Beauty and the university

By Donal O’Shea

Dr. Donal O'Shea
Dr. Donal O’Shea

One evening last December as the fall semester was winding down, I walked into the wood-paneled Music Room in College Hall. It was here that Charles Ringling, John’s brother and chief operating officer and co-owner of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and his wife, Edith, had entertained guests just over 90 years ago.

Many students had finished exams and left. Nonetheless, at least half of those in the room were students. They looked exhausted. Everyone did.

The New College Chorus, nine students, all dressed in black, one in black jeans with the knees out, and their venerable director, Virginia Bray, filed in.

Conversation stopped, a student stepped forward with a few words about the song that would follow, stepped back, and the choir launched into an exquisite rendering of J.S. Bach’s glorious chorale “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” accompanied by violin. A collective sigh from the audience and applause.

Silence.

Another choir member stepped forward, said a few words about the playful, saucy 15th-century madrigal “Ce moys de may” that followed immediately. Another collective sigh, and more applause.

Silence.

Seven more seasonal songs and madrigals from the 15th to 19th century, each introduced by a different student, each beautiful, would follow.

After 50 minutes of breathtaking beauty – no other words will do – the program ended and the chorus melted away.

The audience lingered a little longer, visibly moved, and shaking off their reverie. I felt lighter, less stressed and so, clearly, did many others.

A two-minute video clip of the concert posted on our New College Facebook page elicited the following response from a parent, “Thank you for sharing! My daughter was already in love with your school and this just put her over the top! She loves being in the choir and wants to find out how to join … in 2.5 years when she graduates high school.”

I have thought of that concert many times since that December evening. The chorus members had worked hard all semester to get it right. Most were not music majors. They met weekly and practiced for the joy of it. They asked nothing, and they left the community with a priceless gift: a performance of gorgeous music that connected expressions of love, of adoration, and of play across six centuries. Some will graduate, but other students will join, and I am already looking forward to their concert this coming December.

But that’s not why I’ve thought so much about the concert. Rather, it is because in the weeks since that concert, I’ve had over a half-dozen conversations with others in different venues that raised the question, “What is the purpose of a university?”

Is it to serve the community, to train students for jobs, to undergird the regional economy, to build the nation’s human capital, to house research that will lead to understanding or innovations, to remember the past, or to produce thoughtful citizens?

I usually define the primary mission of New College as preparing intellectually curious students for lives of great achievement.

But that concert reminds me that one of the purposes of any university must be to conserve and to produce beauty. Although the arts, and music in particular, may offer the nonexpert more direct access to beauty, and the serenity and sense of rightness it inspires, the hard-won truths and theories of other disciplines hold their own beauty. It is not always the case that beauty is truth, and truth beauty, but there can be no doubting that beauty and truth are inextricably linked, and failure to recognize one is coupled with failure to recognize the other.

— Dr. Donal O’Shea is president of News College of Florida.

 

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