave us rudderless.
The real question is whether it is by creating new methods
and breaking thinking processes down that teachers will get any
closer to the mysterious core of motivation that is so vital for
any type of learning to flourish and survive. Where there is
motivation even the worst types of pedagogy can be survived.
Albert Einstein said “it is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle
that the modern methods of instruction have not entirely stran-
gled the holy curiosity of inquiry” (1949) and what he was
referring to as “modern” would nowadays no doubt be seen as
Are the questions of content and relevance at the centre of
this or is there something else that makes up the core of power-
ful learning?
The Desire to Learn
So far this essay has discussed learning in terms of negative
reinforcement and some of the problems that could get in the
way of progressive methods, but we need to come back to the
question of why we learn. If the first reason listed is that we
learn because we have to, then the second reason, closer to the
heart of constructivist pedagogy and far more progressive, is
that we learn because we want to. Contextual pressures place us
in an environment that presents us with multiple choices and we
choose certain above others: we might want to learn to play the
flute but not the piano, we might want to learn physics rather
than biology and we might want to learn about the history of
Guatemala rather than that of China. Whether that choice is a
genuine existential one or a pseudo-desire that is anchored in
less clear adjunct factors will not be argued here. On the con-
trary, the point this essay hopes to make clear is that learning
from choice is something at every human being’s disposal,
irrespective of cognitive or genetic predispositions (which is,
nonetheless, not to say that the choice factor will always be
used or tolerated) and it therefore appears an extremely valu-
able point to discuss. It is difficult to imagine a person in any
set of circumstances who literally wants to learn nothing or has
learned nothing at all from choice. It is a universal idea, very
simple, a truism perhaps, but an undeniable one.
It is at this second reason for learning that this essay will be
looking from now on in more detail, for pedagogy and theory,
as well as common sense and personal experience, show us that
the best type of long term learning and the most enjoyable
learning comes out of desire. The idea of child-centered learn-
ing is directly situated in this idea: student will and motivation
must be encouraged, developed, enhanced, rewarded and
strengthened. Hence, if we look at fairly modern educational
programmes like the MYP we see the culmination of the five
years’ learning comes through the form of a Personal Project
where inquiry based learning finds its starting point in the stu-
dent’s interest and not in any external agency that is imposed
on the student (IB, 2009). The IB extended essay asks students
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s . 337
between 16 and 19 to choose an area for specialization in which
they will conduct research (IB, 2007), students choose activities
for their co-curricular study (IB, 2008) and of course at post-
graduate university levels students are to find a research topic
that interests them and pursue this in the form of a dissertation
or extended piece of research.
It will be noted that whilst there is a degree of student choice
in these offerings, they are still rooted in established subjects
that are not decided by students but syllabi that have been cho-
sen for the students: one cannot pretend that secondary and
tertiary education allows the students absolute choice, so the
problem of making students interested in something prescribed
remains firmly at the centre of the dilemma.
The Muse, Mimesis and Passion for Beauty
In Fires in the Mind, Kushman considers the question
through extensively documented interviews with children. The
book shows that children were often good at something outside
of school for a variety of reasons but ultimately the core one
was that they wanted to know something and were therefore
driven by that initial impetus. That personal experience is at the
centre of learning is clear and has formed the basis of progres-
sive educational theory (Dewey, 1938: p. 9). That human be-
ings learn well when they are interested in what is to be learnt
need not be researched and documented. Even though this has
been done felicitously by Kushman, it seems quite obvious. By
looking at oneself one can see how evident this is. Think of a
skill you have mastered and try to dissociate it from your desire
to learn the skill. Is this even possible?
Students are drawn to a subject or skill because they are in-
spired by some masterful expression tha t they witness and wish
to integrate. If it is not the inherent subject matter that is ap-
pealing or even the skills involved, then we can consider the
passion the mentor has for these that becomes the driving force.
