Aesthetic Education: The Way of Beauty

Aesthetic education matters. Noble art cultivates noble souls. Until recently, most civilizations have understood this, encouraging educators to introduce the youth to art, beauty, and good taste. This is what is known as an “aesthetic education.” But how many educators do this today? When taste has been reduced to mere preference—wherein the distinction between superior or inferior taste is meaningless and even offensive—criticism of taste is considered off-limits. This view has gained hold not only in popular culture but even in the schools, threatening the very purpose of education. And while it’s important to be reticent about being too critical and a snob, education—and the soul—depends on the cultivation of an aesthetic sensibility that can identify what constitutes ‘good’ art.


At the heart of education is the development of an aesthetic sense—that is, a receptiveness to the goodness and beauty that ultimately opens the soul to transcendent Beauty itself. Beauty is not just a formalism devoid of all content but a form embodied with meaning and intelligibility, as the expression of the mind of God. Without this transcendent horizon, the human spirit does not blossom, and art, the spirit’s expression, becomes bland and uninspired. Thankfully, there’s a long tradition of aesthetic education we can draw from to recover the cultivation of taste that desires only the finest that flows from the fount of wisdom—wisdom in Latin is sapientia, which has its root in sapor, taste. Such water helps the wings of the spirit grow.


The cultivation of the aesthetic sense matters for without it civilization and its refinements would never be passed on and developed in new expressions. As cultivation, aesthetics plays a role in cult or divine praise. It refines the capacity to recognize the holy and the divine glory even when it appears in the apparently ugly, such as the crucifixion and death of the Lord. Having an aesthetic sensibility makes us better disciples. I took this very seriously as a theology teacher, and that’s why I showed the late Sir Roger Scruton’s BBC documentary “Why Beauty Matters” each year to my students. And while Scruton’s documentary scandalized many of my students who thought all taste was subjective and relative, it at least got them to think about aesthetic sensibility and why it matters. Much of the faith rests on the objective value of beauty that subjects are meant to perceive.


While a philosopher by training, Sir Scruton wrote mainly about aesthetics—the topic of his doctoral thesis at Cambridge, written under the supervision of Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe and Michael Tanner. Worried that the aesthetic sensibility was in decline in our own day, Scruton mustered all his energy to help us develop taste and attend to the beauty of artistic form, especially through music education.


In an insightful essay called “The Heart of Music,” Scruton explains why teachers are necessary for the young to develop musical taste. He writes,


"It would be easy to say, as so many do today, that it [music] is all a matter of taste, and that we should let the young get on with it, so as to discover things for themselves. But young people are very bad at discovering things for themselves. That is why teachers are necessary. If we thought that there were no intrinsic difference between a Beethoven symphony and a song by the Kooks, and that a music-loving person could go through life without hearing Beethoven and be none the poorer for it, then of course we would happily give up the attempt to educate the taste of the young. But it is only someone who does not know Beethoven who could think like that. If you have had the Beethoven experience then your first desire is to pass it on, to open the ears of young people to what you have heard and wondered at, and to introduce them to something that offers not just pleasure and fascination, but also joy and knowledge."


I was fortunate to have such a teacher in high school. Fr. Victor was my Spanish and Greek teacher in the minor seminary I attended for a year in New Hampshire. He taught a music appreciation class on Saturdays, and worked hard to cultivate our aesthetic sensibilities, which he saw as spiritual cultivation. Like “Exploring Music with Bill McGlaughlin,” Fr. Victor explained in great detail all the influences that went into each piece of music—biographical details, music theory, philosophy of music, etc.—guiding us young initiates into the mysteries of music, the mystery of Beauty. Fr. Victor reminded me of Antonio Salieri in Milos Foreman’s film adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus —the good Salieri, that is, not the Salieri consumed by envy and rage. One of the best scenes in the movie was Salieri’s retelling of his first encounter with the music of Mozart and how he found it entrancing and transcendent. Fr. Victor did the same for us. His recognition and explanation of the beauty of God shining forth through music helped the class give thanks to God. It was Eucharistic.


Fr. Victor was a lover of music. Someone must have enthused him with the love of song long ago, and he passed on that enthusiasm to each of his students, helping us realize the spirit’s longing to fly to God.


I tried to do the same for my students, introducing them to the aesthetics of music, and was surprised by how few of my students recognized popular classical pieces like Beethoven's second movement in his Seventh Symphony, or the Swan theme in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Oddly, though, I did not need to convince them of the beauty of each piece. The music instilled in them something like a holy spirit and holy awe. At first, my students thought the whole aesthetic thing to be a bit snobbish, especially coming from Sir Roger Scruton, but the more I immersed them in the good art he admired, especially the music, the more my students came to recognize the beauty therein, and it led them to the Lord. Sometimes, I would just play great classical music in the background as my students worked on their projects. They really liked it, and some even told me they felt an inner peace because of the music. My wife, a third grade teacher, does the same. As a proud Pole, she softly plays Chopin’s music in the classroom as her students work. She has seen the same transformation in her students. She usually plays it before she gets to the religion lesson of the day. The music puts them in the right mood. Later in their education, these students should attentively listen to the music accompanied by a mentor or teacher who can guide them in the music. This is a small step toward an aesthetic education.


In a wonderful essay titled “Wounded by the Arrow of Beauty,” Joseph Ratzinger sees aesthetic education in the beauty generated by the faith as the “true apologetics for the Christian message.” He recounts his unforgettable experience of Bach at a concert conducted by Leonard Bernstein in Munich, which he attended with Lutheran Bishop Hanselmann. He writes: “After the last note of one of the great Thomas Kantor cantantas triumphantly faded away, we looked at each other spontaneously and just as spontaneously said: “Anyone who has heard this knows that the faith is true.’”


I bet both of these men had a teacher like Fr. Victor. Such teachers cultivate a student’s aesthetic sensibility that is conducive to religious assent. Pope Benedict XVI and Sir Roger Scruton educated the world in such a way, understanding beauty as an arrow that opens the heart to Christ. They both understood the importance aesthetic education has in the life of the faith; let’s do our part in handing down to the future generations the true beauty that helps us fulfill our ultimate end, praising the Lord.