Monthly Archives: April 2016
“Beauty will Save the World” — A simplistic overstatement? The misplaced hope of a naïve romantic? Perhaps. I imagine that many might say this frequently cited phrase from the novelist Dostoevsky overreaches, but I believe beauty’s power for good is too often dismissed. At West Dallas Community School, we take beauty seriously.
Those who have been to our campus likely recognized our focused and thoughtful approach to aesthetics in our school. A phrase I often hear while giving tours to our guests is, “Wow, your building is so beautiful.” More than simply a desire to have a “nice” building, our guests are testifying to a distinctive of our educational philosophy. Our commitment to beauty is reflected in the art that adorns our walls; it is heard it in the hymns sung each morning at assembly and from the notes emanating from our music room. While many schools reduce education to a glorified exercise in career prep, we have more ambitious aspirations. Our belief is that education should aim to cultivate wisdom and virtue and this lofty goal is best achieved by nourishing the soul on a steady diet of the good and the true and the beautiful.
Beginning with our youngest students, our Pre-K 4-year-olds, and all the way up to our oldest students—our 8th graders—the WDCS program commits two class periods weekly to music and two class periods to art. These are not programmatic adornments or even electives. These classes serve as a part of our core curriculum, whereby every student learns to view a painting, listen to a sonata, recognize excellence, and imitate the masters. They learn to identify and appreciate the differences between the music of Vivaldi and Handel or the works of DaVinci and Botticelli.
This ancient triad of truth, goodness, and beauty served for centuries as the foundation for a classical education, but sadly this belief has fallen out of favor. For Fyodor Dostoevsky, the survival and role of beauty in an ugly and fallen world was an important theme. He offered this reflection, “Man can live without science, he can live without bread, but without beauty he could no longer live.” Such a notion might seem foolhardy, if not madness, in the context of our country’s current fervor for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). When the national discourse around the aims of schooling is dominated by discussions of the GDP, and in the face of the specter that our students won’t be equipped to compete in the global economy, our curricular convictions might seen downright irresponsible. But we believe beauty is misunderstood, misrepresented, and grossly underestimated.
Consider this reflection from Pope Benedict, contrasting that which often passes for beauty with that which is truly beautiful: “Too often, though, the beauty that is thrust upon us is illusory and deceitful, superficial and blinding, leaving the onlooker dazed; instead of bringing him out of himself and opening him up to horizons of true freedom…it imprisons him within himself and further enslaves him, depriving him of hope and joy… Authentic beauty, however, unlocks the yearning of the human heart, the profound desire to know, to love, to go towards the Other, to reach for the Beyond.”
I imagine all of us have experienced at least one memorable moment when authentic beauty – whether found in a stunning display of God’s grandeur in nature or a piece of music or a novel or a work of art – gripped us, unlocked some deep down yearning and drew us towards the Beyond, towards God. This is our contention. If beauty, authentic beauty, is rooted on truth and goodness – it draws us toward the author of all three. Eugene Peterson, who in his life has served as pastor, professor, poet, and translator of The Message wrote,
“There’s more to beauty than we can account for empirically. In the more and beyond we discern God… Instinctively – unless our instincts are dulled by the habits and routines of sin – we recognize that there’s more to beauty than what we discern with our senses, that beauty is never “skin deep” but always revelatory of goodness and truth. Beauty releases light into our awareness so that we’re conscious of the beauty of the Lord… Artists who wake up our jaded senses and help us attend to those matters are gospel evangelists.”
Artist as gospel evangelist? For some this might seem a stretch; perhaps the term “pre-evangelism” might be more fitting—someone who tills the soil, preparing the way for the soul’s receptivity to the seeds of the gospel. But when I think of how I’ve been moved, profoundly, by studying Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son or listening to Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, or Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater I think Peterson makes an important point. At WDCS, our hope is that by nurturing our students’ souls, that they will come to love truth, goodness, and beauty, and ultimately we pray they will come to love the Author of all that is good, true, and beautiful. For many, the prelude to a relationship with the creator of the universe as revealed in Jesus, is beauty.
I ascribe words like “ambitious” to the mission of West Dallas Community School because what I’ve been describing is set against a cultural backdrop in which we’ve lost the ability to speak meaningfully, in the public square at least, about truth and goodness. We live in an age where the concept of truth is denounced as a power play, leaving people ever more vulnerable to propaganda and manipulation. We live in a time when virtue is mocked and discussions of the good are out of fashion, and so, not surprisingly, we find ourselves awash in cattiness and corruption. These conditions make faithful discipleship to Jesus difficult and they pose a serious challenge to our educational vision of cultivating wisdom and virtue in our students.
And for this reason, the role of beauty might be more significant today than in centuries past. The plausibility structures that supported a belief in the God of the Bible have slowly eroded and finally have come crashing down. The 21st century zeitgeist is permeated with skepticism and cynicism, making it difficult for our neighbors to ponder the Biblical narrative of creation, fall, and redemption as a serious roadmap of reality. But beauty has the power to steal past those “watchful dragons,” to borrow a phrase from C.S. Lewis. When asked why he, a professor of Medieval Literature at Oxford, would write fantasy literature, Lewis responded that literature (and I would add any form of art) has the power to penetrate our resistance to considering the things of God. Lewis stated, “I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past certain inhibitions… Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.”
I opened with a provocative claim of a 19th century Russian novelist and I’ll conclude with one of the great Russian novelists of the 20th century: Alexander Solzhenitsyn. His acceptance speech for the 1972 Nobel Prize in literature was a reflection on Dostoevsky’s optimistic “Beauty can save the world” as one who had more reason than most to surrender to cynicism. Solzhenitsyn experienced the horrors of World War II and later suffered unjustly in the Soviet gulags as a labor prisoner. He was well acquainted with the repressive regime in Moscow that censored him and other artists; he saw how truth was co-opted as propaganda to manipulate, control, and ultimately destroy its citizenry. Yet in his Nobel Prize speech Solzhenitsyn held out hope for the power of, “the old trinity of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.” Echoing Lewis, he said, “There is, however, a particular feature in the very essence of beauty…The persuasiveness of a true work of art is completely irrefutable; it prevails even over a resisting heart.” And prevailing over the resistant heart, what would beauty accomplish? Solzhenitsyn argued, “If the tops of these three trees do converge, as thinkers used to claim, and if the all too obvious and the overly straight sprouts of Truth and Goodness have been crushed, cut down, or not permitted to grow, then perhaps the whimsical, unpredictable, and ever surprising shoots of Beauty will force their way through and soar up to that very spot, thereby fulfilling the task of all three.”
There it is. In a world where truth and goodness are verboten, beauty possesses the qualities to help us find our way back to virtue and wisdom; it is, in Petersons’ words, “revelatory of goodness and truth.” In short, beauty has the unique capacity to draw us back to God. That is why WDCS places a premium on beautiful things, be it nature, music, literature, biographies, or art. That is why our capstone event of the year is our Fine Arts Day. Please consider joining us on Thursday evening, May 26th for Fine Arts Night – our preview event, specifically oriented for our many volunteers and supporters. There we hope you’ll catch a glimpse of the power of beauty displayed in and amongst the lives of our students, who we hope will one day proclaim truth, goodness and beauty for the glory of God and the good of our city.
Head of School