Matt D’Antuono is a physics teacher in New Jersey, where he lives with his wife and eight children. He holds bachelor’s degrees in physics and philosophy, a master’s degree in special education, and is working on a master’s degree in philosophy at Holy Apostles in Cromwell, Connecticut. He returned to the Catholic Church in 2008. He is the author of A Fool’s Errand: A Brief, Informal Introduction to Philosophy for Young Catholics, The Wiseguy and the Fool and Philosophy Fridays. On YouTube you can find him at DonecRequiescat and his family at MisterD418.
“Mr. D, why do we have to learn this stuff?” A question I wish I never had to hear, but a question which I am glad they at least take the time to ask.
My response depends on the attitude with which the question is posed, but I usually begin with another question: “Are you asking because you really want to know, or are you asking because you want to express your frustration?” I make it easier for them to answer by making it multiple choice with only two options, though I realize that there is likely a mix of both answers; the frustration of the latter option stems from the ignorance of the first option. For the sake of context, let me mention that I teach physics, a subject many people find particularly frustrating.
“I mean, when are we ever going to use this stuff?”
“Most of it: never.”
“Then why do we have to learn it?”
Unfortunately, I think my ultimate answer is one they rarely, if ever, have heard: beauty. We learn for the sake of beauty. This applies not only to physics, but to everything we learn.
I take the time on the first day of class to explain this to my students, I take my entire final lecture of the year to defend my answer (two events which form the first and last chapters of my book Philosophy Fridays), and I take the time to point it out whenever it becomes evident throughout the year.
What does beauty have to do with learning, let alone learning physics? Even many who have an understanding of philosophy will ask: don’t we learn for the sake of truth?
Yes, we learn for the sake of truth, but beauty is the enjoyment of the truth. The two are not mutually exclusive. Truth is good for us, and the beauty of the true and the good is what is enjoyable and pleasurable in it. Beauty has been defined as “that which being seen pleases.” According to the Catechism, “Truth is beautiful in itself” (CCC 2500). But it takes time and education to be able to see it.
The test of true education is whether or not a person can be pierced by beauty. Knowing the truth is not enough; one does not really know the truth in the way it is meant to be known unless he sees the beauty in it. There is a difference between knowing geometry and reveling in its beauty.
If someone looks at the night sky and is not overwhelmed with wonder, something is wrong. If someone listens to a great piece of music and is not carried away in ecstacy, there is a good chance that the problem is not with the music. If someone stands before a great painting and is easily distracted, it is not the fault of the artwork. If someone is placed in the presence of a majestic landscape and would rather sift through social media than look at what is in front of him, the blame does not lie with the the view.
Chesterton expressed this point when he said that there is no such thing as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person. Nothing is boring; there are only people who are bored. Everything has some beauty in it, and beauty is not boring. Beauty is always interesting.
Some forms of beauty are easier to appreciate at first, but all forms of beauty get better with education in the subject and the virtue of the educated. I want my students to learn physics so that they can at least get a glimpse of the beauty of physics. It is hard work to get there, but it is worth it. Some tastes are worth acquiring.
In my own experience, I realize that it was beauty that led me home to the Catholic Church. When I misunderstood the teaching of the Church, Catholicism appeared distorted and ugly. But when I started to learn the truth about Catholicism, I saw, a little at a time, the unity of the belief and that harmony among the doctrines.
In the end, God himself is Beauty, the source of all the beauty we observe on earth and him to which all other beauties point. The final end of our education is nothing less than God himself, the Beauty who will possess us and transform us in Himself.