There are many answers to this question. Some folks argue that we are imparting “core knowledge” to our students that will help them easily assimilate into the adult world. Others argue that we’re providing our students with occupational skills. Still others argue that we’re helping our students develop the analytical skills necessary to become responsible citizens.
One thing I try to do in the classroom is help my students appreciate beauty. Whether we’re reading Of Mice and Men or discussing evolutionary theory, my students are not simply acquiring new skills or information. They are learning that science and literature can be beautiful.
In her wonderful book, “On Beauty and Being Just,” Elaine Scarry argues that beauty itself is a kind of teacher:
“Beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people…The generation is unceasing.
[The] willingness continually to revise one’s own location in order to place oneself in the path of beauty is the basic impulse underlying education. One submits oneself to other minds (teachers) in order to increase the chance that one will be looking in the right direction when a comet makes its sweep through a certain patch of sky.”
This process Scarry describes is, in fact, my favorite part of teaching: directing students towards beautiful things, as well as helping them recognize the beauty of things. It goes without saying that this process is impossible to measure with an alphanumeric scale, and that test-obsessed reformers have sucked much of the beauty out of our classrooms. Yet when this process bears fruit, its value– for both student and teacher– is immense.
Beauty, as Scarry points out, motivates us. A student who sees the beauty in a sonnet or an equation will seek out more sonnets and equations, and will eventually start their own sonnets and equations. This is why many of us become teachers: to share something beautiful with our students and thus ensure that this beauty continues to perpetuate itself. Surely there’s an intrinsic value in that.