Beauty will save our children, Part 2–Leah Farish

     I was able to visit Riga, Latvia, a few years ago.  Since I was there with the nation’s Ministry of Education, we were able to visit a school outside the city.  The students themselves had been allowed to redecorate a few areas of the school, the first being the entry.  As we entered the rather old building, we felt a combination of drama and serenity I have never sensed in the foyer of a school building.  We looked up and the ceiling was painted a passionate blue, and spangled with gold stars.

The teenage students could hardly wait to show us the classroom they had decorated.

Desks had been replaced with tables for two, and the walls were hunter green.  Large windows admitted plenty of light, but each table was also warmed at its center by a brass study lamp.  We visitors were humbled by the unspoken message of these youngsters: “We want to learn, and we want to do it surrounded by beauty.”

Children naturally respond to loveliness and order.  This idea may be obscured under the mounds of toys, homework papers, and food debris they tend to leave behind when their lives aren’t ordered.  But they do crave it and they naturally celebrate it.  Look at the kids’ sheer delight and spontaneous movement to the music of “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” in the online video, “Som Sabadell flashmob.”

I was about five I first heard a recording of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” from Messiah.  I asked my mother, “Why are those people angry?”  She laughed and said, “They’re not angry, they’re happy.”  But somehow I gathered this was a different kind of happiness than five year olds usually feel.  Later I realized: it was fierceness.  As C.S. Lewis says of characters in his Narnia books, “Their joy was like swords.”  I was hearing the swords.  There was an intensity to that beauty that made me want to grow into it, that made me want to mature.

Warning: When kids are over-stimulated with an exaggerated clutter of artificial images—like the saccharine vistas of the laborious Avatar cartoon movie—they can lose sensitivity to the ordinary aesthetic wonders around them.  When children overdose on hectic, highly-produced media—earbuds at bedtime, 24/7 texting, constant car audio, video games, etc.—they may never find the pleasure of singing a song with the family or painting a picture for themselves.  If they never feel that anything they do, however small and imperfect, can be beautiful, they will quit trying to achieve it, and eventually to appreciate it in their everyday lives.  Don’t let them suppose that beauty is for “the experts.”

So expose kids to the Great Masters—and to the simple beauty of shadows, smells, and harmony.





Beauty will save our children, Part I–Leah Farish

Beauty will save our children, Part 1

You may have heard the mysterious statement of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn that “Beauty will save the world.”  I wonder if it can save our kids.

Plato said, “Teach the child early to love the Good and the Beautiful, so that when Reason at length comes to him, he will hold out his hands in welcome and recognize her because of the affinity he bears to her.”  Plato was saying that beauty is closely related to reason—to rational order and proportion.  Instead of placing aesthetics in the realm of the irrational, we should affirm that reason and beauty go hand in hand.

When children spend time in an environment that is orderly and of good proportion—not massive and inhuman, and not only made for kid-sized or adult-sized bodies—they thrive.  The great educator and physician Maria Montessori once answered a question as to why she designed her famous “pink tower” of graduated blocks to be assembled only on a green cloth.  “Because it is beautiful,” was her reply!  A scientist once evaluated a proposed theory by another and rejected it.  When asked why, he said, “Because it isn’t elegant.”  He was looking for simplicity, symmetry, and that combination of surprise and inevitability we sense when we see something beautiful.

A common objection to training a child’s aesthetic sense is that beauty is too subjective to be a subject of discussion. Not so. There are objective reasons why certain architecture is pleasing to the eye—and to the rest of our bodies–and some is dismal.  Musical harmonies are a matter of vibrations or wavelengths that literally fit into other wavelengths.

The quaint old book, Design your Home for Living, by Mabel Trilling and Florence Nicholas, shows entertaining examples not just of good home décor, but of the distasteful as well, and explains why one design is simply superior to another—a bold approach for our relativistic times.  While our tastes in furniture have changed since the book came out in the 1950’s, principles behind the commentary remain the same.

Montessori education trains students to look at their environment and notice whether it is orderly or not, making the classroom teacher a guide to sharpening their awareness, eliciting the sense of beauty that comes from within the students.  Dr. Montessori, a pediatrician, was once asked why her famous “pink tower” material was always to be used on a green mat.  ”Because it’s beautiful,” she replied.  When asked whether building a sense of beauty (aesthetic sense) was really important in human development, she asked whether you would rather have a physician who has a sense of beauty, or one who doesn’t.

I once asked the great theologian and devotional writer, Richard Foster, how to encourage spirituality in children.  He said something like this: “Connect the natural things in their lives to God.  So, when you are giving the child a bath, talk to the child about the water first—whether it’s warm or cool, how it slips through our fingers.  Then talk about how it gets us clean, and how God wants us to be clean, inside and out.”  He said that if you want children to be thankful to God for nature, start by helping them notice the colors of an evening sky, or the pleasure of a breeze on their skin.

Just noticing is indeed a great first step.