Classical Education: The Unity of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty

In a recent article, Lindsey Brigham reminds the classical teacher that there is more at stake in a classical education than truth, there is also goodness and beauty. Brigham opens by asking her readers to imagine a place of “pure and perfect proportion” that also “lacked any trace of color, sound, or scent; no music, no laughter, no gardens, no paintings, no feasts filled its symmetric architecture.” She then asks a penetrating question, “Would such a land be habitable?”

It is true that many classical schools and classical curricula emphasize propositional truth claims and the consequences of ideas. Indeed, the importance of teaching truth cannot be overstated. However, tending the mind to the exclusion of the whole person undermines a truly classical education and fails to take into consideration the world in which we live. Brigham suggests that we need to do more than teach truth:

[…] to teach truth alone is to usher students into a world of firm foundations, pure proportion, and stately symmetry with no color or sound or scent—the world of the fable above. This world lacks all that makes the truth homey and habitable, lovely and lovable; little wonder that students tire of it, poke fun at it, seek to move out of it. It cannot be home for their souls, for it lacks goodness and beauty.

Might this be the reason that when our students leave for college many abandon the first principles they had been taught by their parents? Could it be that reading the right books, attending the right school, participating in the right bible studies, and hearing the truth daily might not be enough to truly ground a student and equip them to live consistently within this world?

Stratford Caldecott, in Beauty for Truth’s Sake, argues that truth does not stand alone. Rather, according to the classical tradition, the triad of truth, goodness, and beauty are found in everything that exists. This is true because God, Who is the source of truth, goodness, and beauty, has created everything that exists. Caldecott explains:

Everything, in other words, is true, good, and beautiful in some degree or in some respect. All that exists—because it gives itself, because it means something—is a kind of “light.” It reveals its own nature and at the same time an aspect of that which gave rise to it. Beauty is the radiance of the true and the good, and it is what attracts us to both.

Cultivating the affections, for Caldecott, is, in some measure, more important than cultivating the mind. To see beauty in creation and to experience its penetrating effects necessarily leads us to fully embrace what is true and good. It was this concept that let Socrates to argue that the “object of education is to teach us to love what is beautiful.”

Classical education demands that we hold together truth, goodness, and beauty as an educational paradigm. It is not enough to teach about flowers; we need to smell the flowers. Teachers and parents must constantly be looking to the artistry of creation and the creativity of stories. Our children should be exposed to the wonderful sensations this world has to offer. We should be looking for opportunities to sing, dance, and play with each subject as well as those times to be quiet, still, and contemplative. We are directing more than our students minds, we are instilling in them tastes and sensibilities that will last a lifetime.

Classical education is human education. It is a philosophy of education that seeks to enliven students to colors, textures, aromas, sounds, and tastes of creation. Students are to experience the glory of creation and recognize the rot of its curse. Classical education is a formative education that trains sensibilities, inciting pleasure when appropriate and a distaste of those things that are awful. The goal of a classical education is to shape students, molding a discerning disposition toward the world. It is an education that unveils the true for students but also goodness and beauty.

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