Instructing in the Beauty Sense

Last time, we spoke of the Beauty Sense, a formative force rarely considered in its potent ability to shape the character of children. The Beautiful, together with the Good and the True are servants to one another, each drawing to the others, as it draws us to itself. Charlotte Mason speaks of imagination with the trained eye and ear, as central to the perception of beauty.

 He must needs have Imagination with him to travel there, but still more must he have that companion of the nice ear and eye, who enabled him to recognize music and beauty in words and  their arrangement. The æsthetic Sense, in truth, holds the key of this palace of delights. There are few joys in life greater and more constant than our joy in Beauty, though it is almost impossible to put into words what Beauty consists in; color, form, proportion, harmony––these are some of its elements.[1]

These elements of Beauty speak of perfection—completeness and are often spoken of with Truth and Goodness, forming a triad.

They have been called “transcendental” on the ground that everything which is is in some measure or manner subject to denomination as true or false, good or evil, beautiful or ugly. But they have also been assigned to special spheres of being or subject matter—the true to thought and logic, the good to action and morals, the beautiful to enjoyment and aesthetics.[2]

Humans are created for and called to the transcendent, to climb over or move beyond, to excel, surpass, and surmount. And when this does not happen, something has gone wrong. Bill calls it a malformation. The malformed soul does not delight in the good, beautiful and true, but the biting, brutal, and base. The question before each of us as educators, both parents and teachers is,  how do we rightly form the hearts and minds of students of all ages?

At Ambleside, we hold as a first principle that Education is the "Science of Relations" that our hearts and minds, our affections and desires are formed by the relational world which surrounds us, be it books and things, family and friends or social media and pop culture, trends and technology. Many years ago, a parent at the Ambleside School of Ocala said to me, “We are the sum total of the books we read, the ideas we entertain, and the people we befriend.”

In the cultivation of the beauty sense, books hold the same primacy of place that do art and music. Mason said that in order to have a richly-stored imagination we must read much.[3] Students read thousands of pages a year in Ambleside Schools beginning with a thousand plus pages in kindergarten read mostly by the teacher, and culminating with eight to nine thousand pages each year  of high school. They read books described  as living, books filled with beautiful, vivid language, creating scenes for imagination, ideas of life, the knowledge of God and man, conduct and duty, a storehouse of thought wherein we may find all the great ideas that have moved the world.

Given the right book, cultivating the sense of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth begins with: Expectation and Attention— “Everyday moments of epiphany are bestowed on everyone. Our role is to simply pay attention.”[4]  When opening a living book, a revelation, a manifestation of a new idea or truth awaits the reader. This truth can take the form of a clear conscious thought or of a yearning of the heart. One must participate in a careful reading of the text, assimilating its language and responding to its Idea. We read to know, to know both mind and heart, to know in Goodness, in Truth, and in Beauty.

At Ambleside, a student cannot help but give his/her attention. At any given time in, any given subject, the student may be called upon to read, narrate or discuss. Throughout the day, living readings in fiction and non-fiction, citizenship, geography, history, Scripture, and science are thoughtfully engaged. Student are not left listless or passive. Each is engaged.  Each experiences the reciprocity of giving and receiving insights from the author and from classmate. Each  is all attention.

The manner by which a teacher cultivates the Beauty Sense is exemplified in the following three examples:

Marjorie Kinnan Rawling’s, The Yearling, is set in the 1870’s backwoods of central Florida and tells the story of a year in the life of Jody Baxter, the only surviving child of Penny and Ora Baxter. The teacher introduces chapter two, directing the students’ attention to Penny Baxter as he introduces  the reader to the family history.

The babies were frail, and almost as fast as they came, they sickened and died. Penny (their father) had buried them one by one in a cleared place among the black-jack oaks, where the poor loose soil made the digging easier. The plot grew in size until he was compelled to fence it in against the vandalism of hogs and polecats. He had carved little wooden tombstones for all. He could picture them standing white and straight in the moonlight. Some of them had names: Ezra Jr.; Little Ora; William T.  The others bore only such legends as Baby Baxter, aged 3 mos. 6 days. On one, Penny had scratched laboriously with his pocket-knife, “She never saw the light of day.” His mind moved back down the years, touching them, as a man touches fence posts in his passing. 

