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Desired Outcomes of a GFA Graduate – A Carefully Cultivated Aesthetic

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Guard your heart with all diligence, 

for out of it flow the issues of life.

Proverbs 4:23

We are nearing the end of our series on the six characteristics our school board has identified as being the most important goals we hope our alumni leave our school with, known as the “Desired Outcomes of GFA Graduates.” The first four outcomes we discussed were a sound reason and a sound faith, virtue and mature Christian character, a masterful command of language, and a broad exposure to books and ideas.  This week we move on to our fifth Desired Outcome, which is a carefully cultivated aesthetic. “A carefully cultivated aesthetic” simply means we hope our students grow to love what is good and beautiful and feel inspired by good and beautiful things when they encounter them in the world.

Of all our Desired Outcomes, this one might be the most counter-cultural of all. At times, the dominant culture seems absolutely obsessed with glorifying all manner of ugliness. Look at it this way: all people love something, but not all things people love are good and beautiful. A brief survey of popular culture reveals that very quickly. If you were unfortunate enough to watch the Grammys performance in 2021 of the rap “artists” Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, or to have encountered the wildly popular song they sang, you’ll be shocked by the absolutely morally bankrupt nature of the music; however, what is more shocking yet is how so many people – especially young people – can love something so ugly and so vulgar so much. The soul should be repelled by such ugliness, and yet we see so many drawn to it. How did this happen?

There are perhaps many reasons why people love ugly things, but one explanation is that they have not been trained to love beautiful things. People, especially young people, are going to love something; if you don’t put beautiful things in front of people to love, they will love what is there, and in popular culture, those things are often ugly. We as a culture have ceased to surround ourselves with beauty for fear of appearing elitist or exclusive; from our architecture, to our art, to our music, to our entertainment, we instead have fallen into a quagmire of cultural ugliness, what the British philosopher Roger Scruton has called “the cult of ugliness.” 

The costs of the cult of ugliness have been steep. Beauty has the power to inspire and transform a person in ways few things can, so when it is absent, the soul suffers. When beauty is present, the soul lifted up beyond worldly confines. In the American west we have a sense of this when it comes to nature; many of us love the outdoors because the beauty found in God’s creation changes us. The same can be said of great works of art: I will never forget the first time I saw Michelangelo’s Pieta. I came away with a whole new appreciation of the power of beauty to inspire and uplift the soul. For this reason – the hope to inspire and uplift the souls of our students – GFA as a classical Christian school is putting a new emphasis on surrounding our students with beautiful things.

Finally, let me illustrate it this way. When I was a new teacher, I was traveling to a field trip with the  mom of one of my students. I had just shared my background with her, that I was raised on a dairy farm in rural Idaho, and then told her that I was excited to have plans to attend Ballet Idaho’s The Nutcracker the coming weekend.  This surprised the mom; how was it, she asked, that a farm boy from small town Idaho would grow up to appreciate ballet? It was a great question that I had to wrangle with for a while, but here is what I realized: without even knowing it, my dad had cultivated in me an aesthetic, an appreciation for beauty where he found it in the world. For my dad that was usually a landscape: he could sit around and watch the sun set over his corn fields or watch the wind play across an even grain field for countless hours. I was raised to appreciate the beauty of a landscape, and that easily translated to beauty elsewhere in the world, whether it be a ballet, a painting or a sculpture, or an alpine lake. 

Ultimately, we want to surround our students with beautiful things because all beauty lifts the soul towards God and His beauty.