Surely if we look back to some of the best teachers we had, we
are reminded of strong personalities with an infectious passion
that we wished to appropriate so as to somehow be like the
teacher, the way the apprentice wishes to match up to and even
surpass the master, not necessarily in terms of knowledge and
skill but in terms of drive. Gardner himself tells us that it was
Erik Erikson who “probably sealed [his] ambition to be a
scholar” and that Jerome Bruner was “the perfect career model”
(Gardner, 2006: p. 8). To give an example, I play the guitar.
Why I learned that instrument is, I think, because when I was
about five my mother took me to a concert in the suburbs of
1970s Johannesburg and I stood timidly at the back of a dingy
bar while the passionate and entranced South African musician
Johnny Clegg picked intricate African melodies on his guitar
while the sound of the bass and drums reverberated in my small
frame and sent shockwaves to my core. “I want to be able to do
that” I said to myself. Not long after my father bought me a
classical guitar and I was attending lessons.
My first teacher was a prim and proper gentleman surroun-
ded by tuning forks, pristine nylon-string guitars arranged neat-
ly in rows and he played with a straight back using a small stool
upon which he artfully propped up his left leg. There was a pain-
ting of Segovia looking down at us severely from the beige wall
of his lesson room. He would make sure I was sitting in the
right position and made me learn to read crotchets strewn across
a treble clef: hour after hour I would pick at one string after the
other, issuing simple wooden melodies that did little to inspire
me. I was learning the classical method and as I did this—or
tried to do it—the African melodies I had heard in the dimly lit
bar faded from me and the whole enterprise became a rigid,
frustrating affair. I asked my teacher where it was all going and
he gave me dispassionate logical constructivist explanations,
explaining why if I did not hold the guitar in the correct way I
would not be able to get the right sound out of the instrument,
would struggle to grip the frets properly and would wind up
hurting my back. The explanations, although helping me to
understand, did not move me to try harder though, I did not do
my homework well and was ill prepared for the lessons. The
venture became a distinctly negative one, a combat to keep me
interested and within a few months I asked if I could stop.
My father was keen for me to continue so we tried a different
teacher. Unlike the former, my new teacher played in a band, he
had long hair and wore jeans, his fingers were long and stained
with nicotine and the room from where he taught was a type of
shrine to rock stars, with large posters of wild looking men
wearing earrings playing electric guitar solos on stage. The
guitar was not his trade, it was his life. In one corner was the
famous photograph of Jimi Hendrix burning his guitar at the
festival of Monterey, beckoning the flames like a possessed
jinnee. My new teacher played the guitar the wrong way, with
an arched back and his thumb dangling from the neck of the
instrument insolently but I loved to hear him play for as he did
he would close his eyes and enter into a mysterious second state
of passion and love. I would ask him at the end of every lesson
to play something for me. He did not seem interested in break-
ing down the learning process into smaller units but wanted me
to wade into the deep end, to embrace it as a whole. His first
question to me was “what is your favorite song?” I told him and
he taught it to me, not bothering with posture, using tablature
instead of a proper musical score and letting me go about it
more or less how I wanted. I spent nights staying up late learn-
ing the chords, steadily feeling myself devoured by the flames
that had licked me when I had seen the concert. He had under-
stood that I would only learn if I was interested: it was the pas-
sion that he kindled, not the understanding.
The point is that, far from constructivist theory, method had
little to do with it. I was highly motivated by the mimetic urge
to become someone else, someone wholly absorbed by a pas-
sion. Because of this, the learning was fairly painless. This is
not to say that it was the best way in terms of technique for my
idiosyncrasies became, from a purist perspective, fossilized
errors. Much later I studied harmony more formally and was
able to put that knowledge into practice, as I played with others
I would be reminded that my posture was bad, why I had to
keep my thumb firmly at the centre of the back of the guitar
neck and so on. Eventually, when trying to move my fingers
quickly between more sophisticated bridged chords, I under-
stood and assimilated the fact that I would have to change my
method somewhat. The skills and even the content came after
the pleasure principle though, after the desire to become en-
grossed. I was willing to put myself through the rigour because
the emotional hook had been taken many years earlier and I had
integrated an endless desire to do better. At no point did any
“capacity to form an accurate, veridical model of [my]self”
(Gardner, 2006: p. 50) seem even remotely relevant for I was
absorbed and had lost my own sense of self, ability or under-
standing and was mesmerized by the beauty of the music and
the burning will to be able to play with the same oneiric energy
of the muses that haunted me. Nor did questions of any kind of
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s .
