Presenting what is beautiful: The joyful duty of Catholic EducationANDREW SEELEY
Catholic schools have a joyful duty to present what is beautiful to their students.
Throughout his retrospective, he refers to beauty, the need for beauty, the search for beauty. His wanderings away from the faith of his mother were intimately bound up with a search for beauty. He did not find beauty in his catechesis, nor in his early education, so he sought it in the wild passions of love and friendship. Eventually, Augustine found the Lord by realizing in very painful ways that other beauties disappointed when they were mistaken for real Beauty.
In his praise of the Lord, St. Augustine connects love and Beauty, for they are correlatives. Love is aroused by what is beautiful, beauty inspires love. We need to be inspired by what is truly beautiful, to be passionate about what is lovely. And to enjoy in the objects of natural affection a suggestion, a reflection of the Beauty that never passes.
Our nation's Puritanical past might lead us to think that to be religious is to deny ourselves what is beautiful, but the opposite is true. The Danish movie, Babette's Feast, provides a parable about a small fishing village that has driven out all that is beautiful in life in its misguided following of Christianity. The loss of beauty leads to a loss of joy and friendship. The humble cook, who is really a refugee French chef, wins a lottery fortune and uses it to prepare a sumptuous feast to celebrate the founder of the community. In the course of the feast, the village is re-awakened, re-evangelized and re-united.
Catholic schools have a joyful duty to present what is beautiful to their students. At the center of the school, the chapel and all religious services should present a feast for the eyes, the ears, the mind and the heart. Classrooms and hallways should be tastefully decorated; students will imbibe fine works of art over the course of their years at a school. Tasteful, rich, clever visual presentations should be an important factor when considering textbook series.
Beauty has an important place in the central activity of teaching and learning. Learning certainly requires discipline, but deep down it is a feast for the mind and heart. An ancient expression describing what it means to be beautiful is, "What pleases merely by being seen." What is beautiful does not have to be possessed, consumed to please us; merely a look is sufficient to delight us. When we hear this, we immediately think of paintings, faces, the visible things seen by the eyes. But in a more profound sense, what pleases the mind by itself, without reference to possessing something, is truly beautiful.
Many of us who teach know what this means. As young men and women, we were enchanted by our subjects and fell in love with them. Our great desire has always been to share that enchantment with our students. None expressed this desire better than the great entomologist, J. Henri Fabre. The man honored by Darwin as the "Inimitable Observer" realized the crucial importance of inspiring a love for the insects whose habits he wished to make the object of their scientific interest.
Dr. Paul Lockhart expresses the same, heartfelt desire in his Mathematician's Lament, in which he mourns the fact that most students never get a clue in twelve years of schooling as to why mathematicians love what they do.
I recently received a lament from a graduate student in classical literature at a prestigious graduate school, one with which graduate students in all fields who entered their programs in love with a subject can sympathize:
Teachers of literature must ensure that they spend less time training students to recognize metaphor and simile than they do inspiring them to feel the power of the beauty of the stories and poems they encounter in their classes. Of course, no teacher will succeed with every or even most students, nor can he neglect his duty to pass on things that need to be "known" about it. But he should take every opportunity he can to manifest the beauty of a subject to which he has given his own heart. When he succeeds, he has given his students something which will make a greater impression in their lives than any test they might ever pass. For, as St. Augustine also realized, every encounter with a beauty is really a meeting with the Beauty that is the goal of all our longing:
Andrew Seeley. "Presenting what is beautiful: The joyful duty of Catholic Education." Newsletter of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education # 10 (February, 2010).
Reprinted with permission of the author, Andrew Seeley, and the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education.
The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education proposes to fulfill its mission by engaging serious scholarly reflection on the nature of Catholic education and sharing that reflection with the broader Catholic educational community.
Andrew Seeley has, for nineteen years, been a tutor at Thomas Aquinas College in California. A 1987 graduate of Thomas Aquinas, Seeley received his Licentiate from the Pontifical Institute in Medieval Studies (Toronto) and a Ph.D. in Medieval Studies from the University of Toronto (1995). His dissertation was a study in St. Thomas's teaching about the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. His teaching experience includes courses in Biblical Studies; Patristics; Logic; Natural Philosophy; Geometry; Cartesian Algebra; Differential Calculus; Ancient, Medieval and Modern Philosophy and Literature; Classical Physics and Relativity; and Music Theory. In 2005 Andrew Seeley became Executive Director at the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education. He has spoken at conferences, led in-service workshops, offered consultations to schools and colleges and directed the Institutes Annual Academic Retreat for Teachers. Andrew Seeley is co-author of Declaration Statesmanship: A Course in American Government.
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