Education and Gazing on the Beauty of the Lord

“A free society is only possible when you have a virtuous citizenship. And virtuous citizenship only comes through virtuous citizens. Without virtue and a true love of that which is really Good, True and Beautiful each citizen will seek after their own desires and society will descend into chaos.”

In 1943, C.S. Lewis in his prophetic series of lectures that were published as The Abolition of Man pointed to an Australian high school English textbook as evidence that the foundations of absolute Truth, Morality and Beauty which had been built upon the Bible were being degraded.

This English textbook had begun to argue for the subjectivity of Beauty – that Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and is not something that God has built into creation. Lewis understood that the subjectivising of Beauty would inevitably lead to the fall of absolute truth and, finally, absolute morality. If Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then so is Truth and Morality.

What is True for you is True for you, but not for me. You must do what is Right for you.

Sound familiar?

Lewis was a prophet in this regard. The Abolition of Man has unfolded in Australia over the course of the last 80 years.

For Lewis, the root of this problem was education.

Today, we often think of education as the training of people to be useful workers. We have a distinctly utilitarian view of school. Our children should learn maths so that they can become an engineer. They should learn English so that they can become an English teacher. Every subject has purpose only so far as it gives our children a skill that can be used to earn money.

Education has not historically been solely about skills.

Aristotle said that ‘there is a sort of education in which parents should train their sons, not as being useful or necessary, but because it is liberal or noble…. To be always seeking after the useful does not become free and exalted souls’ (Politics, Part III). This is not instead of practical skills – Aristotle recognises that ‘those kinds of knowledge which are useful in business are to be deemed necessary’ but even they ‘exist for the sake of other things.’

Humans are made for something greater than utility. Our end goal is much higher than a job. We should train our children so that they can, like the Psalmist, long to live with God and gaze upon His beauty.

‘One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple’ (Psalm 27:4).

Children should be raised to be able to ‘gaze upon the beauty of the Lord’ with as much capacity as they are capable of. They should be raised to see that they were built to long for more of God’s beauty and to pursue it relentlessly throughout their life through the study of the world (science, engineering), the practice of the arts, the appreciation of literature and through spiritual disciplines like Biblical meditation, prayer and corporate worship.

Plato saw this truth when he wrote: ‘The object of education is to teach us to love what is beautiful’ (Republic, Book III, 403C). For Plato, the aim of educating his Warrior Guardians was to train them to have the right affections. As the child grows, he will hate that which is ugly and love that which is beautiful. This will play out in every aspect of life and eventually, the child will come to understand why he loves what is beautiful.

“Approving all that is lovely, he will welcome it home with joy into his soul and, nourished thereby, grow into a man of a noble spirit. All that is ugly and disgraceful he will rightly condemn and abhor while he is still too young to understand the reason; and when reason comes, he will greet her as a friend with whom his education has made him long familiar.’ (Republic, Book III, 401)

A free society is only possible when you have a virtuous citizenship. And virtuous citizenship only comes through virtuous citizens. Without virtue and a true love of that which is really Good, True and Beautiful each citizen will seek after their own desires and society will descend into chaos.

However, Lewis points out in the Abolition of Man that the result of a lack of virtue will not actually be chaos. Something will fill the void that has been made by the rejection of God and the True, Good and Beautiful that He has defined. Lewis argues that a few powerful people in society will define the ‘good’, ‘true’ and ‘beautiful’ for the rest of us. They will impose this standard downward throughout society through manipulation and force.

Society cannot exist without virtues.

If we want to move towards a society that is submissive to the God of creation, we need to seriously think about the education we provide our children.

Do our institutions train our children to love that which is Good, True and Beautiful?

Do our children come home from school with a growing fire and desire to seek after the Beauty of the Lord? Do our children have a deepening appreciation for true Goodness – a morality defined by God and the Gospel?

All education teaches students what to love. If our children are not being taught to approve of all that is lovely, then they will be taught to approve of that which is ugly and we should not be surprised when our culture becomes ugly as a result.

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