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The Director’s Take

by Robert Jackson

By intentionally cultivating students’ abilities to recognize and produce beautiful artifacts–music, drawings, poetry, drama, etc.–K-12 classical education provides young people with the rudiments of a beautiful life. While paying careful attention to the masterful works of civilization, students begin to see and respond to the beauty surrounding them, eventually developing the skills to recreate beauty for themselves.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” goes the modern cliché, blithely suggesting that beauty is merely a matter of personal opinion. While there are certainly differences of opinion and individual preferences in fashion, style, or culinary taste, the human experience of beauty remains common to all: the panoramic vista of a snow-covered mountain range; the piercing movements of Mozart’s Requiem in D minor; or the bright eyes and sweet smile of a young child. Such experiences reveal features of the universal phenomena of beauty: a sense of proportion, the pleasure of order, and the intimate knowledge of another person.

Capable of conjuring the full range of emotion–awe, reflection, joy, etc.—our encounters with beauty draw us closer to “that which is there before us,” as the poet Richard Wilbur says: …there before we look Or fail to look; there to be seen or not By us, as by the bee’s twelve thousand eyes, According to our means and purposes.

While a beautiful scene, artifact, or person may provoke our interest, so much depends upon our purposes and intentions. What is beauty? How do we recognize it? And, how should we respond to it? These are questions for all–especially for educators.

From ancient times through the modern age, philosophers and educators have been deeply interested in the relationships among truth, goodness, and beauty. Works as diverse as Plato’s Republic and C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man are fundamentally concerned with beauty’s power to shape society. Numerous authorities have acknowledged that humans are simultaneously rational and appetitive, with a spirited element that has the potential to harness instinct to intellect–if humans are able to discern beautiful purposes. Wise men have recognized, as we all do, that intellectual justifications can easily be contrived to satisfy instincts, if the spirit is not tethered to beauty.

Enter the fine arts. By intentionally cultivating students’ abilities to recognize and produce beautiful artifacts–music, drawings, poetry, drama, etc.–K-12 classical education provides young people with the rudiments of a beautiful life. While paying careful attention to the masterful works of civilization, students begin to see and respond to the beauty surrounding them, eventually developing the skills to recreate beauty for themselves. Just as “art imitates nature,” students learn to imitate the beauty “there before us,” increasing their sense of wonder and delight in reality.

As this magazine continues to explore K-12 classical education in America, it seems fitting for us to consider the role of beauty in the formation of children and young adults. Classical, liberal arts education is chiefly concerned with pedagogies that promote beauty throughout the curriculum, especially the fine arts, thus inspiring students to learn–and to make beautiful things.

In this issue of Virtue, we will hear the testimony of a classically-educated artist, Elizabeth Butler, whose encounter with beauty came through her hands-on experience of the visual arts. We will read the poems of two contemporary authors, Christine Perrin and David Rothman, both of whom are passing on the tradition of poetry–“the best words in the best order,” as Coleridge put it. We will peek inside the Thomas MacLaren School in Colorado Springs, where music is integral to the entire K-12 curriculum. Finally, the poet-teacher, David Rothman, will recount his own joyful surprise at the return of a former student, whose classical education included the leisure that inspired his future vocation as a professional musician.

As the author (and trained artist) G.K. Chesterton once quipped, “Art is the signature of man.” Classical education provides every student with the essential skills of literacy, numeracy, and communication. Yet, of equal importance, classical education provides all students with an experiential understanding of objective beauty, preparing them to produce truth-seeking, artful signs that elevate the spirit to behold a more excellent way.

By intentionally cultivating students’ abilities to recognize and produce beautiful artifacts–music, drawings, poetry, drama, etc.–K-12 classical education provides young people with the rudiments of a beautiful life.

As Sir Roger Scruton says in his short book on the subject, “Beauty can be consoling, disturbing, sacred, profane; it can be exhilarating, appealing, inspiring, chilling. It can affect us in an unlimited variety of ways.

The printmaker bursts his throat telling us about light, telling us about the hillside unveiling in sequence each new day, each hour—the sun layered like paint on groves of olives or lines of dark cypress that spill, no, are quilted, diagonally across the field.

In 1877, George Eliot wrote that she believed she had coined the term “meliorism,” meaning the belief that the world tends to improve, and we can help to improve it. The word was probably in circulation before that, but she certainly drew attention to it and is always associated with it today.

With practiced grace, Mr. Kolb tucks a violin under his chin and places the bow on the strings, and the students’ own bows–silently, instantly–leap to their own instruments. He pauses to remind them to “Walk up to the first note, don’t play it,” and then he slices the strings and they launch into “French Folk Song,” a Suzuki standby.

Virtue is the flagship publication of the Great Hearts Institute. It disseminates stories, ideas, research and experiences in classical education to readers across the nation, helping them pursue the classical ideals of truth, goodness, and beauty.

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