Aesthetics on the River

Charlie Tyson reflects on the lessons of beauty and thought learned from rowing and from study of the humanities.

January 13, 2016
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Most mornings, upon waking, I pull on my sneakers -- they call them “trainers” here -- and head to the river. This time of year at the University of Oxford, where I study as a Rhodes Scholar, the sun rises late and sets early. My walk to the boathouse is lit by moonlight. I follow a trail, canopied by trees, that juts between two tributaries. The water on one side is placid but pure, a meeting place for the ducks and geese that stream past my feet. The other tributary is clotted with filmy moss. Birds halfheartedly peck at the green sludge and flutter on.

Sometimes, when I get to the river, the banks are draped in mist. Through the fog, I hear faint shouts from teams heaving their boats on the water.

How did I get here? To England, to Oxford, to rising early to row for my college?

The rowing question yields a practical answer. My clumsiness, lack of coordination and general physical mediocrity leave me fit only for sports based on endurance and hard work rather than agility or adroitness. (Hence my high school years spent running cross-country in the North Carolina heat for a coach who extolled vomit as the visible evidence of a race well run.)

The environment that I now inhabit -- ancient, alien, yet suffused with peculiar charm -- is distant in many ways from the Charlottesville, Va., that I love. But some striking parallels exist between my undergraduate education at the University of Virginia and the time at Oxford that I spend training on the water.

Rowing, it turns out, is highly aesthetic. The sport relies on many of the same skills I honed as an undergraduate earning a humanities degree. In developing an analogy between rowing and a humanities education, however, I will note one important difference between those two endeavors: rowing is a luxury, whereas a humanities education is not. This difference, I think, points to one quality that makes public colleges and universities like UVA -- institutions that offer a world-class humanities education to students from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds -- distinctively valuable.

College rowing involves eight (sometimes four) people moving in tandem: rolling forward to place the blades of their oars, cocked, in the water behind them; pressing back, straining against the foot plates, to propel the blades through the water. I knew none of this when I arrived at Oxford last year. Learning to row, like attaining familiarity with an academic subject, requires rigorous practice and coaching.

Rowing, however, demands more than comprehension of the mechanics involved. To row well, one needs to cultivate certain habits of attention. A lapse in concentration can set the boat off balance. At all times, one must be aware of one’s posture, the height of one’s hands, one’s position on the slide. As I continued to row, it became clear to me that the sport required not just attention but, specifically, a form of aesthetic attention -- not unlike the capacities that my undergraduate course work in literature sought to hone.

When people say that rowing is a beautiful sport, there are reasons for taking this assessment literally. The boat heaves, as if breathing, as everyone rolls up and presses back in synchrony. The rhythm of each person’s movement meets a parallel rhythm: one’s heartbeat, which accelerates as the boat gains speed. And the boat, a bounded whole, cuts through the water, the blades of the oars scuttling across the surface, charting a path along sinuous banks and yawning trees that dip their branches in the water like spindly fingers.

Rowing’s aesthetic attributes -- tempo, symmetry, balance, repetition and unity -- are not accidental. In fact, they are essential to the sport. A crew that is asymmetrical in power -- with rowers on one side possessing more strength than their counterparts -- will steer off course. A team that falls out of synchrony becomes inefficient. A stroke that traces an elegant arc before dipping cleanly into the water is not just a beautiful stroke; it is a powerful one.

In rowing, athletic success and aesthetic achievement are intertwined. Rowing, like much of my humanities course work in college -- specifically in literature and art history -- takes as one of its central premises the idea that the aesthetic is a worthy object of careful study.

And rowing, much like an undergraduate literature class, instills the belief that such study entails developing certain habits of attention. Both endeavors -- learning to row and earning a literature degree -- require a keen awareness of what artists and writers call form. In rowing, form refers to body positioning, rather than genre, texture or anything else that literature and art critics might speak of. But in both cases, form connotes an aesthetic shape essential to the enterprise at hand: the motion of the boat, the beauty of the poem.

Most mornings, then, I do two things at once: I row, and I drift into aesthetic contemplation. (Sometimes to a fault: “Eyes in the boat, Tyson!” my coach will shout.) This conjunction brings me to an important fault line in my analogy between rowing and an education in the humanities. There is a broad perception in American culture that both rowing and aesthetic inquiry are luxuries: inessential and restricted to a leisured class. Rowing is, I think, a genuine luxury. The boats and equipment require staggering capital investment. The sport tends to thrive at posh secondary schools in the United States and at institutions like Oxford, where one of my teammates (who, I hasten to add, is a lovely person) told me he was thinking about buying an island -- islands off the Scottish coast apparently sell for around 20,000 pounds -- but decided it was a poor investment because of climate change.

The view that aesthetic contemplation is a luxury is, by contrast, false -- and especially pernicious when applied to liberal arts education. The resistance of American colleges and universities to this view is what enabled me to make it to Oxford in the first place. I attended public school in North Carolina and then matriculated at UVA, a public university, where my professors encouraged me to pursue my interest in literature. They pressed me to approach literature not as an avenue for self-indulgent reverie, but as a way of gaining insight into matters of urgent, daily significance in human lives: issues such as self-understanding, social disenfranchisement and moral obligation. That I received such an education testifies to the hard work of my professors and the seriousness of UVA’s commitment to the liberal arts.

In fact, of the seven Rhodes Scholars selected from UVA in the last 10 years, four have either embarked upon, or are strongly considering, an academic career in the humanities. A fifth student majored in modern literature and religious studies while an undergraduate. This sample is too small, and the Rhodes selection process too random, for us to draw unqualified conclusions. But it seems indisputable that UVA’s humanities departments mark an area of strength that Rhodes selection committees have, in recent years, recognized.

Public universities (as well as independent colleges and universities with generous financial aid programs) that continue to emphasize humanistic education deserve praise. UVA still has work to do in recruiting and supporting students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. Nonetheless, Virginians are lucky to have a flagship institution that prizes liberal arts education as a necessary investment in the state’s human capital. I attended UVA financed largely by need-based grants. Without the university’s understanding of aesthetic inquiry not as a luxury but as a vital human good, I doubt I would be at Oxford today. My hope is that my alma mater, as well as other colleges and universities, retains this commitment to the humanities so as to awaken other students, from any socioeconomic background, to the possibilities that a humanities education engenders -- possibilities that include, in my fortunate case, solitary walks down moonlit trails. Maybe one day I’ll walk down that trail again, and I’ll see those future students training on the river -- rowing in tempo, but every so often snatching glances at the sky.


Charlie Tyson graduated from the University of Virginia in 2014 and last year earned an M.St. in English literature from the University of Oxford, where he is currently working toward an M.Sc. in history of science, medicine and technology. He is a former intern at Inside HIgher Ed. This article is adapted from a piece that first appeared in UVA Today.


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