Given how many classical educators attended public school when young, most classical schools have progressive “hangovers” as Dr. Christopher Perrin sometimes puts it. A progressive hangover is simply a body of assumptions about education which is uncritically and unknowingly derived from modernist philosophy, as opposed to classical or Christian philosophy. Renewing classical education necessitates slowly overcoming this hangover and rooting out all the false beliefs about education which we don’t even know we have.
Not everything about the progressive hangover can be solved through mere awareness and argument, for things like grades and class periods are pernicious, deeply entrenched problems that no single school can be done with simply because everyone knows better. Progressive education is less a discreet system than a metaphysics. However, there are certain aspects of the progressive hangover that can be banished the moment you finish reading this little essay, and one of them is bad classroom décor.
The walls of a great many classical classrooms are awash with charts, graphs, timelines, rules, laws, daily itineraries, slogans, random pictures of zebras, garishly colored posters, and laminated images of cartoon dogs saying “Carpe diem” or “Ipse dixit.” I suspect the average teacher’s apologia for such clutter is that it is “useful, helpful information,” and I have no interest in debating this point. It is the fact that such décor is useful that means it has no place in a classical classroom.
Consider for a moment how little of the décor on the walls of most family homes is useful, helpful information. Rather, people have photographs of loved ones hung up, and when I say, “hung up,” I mean hung in handsome picture frames, not thumb-tacked into the dry-wall. People also display paintings of landscapes in their home, or icons or Christ, or a print of one of Vermeer’s maids. A fellow could print out and tape a Word document to the dining room wall which listed relative’s birthdays, and such a document might prove very useful and helpful, but it would not make a home more lovely.
Beauty is not functional, but superfluous. Beauty sits beyond the reach of mere usefulness. The function of a building is to keep out the wind and rain and wild animals. Columns on the porch, a high ceiling, stately red brick, and a spacious foyer will do nothing for the wind and rain, but such design will inspire those who use the building to love it and care for it. As Roger Scruton notes in Why Beauty Matters, graffiti is far more often found on ugly buildings than beautiful ones, and this is because the vandals are daring the owners of an ugly building to find a reason to remove the graffiti. Because ugly buildings are purely functional, and because graffiti does not detract from the function, graffiti remains on ugly buildings but not beautiful ones. If the teacher wants students to love the classroom, the classroom must be beautiful, not functional. If the teacher festoons the walls of the classroom with useful information, students will assume class is useful, as well, and that education is a useful enterprise. Such students typically rank among the most anxious and most grade conscious by the time they graduate.
If a man would not hang a certain poster on the walls of his church or his home, why hang it in his classroom? What is he modeling his classroom after? I have seen classical classroom walls which look like corporate breakrooms wherein a company is legally obligated to display information about workplace accidents, overtime laws, and the chain of command for reporting sexual harassment. Of course, anyone who has ever worked at a department store or grocery store and spent time in such breakrooms knows that no one reads those posters and that their only real effect is the creation of a bureaucratic atmosphere wherein facts are impersonally communicated from nameless, faceless bean counters who are paid to avoid lawsuits. Such posters are typically displayed somewhere in a classical school, as well, and nobody ever reads them there, either.
Granted, the rise of Etsy means the quality of classroom kitsch is significantly higher today than it was thirty years ago. Back in my day, banal messages like “You can do it” were printed in Comic Sans, and they are now written in scripty fonts and displayed on faux-repurposed wood. This is a step up, I suppose. Nonetheless, a classical classroom should look classical. It should not look Etsy-like, nor should it look like an homage to a sports team, and neither should it look like the feel-good memes which run daily on “inspirational” Christian Facebook accounts. If a photo of your classroom were circulated on social media, would anyone guess it was a place where students were learning to love old things? Are there any old things on display? A bust of Homer or Mozart, perhaps? Models of old buildings? Prints of Titian’s work on the walls? The things which adorn the walls of a classroom should be sufficiently beautiful and sufficiently few in number that students would miss something were it taken down.
I have elsewhere argued that the nearest analog to the classroom is the nave of a church, which means a classroom should not feel like the province of a bachelor or a bachelorette. Without the balance provided by a husband or wife, teachers have a tendency to arrange their classrooms the same way they arranged their apartments before marrying. For male teachers, this means desks are often inundated with clutter, the floors are not vacuumed, superfluous clothing is laying about, and massive stacks of unarranged books may be found on the floor, beside the bookshelf, and near the podium. I suspect female students find this kind of thing as off-putting as male students find plaques which say “Love” in decorative fonts, but if there is not money in the budget for the décor of a classroom to inspire great thoughts, the décor should at very least not inspire cynicism.
The goal of everything which takes place in the classroom should be the right ordering of loves, which means the classroom should be as lovely a place as a teacher can make it. A lovely classroom will not be functional, but beautiful, or aimed at beauty. Granted, a great many classical classrooms are located in cinderblock basements, unpenetrated by any natural light, and overhung with zombie lights that suck the juice straight from your eyeballs. But take heart, for many students transform their heartless metal lockers into hospitable places. The fact that little can be done does not mean nothing can be done. There are ways of getting posters onto cinderblock (Rembrandt or Caravaggio, say), a plant or two will instantly liven up a room, and a few incandescent bulbs will instantly make a room feel ten times less soulless and institutional. If teachers would ask their students to care about beauty— be it ironing their uniforms, cleaning their lockers, tucking in their shirts, or not submitting wrinkled essays— they must lead by example. The fact that a submerged, unlit room will not replicate the glories of the University of Bologna is no excuse for not trying.