Aesthetic education matters. Noble art cultivates noble souls. Until recently, most civilizations have understood this, encouraging educators to introduce the youth to art, beauty, and good taste. This is what is known as an “aesthetic education.” But how many educators do this today? When taste has been reduced to mere preference—wherein the distinction between superior or inferior taste is meaningless and even offensive—criticism of taste is considered off-limits. This view has gained hold not only in popular culture but even in the schools, threatening the very purpose of education. And while it’s important to be reticent about being too critical and a snob, education—and the soul—depends on the cultivation of an aesthetic sensibility that can identify what constitutes “good” art.
At the heart of education is the development of an aesthetic sense—that is, a receptiveness to the goodness and beauty that ultimately opens the soul to transcendent beauty itself. Beauty is not just a formalism devoid of all content but a form embodied with meaning and intelligibility, as the expression of the mind of God. Without this transcendent horizon, the human spirit does not blossom, and art, the spirit’s expression, becomes bland and uninspired. Thankfully, there’s a long tradition of aesthetic education we can draw from to recover the cultivation of taste that desires only the finest that flows from the fount of wisdom—wisdom in Latin is sapientia, which has its root in sapor, taste. Such water helps the wings of the spirit grow.
The cultivation of the aesthetic sense matters for without it civilization and its refinements would never be passed on and developed in new expressions. As cultivation, aesthetics plays a role in cult or divine praise. It refines the capacity to recognize the holy and the divine glory even when it appears in the apparently ugly, such as the crucifixion and death of the Lord. Having an aesthetic sensibility makes us better disciples. I took this very seriously as a theology teacher, and that’s why I showed the late Sir Roger Scruton’s BBC documentary “Why Beauty Matters” each year to my students. And while Scruton’s documentary scandalized many of my students who thought all taste was subjective and relative, it at least got them to think about aesthetic sensibility and why it matters. Much of the faith rests on the objective value of beauty that subjects are meant to perceive.