Rockbridge Academy Blog
“Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.” If you’ve been around Classical Christian Education for more than a minute, you’ve probably noticed that we love to say these words. These three transcendentals, lauded by the philosophers of classical antiquity and rightly located by theologians in the very nature and being of God, are an apt rallying cry for the work of classical Christian education.
Still, some of us may have a more ready apology for truth and goodness than we do for beauty. We point to God’s Word as the source of truth and acknowledge Him as the One who defines all the reality of the cosmos. “All truth is God’s truth,” we rightly say. We recognize how God reveals Himself as we happily pillage the best sources of knowledge from across the ages. Likewise, we acknowledge that goodness is in and of God, both in terms of morality and blessing. The Greeks conceptualized “good” as that which fulfills its own purpose, and we find in our Creator one whose perfect purpose is actively revealed to us in His character and His work of redemption. Just as with truth, we recognize God wants us to know and explore His goodness; in fact, we cling, like David, to the comfort that “surely goodness and mercy” will pursue us all the days of our lives.
But what of beauty? Do we defend and cleave to beauty with a similar conviction? Do we remember that this third member of the triumvirate is also located in God and that He uses beauty in His pursuit of us? After all, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” rolls so easily off the tongue, and experience tells us that there is variety and gradation in people’s aesthetic preferences. Since there’s no accounting for taste, don’t we hit a dead-end with beauty?
Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar commented on this tendency to quietly sideline considerations of beauty when he said:
Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach, since only it dances as an uncontained splendor around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another. Beauty … without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, [is] a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world.
Even many Christians, Balthasar says, have functionally jettisoned beauty from the realm of the essential. He gives a somber warning about the consequence of this devaluing:
We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance.
We can be grateful that there is a conscious intention at Rockbridge Academy—and in the broader classical Christian education movement—to guard against the easy “disposal” of beauty about which von Balthazar soberly warns. “Truth, Goodness, and Beauty” isn’t just a catchy slogan. It’s a shorthand reminder of a Trinitarian truth: we are made in the Imago Dei, with intellectual, moral, and aesthetic sensibilities and desires. Thus, in the classroom, asking “What is Beautiful?” is just as worthwhile as asking “What is True?” and “What is Good?”.
Classical Christian education allows breathing room for such discussions. On the one hand, our “classical” bent reminds us that, in the tradition of the best thinkers from across the ages, pursuing a better understanding of beauty helps us explore what it means to be fully human. On the other hand, our unapologetically “Christian” emphasis reminds us that the answers we seek are ultimately found outside ourselves. While God created us with individually nuanced tastes and pleasures, He is our ultimate reference for what is beautiful. Embracing this juxtaposition of imminence and transcendence in the beautiful, good, and true (and valuing their inescapable connection to one another) is a part of the very good work—the “courage and decision”—going on at Rockbridge Academy, by the grace of God.
Embracing this juxtaposition of imminence and transcendence in the beautiful, good, and true (and valuing their inescapable connection to one another) is a part of the very good work—the “courage and decision”—going on at Rockbridge Academy, by the grace of God.
Heidi Stevens taught art and humanities courses for twenty years and now serves on the Rockbridge Academy Board of Directors. She and her husband, Rick, have two grown daughters, both Rockbridge graduates.
At some point (or multiple points) during the school year, every Latin teacher will be asked the same question. Sometimes we encounter it at parent-teacher conferences, in the classroom, or we are asked to speak on it at back to school nights. We reach for our perfectly scripted and practiced answer that we have used time and time again when asked “why learn Latin?” This answer usually includes a list of 5 - 10 reasons ranging from the connection to English grammar and etymology, the integration with literature, history, and philosophy, and the different levels of practicality for future studies. While all of those reasons are true and valid, the reasons to study and even master Latin are far more significant and rewarding than those already mentioned. Before I go into what they are, let me point out a few things about education in today’s schools.
There is a shift happening in education. This shift is not a new one, but a slow and gradual progression spanning many decades. The progression is a movement away from education for the sake of character and well-roundedness to education for the sake of specializing and salary. The purpose of education in today’s schools is becoming increasingly utilitarian. If subject X does not directly yield a certain dollar figure in the student’s future paycheck or a tangible increase on the SAT, then the benefit of spending time and effort studying subject X is called into question.
I think it is safe to assume that those reading this article find value in the classical model of education. Classical education strives for a balance and unity of a student’s character and their functional intelligence. By equipping students with a multi-faceted and dynamic curriculum, classical education and, especially, Christian education offers students a humble appreciation for the beautiful world around us and the intellectual aptitude to grapple with it from all vantage points. Focusing on the utilitarian benefit of education alone quickly eliminates many studies and practices that have immense benefit to the formation and education of children. I'll give an example.
Most children in America grow up learning an instrument and playing a team sport. The reason for this is not, in most cases, because their parents feel confident that their children will be professional musicians or athletes one day. The reason they are enrolled in these programs is for a less utilitarian, but equally beneficial reason. Those programs equip and train children in skills that they will find rewarding in all areas of life down the road. The skills of teamwork, discipline, attention to detail, leadership, and even humble failure will not only give them greater success academically, but also socially and professionally as well.
In the same way, Latin equips students with equally important skills, not to mention that it unlocks more depth and integration with their other areas of study. Latin encourages the cultivation of indispensable character values as well as more practical, educational skills. Memorizing Latin vocabulary requires discipline and hard work. Understanding Latin grammar and parsing sentences requires logic and deductive reasoning.
Translating original Latin texts requires attention to detail, critical thinking, and the humility to continue to grapple with the text even if you fail the first several times. Going beyond these practical skills, the integration, depth, and richness that Latin offers should not be overlooked.
These values not only benefit the character of each student, but also serve to broaden and deepen their understanding of the world around them. One might ask the question though, “why not spanish or french?” While the study of any language yields immense benefits to students, Latin links us with history, art, philosophy, literature, and theology in ways that no other language can. Consider the following question.
How many parents would be impressed and would deem the education “worth it” if our students could do the following: If they could walk into the halls of Harvard and be able to read the Latin inscriptions of the walls? If they could leave their biology, pre-med, and pre-law classes with a deeper understanding because all the terminology is in a language they already know? If they could travel abroad and pick up the language easily because of their foundation in Latin? If they could read T.S. Eliot with a greater appreciation because they understand the mythological and historical references? If they could hold their own in a political or philosophical discussion because they had not only read, but translated Cicero, Livy, and Caesar? All of these examples to say, how many parents would deem their child’s education successful if their student were practically and philosophically prepared for any area of study or conversation? The utilitarian benefits of a subject have their place, but fall flat when divorced from its connection and integration with the rest of the world. The practical skills that Latin affords students as well as the part it plays in the broader conversation of western heritage make it a seamless and natural addition to the classical curriculum.
When I think about all the skills and richness that my 15+ years of studying Latin has brought to my education, all I can think in response to the question “why Latin?” is “why not Latin?”
Melissa (Caton) Lentz, ‘08, graduated Rockbridge as the first female to attend K-12. After studying English and Latin at Hillsdale College, Mel came back to teach Latin at Rockbridge for two years. She now lives in Dallas, TX with her husband, Jon, her two boys, Jackson and Calvin, and their daughter, Penelope.