relevance seem important. The former teacher looked at the
guitar in a cerebral, cognitive, methodological manner and for
me that was not enough to keep me going: there was something
fundamental missing, the soul and colour that came with the
In this modest example we are tapping into ancient frame-
works of motivation where the first step is a mystic initiation
that has been brought on by a sublime presence the way that
Gibbon was inspired to write his monumental The Decline and
Fall of the Roman Empire sitting “amidst the ruins of the Capi-
tol, while the bare-footed friars were singing vespers in the
temple of Jupiter” (Gibbon, 1970: p. 7) or how the mysterious
girl that Joseph Conrad saw whilst sitting at the Place de La
Comédie in Montpellier drove him on to write one of his finest
novels, Lord Jim. It is the central idea behind John Keats’ Ode
on a Grecian Urn, the idea of inspiration coming from a muse.
The question is not only one of passion but also beauty. We
should not forget that students still look up to erudition, to aca-
demic knowledge that they can emulate rather than looking to
themselves as the foundation of knowledge or their peers who
will work out problems in a group as the teacher moves about
them facilitating, suppressing his/her presence and downplay-
ing his/her convictions, knowledge and passion. This is because
mastery is beautiful and beauty lies beyond cold reason. There
is something archetypal that draws us not to that which we can
do, but that which is just out of reach, that which transcends us,
the way a powerful piece of art moves someone without the
person necessarily understanding, or the way a brilliant mind
discussing mind-boggling astrophysics is always just out of
reach but tantalizingly close. To a certain extent this goes be-
yond Gardner’s central premise, that “education’s central mis-
sion should be understanding” (Palmer, 2001: p. 11).
Unlike understanding, which is linked to cognition, beauty
and passion are more linked to desire. The students’ desire can
be kindled by the teacher’s desire. At the school where I work
we set up a series of lecture s on the history of thought: the pro-
ject was very simply for a small group of teachers to lecture to
the best of their abilities to a large group of students on the
major ideas that have shaped history from the pre-Socratics,
Socrates and Plato through Aristotle, the Roman philosophers,
Averroes, Avicenna, St Augustine and St Aquinas, Renaissance,
Enlightenment, 19th, 20th century thinkers right up to post-
colonialism, feminism and post-modernism. We once told our-
selves jokingly that we were doing the lectures for us and not
for the stude nts and even tho ugh those anti -constru ctivist tongue-
in-cheek comments were made fatuously, as the course un-
folded the lectures became more and more unflinchingly
high-powered and the lecturers would dig deeper into highly
complex ideas like Leibniz’s Monadology, Einstein’s theory of
relativity, Foucault’s theory on power, Lacan’s post-Freudian
psychoanalytical theory and Baudrillard’s thesis on simulacra.
The danger, of course, was that we would leave the students
behind and some observers commented that the course seemed
pretentious, too difficult and that the students would not under-
stand. Worse still, how clear were the teachers that they under-
stood what was being lectured? However, as the lecturers be-
came increasingly passionate about their lectures, the students
seemed to rise to the challenge even more. At the end of the last
lecture a group of students approached us and told us that this
was the best part of their entire schooling and the reason for this
was simply because of the passion of the lecturers but also the
tantalizing feeling of moving towards something elusive but
beautiful. We were giving everything we knew and had to the
students, pushing ourselves to learn and know more as we went
along, strong in our conviction that we were passing on our
passion for the beauty of ideas, and this seemed good. We
might turn to Socrates’ words in Plato’s Phaedrus: “men lead
hungry animals by waving a branch or some vegetable before
their noses, and it looks as if you will lead me all over Attica
and anywhere else you please in the same way by waving the
leaves of a speech in front of me” (Plato, 1973: p. 26). As we
are mentioning The Phaedrus, then we will remind ourselves
that Socrates’ position on true knowledge, unlike Plato’s, was
that it could only be accessed deeply through love and passion.