Jody’s mother had accepted her youngest with something of detachment, as though she had given all she had of love and care and interest to those others. But Penny’s bowels yearned over his son. He gave him something more than his paternity. He found that the child stood wide-eyed and breathless before the miracle of bird and creature, of flower and tree, of wind and rain and sun and moon, as he had always stood…. He would act on any such occasion, he knew, as a bulwark for the boy against the mother’s sharpness.[5]

The students read the entire book in class, episode by episode, pausing after a single reading for a student to narrate, to tell back what was read. The narration includes the language, order, and details of the author.  An episode like the one above includes a bit more text as it is abbreviated here. The teacher provides thoughtful discussions concerning:              

  • What do you notice about Jody’s relationship with Pa and with Ma? Why is Ma so detached? How is Pa so attached?
  • Consider Rawling’s phrase, “He found that the child stood wide-eyed and breathless before the miracle of bird and creature, of flower and tree, of wind and rain and sun and moon, as he had always stood.” What about nature has such an effect on Jody? Specifically, what is it of bird, creature, flower, tree, wind and rain that captures Jody’s heart?
  • Words evoke an idea of these things and therefore some idea of Beauty. What words stirred this sense of beauty in you?

On readings  and discussions such as these, the class ends in  a ”settled quiet” reflecting. The reflection reaps its result some six weeks later during Ambleside’s annual Veterans’ Chapel. A veteran of the Vietnam War spoke bitterly of his experience, regarding the relational injustices from officers and administration, to the undeserving, receiving of honors and medals. 

Exiting the chapel, the sixth-grade teacher said to me, “I have some clean up to do” referring to the profound negative tone of the message. Later, he told me this story. After settling into their seats, a student raised her hand, and said, “I know why the sergeant was so angry.  He is like Ma Baxter. She lost her children and remained sad. He lost all his friends through the years of the war, and he too is sad.” The teacher said to himself, “Why did I think I was the teacher?” As Charlotte Mason notes,

We recognize the spiritual potency of the idea that we are able to bow reverently before the fact that God the Holy Spirit is Himself the Supreme Educator, dealing with each of us severally in the things we call sacred and those we call secular. We lay ourselves open to the spiritual impact of ideas, whether these be conveyed by the printed page, the human voice, or whether they reach us without visible sign.[7]

The engagement with a living book is formative for life.

The next example is from the 1845 autobiography, The Life of Frederick Douglass. In this passage, twelve-year-old Douglass responds to a passage from The Columbian Orator.

In the same book, I met with one of Sheridan’s mighty speeches on and in behalf of Catholic emancipation. These were choice documents to me. I read them over and over again with unabated interest. They gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul, which had frequently flashed through my mind, and died away for want of utterance.  The moral which I gained from the dialogue was the power of truth over a conscience of even a slaveholder. What I got from Sheridan was a bold denunciation of slavery, and a powerful vindication of human rights. The reading of these documents enabled me to utter my thoughts, and to meet the arguments brought forward to sustain slavery; but while they relieved me of one difficulty, they brought on another even more painful than the one of which I was relieved. The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers….

The idea as to how I might learn to write was suggested to me by being in Durgin and Bailey’s shipyard, and frequently seeing the ship carpenters, after hewing and getting a piece of timber ready for use, write on the timber the name of that part of the ship for which it was intended. When a piece of timber was intended for the larboard side, it would be marked thus—“L.”  When a piece was for the starboard side, it would be marked thus—“S.”…  I soon learned the names of these letters, and for what they were intended when placed upon a piece of timber in the shipyard. I immediately commenced copying them, and in a short time was able to make the four letters named. After that, when I met with any boy who I knew could write, I would tell him I could write as well as he. The next word would be, “I don’t believe you. Let me see you try it.” I would then make the letters I was so fortunate as to learn and ask him to beat that. In this way I got a good many lessons in writing, which is quite possible I should have never gotten in any other way. During this time, my copybook was the board fence, brick wall, and pavement; my pen and ink was a lump of chalk. With these, I learned mainly how to write. I then commenced and continuing copying the Italics in Webster’s Spelling Book, until I could make them all without looking on the book…. Thus, after a long tedious effort for years, I finally succeeded in learning how to write.[8]

After a  short introduction regarding The Columbian Orator, the careful reading and narrating of the text, the teacher provides questions (not all of these questions would be necessarily discussed) concerning Douglass’ response to his plight:

  • Douglass is twelve during this time, and he is reading famous speeches, what affect does this have on his life? Why?
  • The collection of orations includes such authors as: Socrates, Cicero, Jesus, Milton, William Pitt, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and native American chiefs; how do these readings act as a force in Douglass’ life?
  • Wordsworth, you may remember describes the child as father of the man. How did Douglass’ youth prepare him for manhood?
  • Speak about the gifts of reading and writing and their importance in school and in life.

The final example is from Alcott’s Little Women. In the episode “Meg Goes to Vanity Fair,” Meg reminisces with Joe and Marmee.

Meg had told her adventures gayly and said over and over what a charming time she had had, but something still seemed to weigh upon her spirits, and when the younger girls were gone to bed, she sat thoughtfully staring at the fire, saying little and looking worried. As the clock struck nine and Jo proposed bed, Meg suddenly left her chair and, taking Beth's stool, leaned her elbows on her mother's knee, saying bravely...

"Marmee, I want to 'fess'."

