Beauty and Education

Year in and year out, the Trinity School Fine Arts Night is one of the most enjoyable events on the calendar. Invari­ably, parents are astounded by what their children have accomplished.

Whether it's a copy in pencil of a Holbein portrait, a recorder performance or a musical composition rendered according to the very stringent rules of counterpoint, parents are delighted. They are just amazed that their child who never exhibited any particular talents in these areas could create something so beautiful.

"Beautiful." That's what they say. That's what they recognize—beauty. They are not trying to articulate some philosophical or aesthetic position. They are sim­ply describing their perception. It's a matter of seeing what is before their eyes and hearing what presents it­self to their ears. It is beautiful, and they know it.

Amid all the learned speculation about beauty, this fact is, I think, the most important: Most people do have the ability to discern beauty and they can distin­guish it from what is ugly. They recognize order, har­mony of line and sound, the pleasing arrangement of color, etc.

Our students live in an age which celebrates the relativity of all thought, and so they often invoke the relativistic mantra that "beauty is in the eye of the be­holder." Yet, something is terribly wrong with that no­tion. I tell the students: If they were watching the sun­set from the cliffs of Big Sur on the California coast and a companion said that the sunset was ugly, they would accurately judge that either their companion did not know the correct use of the English word "ugly" or that he or she had some kind of disordered perception. They would know that something was wrong with that judgment. It is simply a fact: that sunset is beautiful; to say differently is to be wrong. It is a mistake.

    Often, the "eye of the beholder" phrase is used to link the perception of beauty to taste: "it's just a matter of what you like." This is also, on the face of it, wrong. We have all had the experience of recognizing some­thing as beautiful that we don't particularly like. If you play some Mozart for random listeners, they will recog­nize the beauty. At the same time, they might say that they don't particularly like the piece, or it doesn't suit their tastes, but they know it is beautiful. I don't par­ticularly like Mahler's music, but I do recognize that it is beautiful. I can recognize a painting or a symphony as beautiful, and at the same time not want it hanging on my living room wall or played on my sound system. There is a real distinction between beauty and taste, or between beauty and what I like and dislike.

Indeed, part of the task of learning to recognize and appreciate beauty is the task of learning that beauty is independent of one's taste. The good news is that of­ten we can educate our taste, we can broaden it and make it more discriminating. When I was in college, I lived with a professor and his wife. They were great op­era lovers and aficionados of classical music. I had been raised on jazz. In my home we laughed at opera and would mimic what we took to be the screeching histri­onics of the coloratura sopranos. Well, this professor and his wife took me  Pymagalion-like, and over the course of a year taught me about opera and classical music. More importantly, they helped broaden my taste. They taught me to like opera, to desire it. They did this, not so much by talking to me, but by sur­rounding me with beautiful music. Often, as we lis­tened, they would point out important features of the music. To this day I can thank them for enriching my  life with a love for music that ranges from Josquin Depres to Charlie Mingus.

At Trinity School we work hard to bring all the stu­dents into contact with beauty. We want the halls full of beautiful music and the walls to be hung with beau­tiful drawings and paintings. The students study beauti­ful music, beautiful paintings, beautiful drama, beauti­ful poetry, beautiful novels, beautiful architecture and beautiful sculpture. Yes, even beautiful mathematics.

Being surrounded by beauty is crucial in learning to love and understand the beautiful. The reverse is also true. If one is surrounded by the cheap, the tawdry, the less than beautiful, one's tastes are, to that degree, un­formed or deformed. This is one of the facts of life in American pop culture, so much of which is vulgar and cheap and tawdry. This mass culture has a corrosive ef­fect on the tastes and sensibilities of children.

Here, we often find ourselves swimming upstream in the work of forming a student's taste for the beauti­ful. It can be a struggle both for the student and for the faculty, but it is one which, as parental delight on Fine Arts Night testifies, results in real success. The stu­dents learn to love and create beautiful things.

This post is the third of three installments on truth, goodness, and beauty by Dr. Kerry Koller the President of Trinity Schools.