Beauty and Transcendence
Looking to modern research as the answer to the significant
problems of education has allowed schooling to be far more
pleasant and student-centered than it was about 100 years ago.
However, we should remember that it is not a crime to look far
back either, and to consider not only what has been said in the
past 70-odd years, but was has been said over the past 5000
years, for in that significant repository of thought and experi-
ence there might be solutions that we forget if we lurch ahead
too eagerly. Gardner’s most recent book, Truth, Beauty, and
Goodness Reframed (2012) working off Plato’s famous triad,
looks for three things in knowledge: the good, the true and the
beautiful. Much work has been done on conveying the truth
(rules in science and axioms in mathematics, integrated and
nuanced views of history and pedagogy that has been re-
searched), there is an increasingly strong movement towards
the good, trying to educate ethics and morality in lessons so as
not to leave students with knowledge but no sense of human
responsibility and values, but what of the beautiful?
If the muse is first and foremost beautiful and if beauty
comes close to a spiritual experience in the transcendental
model it presents us with, then how do we consider aesthetics
in secondary schooling? How do we study fractals, Euclidian
geometry, Impressionist painting and Mahler’s Resurrection
symphony? Too often it is through a type of materialist, skills-
based scientific objectivity that asks students to evaluate, to
judge, understand and decorticate. When students are placed
before a painting, they are quickly expected to analyze the use
of media, the historical content, the meaning (is there always
meaning?) rather than appreciate the sheer ineffable power of it.
This unhappy manner of stripping everything down to a com-
prehensible form can often take away that which is sacred in
knowledge: its ongoing search for metaphysical truth.
We can trace this approach back to figures like Plato with his
almost absurd reliance on reason over passion (passion for
Plato seen as something unreliable and dangerous), the British
Empiricists like David Hume who would explain that every-
thing in human consciousness is simply a mirror of what we
have already perceived, “impressions” that are augmented by
an excited mind, thinkers such as Darwin, Freud and Marx who
did away with transcendence and tried to explain the human
condition through materialist, biological and empirical methods,
existentialist philosophers who insisted that humans have not
sublime essence but merely exist like one of Giacometti’s stick
men trudging though a dark and meaningless whirlwind. The
post-World War 2 turning-away from sublimation is under-
standable since the figure of Adolf Hitler gave us an example of
the danger of unbridled passion inspired by gargantuan ideas
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Copyright © 2012 SciRe s .
that were in reality terrifying expressions of hatred. However,
we should not allow raw passion to die in education because of
this since the emphasis on ethics and responsibility, service and
reflection that courses such as the IB give us consider this
carefully and move (or at least aim to move) the student away
from destructive passion towards the realms of knowledge and
virtue rather than hatred.
If there is to be passionate and lifelong learning, then there
must be something to stimulate the student, a powerful catalyst.
Few, if any, of the theories outlined in the first part of this essay
take this into account, instead it’s all about abstractions, skills,
content and values. What this essay is proposing is that good
teaching and good learning goes well beyond this into some-
thing straightforward: passion for the beauty of knowledge.
This essay may not be concluded without celebrating the ef-
forts of countless teachers worldwide. Many of them work in
more than deplorable conditions and with no other pedagogical
tool than their own passion and thirst for transmission of
knowledge. Bewildering their students with the love they have
for their subjects instead of trying to protect them from the
rigour that comes intellectual growth, gifted teachers make a
difference to their students every day and manage to give edu-
cation the spiritual dimension of a quest. The master and ap-
prentice collaboration depicted in this essay does not push for
teachers to be the sole actors in their classroom. We can see
educators not only as classroom facilitators but as igniters of
boldness and ambition in their own subject. Good teachers may
or may not be au fait with the latest research on education, they
may or may not make use of the latest technologies but they all
feel the need to make students transcend themselves and in the
process they find their way to lifelong learning. As we push for
teaching conditions and pedagogy to evolve positively around
the globe, some core values must remain inalienable, amongst
which the necessity to empower teachers by allowing them to
express their infectious thirst for knowledge.
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