"I thought so. What is it, dear?"

"Shall I go away?" asked Jo discreetly.

"Of course not. Don't I always tell you everything? I was ashamed to speak of it before the younger children, but I want you to know all the dreadful things I did at the Moffats'."

"We are prepared," said Mrs. March, smiling but looking a little anxious.

"I told you they dressed me up, but I didn't tell you that they powdered and squeezed and frizzled, and made me look like a fashion-plate. Laurie thought I wasn't proper. I know he did, though he didn't say so, and one man called me 'a doll'. I knew it was silly, but they flattered me and said I was a beauty, and quantities of nonsense, so I let them make a fool of me."

"Is that all?" asked Jo, as Mrs. March looked silently at the downcast face of her pretty     daughter, and could not find it in her heart to blame her little follies.

"No, I drank champagne and romped and tried to flirt, and was altogether abominable," said Meg self-reproachfully.

"There is something more, I think." And Mrs. March smoothed the soft cheek, which suddenly grew rosy as Meg answered slowly...

"Yes. It's very silly, but I want to tell it, because I hate to have people say and think such things about us and Laurie."

Then she told the various bits of gossip she had heard at the Moffats', and as she spoke, Jo saw her mother fold her lips tightly, as if ill pleased that such ideas should be put into Meg's innocent mind.

"Well, if that isn't the greatest rubbish I ever heard," cried Jo indignantly. "Why didn't you pop out and tell them so on the spot?"

"I couldn't, it was so embarrassing for me. I couldn't help hearing at first, and then I was so angry and ashamed, I didn't remember that I ought to go away."

"Just wait till I see Annie Moffat, and I'll show you how to settle such ridiculous stuff. The idea of having 'plans' and being kind to Laurie because he's rich and may marry us by-and-by! Won't he shout when I tell him what those silly things say about us poor children?" And Jo laughed, as if on second thoughts the thing struck her as a good joke.

"If you tell Laurie, I'll never forgive you! She mustn't, must she, Mother?" said Meg, looking distressed.

"No, never repeat that foolish gossip, and forget it as soon as you can," said Mrs. March gravely. "I was very unwise to let you go among people of whom I know so little, kind, I dare say, but worldly, ill-bred, and full of these vulgar ideas about young people. I am more sorry than I can express for the mischief this visit may have done you, Meg."

"Don't be sorry, I won't let it hurt me. I'll forget all the bad and remember only the good, for I did enjoy a great deal, and thank you very much for letting me go. I'll not be sentimental or dissatisfied, Mother. I know I'm a silly little girl, and I'll stay with you till I'm fit to take care of myself. But it is nice to be praised and admired, and I can't help saying I like it," said Meg, looking half ashamed of the confession.

"That is perfectly natural, and quite harmless, if the liking does not become a passion and lead one to do foolish or unmaidenly things. Learn to know and value the praise which is worth having, and to excite the admiration of excellent people by being modest as well as pretty, Meg."[9]

Again, students give attention to the reading, assimilate the story (taking it into mind and heart) and retell the story in a manner both true to the author and uniquely their own. The teacher prompts thoughtful discussion.

The chapter “Meg Goes to Vanity Fair” consists of seventeen pages and would not be read in a single lesson as the teacher desires to give due attention to the text through a careful reading, narration and thoughtful discussion such as:

  • What role does conscience play in Meg’s life? How can conscience be easily ignored?
  • What truths did Meg learned from this experience about herself? Others?
  • What makes Marmee’s  advice wise?  

What one reads matters. The Beauty Sense is cultivated by encountering and sharing the beautiful in the lives of literary characters such as Jody, a boy becoming a man, Frederick Douglass, a slave and his quest for freedom, and a family of girls learning how to navigate the world.

Rawlings, Douglass, and Alcott instruct the human spirit through their stories. We learn from their pages, their artistry in making alive what was imagined and remembered in their hearts and minds. These books, and books like them, are living through their characters and conflicts, romps in the natural world with fawn and friend,  through the earnest defiance of injustice to the human spirit, to the intimacy of family and friendship, challenges of loss and loneliness, hardships and slavery. Each chapter reflects and cultivates the transcendent triad of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth.

[1] Mason, Charlotte. Ourselves. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989. 41.
[2] The Great Ideas, A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World. Adler, Mortimer Ed. William Benton Pub.,1990.
[3]  Mason, Charlotte. Ourselves. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989. 50.
[4] Schleske, Martin. The Sound of Life’s Unspeakable Beauty. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2020. xiii.
[5] Rawlings, Marjorie Kinnan. The Yearling. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1966. 18-19.
[6] Mason, Charlotte. Ourselves. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989. 42.
[7] Mason, Charlotte. Parents and Children. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989. 230.
[8] Douglas, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Tribecca Books. 45, 47-48
[9] Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. New York. 1994. 109-111.