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Wandering from Room to Room: Waugh, Caldecott, Socrates, and an Aesthetic Education

It was an aesthetic education to live within those walls, to wander from room to room, from the Soanesque library to the Chinese drawing-room, adazzle with gilt pagodas and nodding mandarins, painted paper and Chippendale fret-work, from the Pompeian parlour to the great tapestry-hung hall which stood unchanged, as it had been designed two hundred and fifty years before; to sit, hour after hour, in the pillared shade looking out on the terrace.

In his 1945 novel Brideshead Revisited, author Evelyn Waugh gives the protagonist Charles Ryder what he terms “an aesthetic education,” built around art, architecture, history, nature, and ultimately, Beauty itself. The time Charles Ryder spends at the Brideshead estate is a season of learning for him, of studiously observing the artistic and the elegant. To us, the concept of an education founded in Beauty—not merely in facts and figures—feels not only foreign but almost impossible, as if Beauty is too narrow a scope through which to view the world.

Yet Waugh’s understanding of education is nothing new; instead, it is the vision cast by millennia of educators and philosophers, finding its way back to Socrates’ definition of the object of education: “to teach us to love what is beautiful.” Modern writers such as Stratford Caldecott have carried this same understanding to the current day, defending the unavoidable intersection of Truth and Beauty and proposing that Beauty is one of the broadest scopes for study. Ultimately, they argue that education must be aesthetic; true learning and Beauty are inseparable, and for us to relinquish one is for us to relinquish the other.

In Beauty for Truth’s Sake, Caldecott explains that the integration of education and Beauty is the most natural understanding of the world:

“As we search for this ‘lost wisdom of the world,’ we will keep coming back to a rather significant fact. As our own eyes reveal every day, the universe is beautiful. It has majesty, order, and loveliness; these three types of beauty are precisely what scientists themselves love to discover in the world.”

For Caldecott, there can be no escaping the aesthetic in education; to observe the universe through any lens—the scientific, the mathematic, the artistic—is to observe its Beauty. This universal Beauty is a Beauty of form, design, and relationship—what Caldecott terms gestalt, a synthesis that results in a greater whole. To truly study the world is to study its harmony, poetry, and meaning—its Beauty. When we fail to see Beauty we fail to understand the world in its foundational design.

The aesthetic, Caldecott argues, is not merely an element of, or embellishment upon, the reality of the world. It is essential to that reality. Students committed to a wholistic education find themselves, in Caldecott’s words, “guided by the same intuition that the truth is beautiful, the same compulsion to discover the truth in beauty.” For Charles Ryder, the Soanesque library, the Pompeian parlour, and the pillared shade do not only grant an environment for his education; they are themselves his education, their Beauty expressing to him something deeply meaningful about life.

Truth cannot exist apart from Beauty, nor Beauty from Truth; each depends upon the other, creating a relationship that provides the groundwork for solid education.

Although the world, marred by sin, is broken, it still holds to the tattered remains of its former glory, revealed in its imperfect transcendence. This transcendence finds its source in God himself, reflected in a world he created to be good, true, and beautiful in its entirety. Therefore, to encounter one of these properties is to encounter all of them, the slightest reflection of who God is, and a small taste of how the world was created to be. The integral relationship between education and Beauty thus offers the student not only a proper understanding of the world as it is, but a distinct hope and vision for the world as it was and will be again.

This hope leads Caldecott to invest in reshaping the way education is pursued in modern culture. As he explains, “The ‘re-enchantment’ of education would open our eyes to the meaning and beauty of the cosmos,” a meaning and Beauty that transcends the present time into eternity. The integrated vision of education and Beauty—rooted in the universe’s harmony and design, essential to its nature, and revealing of its creator and redeemed future—demonstrates Socrates’ purpose for education, “to teach us to love what is beautiful.” For us, such love feels disconnected and out of place; yet when an aesthetic education is pursued, that love of Beauty becomes the natural result.

Although the vision Waugh casts for aesthetic education is consistent with the vision established by Socrates and Caldecott, modern teachers are not able to offer their students the luxury of gilt pagodas, painted paper, and tapestry-hung halls—nor are they necessary. Driven by the union of learning and elegance, modern education can offer to its students an understanding of harmony and design, a rich legacy of the poetic interconnection of all things in the ultimate Truth and Beauty of God himself. The contemplation of mathematics and science at their common source with art, music, literature, poetry, and all other disciplines, studied not in isolation but in the vibrant context of community, is a means of Ryder’s aesthetic education. With a clear understanding of the integration of Truth and Beauty, revealed in the creation and redemption of the world by a God who is the source of both, students may “wander from room to room” toward a true love of what is beautiful.

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