Here’s a simple idea: schools would be better if they were more beautiful.
What problems would this solve?
I do not know, but this much I have experienced: students and teachers seem to enjoy beautiful space. If as most Christian have, we believe that beauty is a objective, a real value in God’s mind, then we must take that idea seriously and the potential impact rejecting beauty would have on students and teachers.
Why would we take the jewels of our civilization, the greatest ideas and texts, and put them in space where the only concerns are utilitarian? Shouldn’t our schools, if we care for our future, be some of the most beautiful buildings in the community? This strikes me as particularly important in communities where the only beauty a student is likely to see is in public space.
Many teachers and students, even in our colleges and universities, spend day after day walking on ugly tile, flourescent lights glaring and buzzing above them, through halls painted in industrial colors. The walls are scarred with announcements that sell products while screens are placed in corners as if the goal was to incarnate 1984. The chairs in the classrooms are not ones anyone picks after school for their living space. What dark magic enables engineers to design desk-chair combinations that are uncomfortable, ugly, and unusable? Nobody should wonder about the source of Gnosticism (bodies do not count) in our culture until some scientist measures the impact of putting great ideas is ugly buildings.
There is a myth that beauty is expensive, yet when our school inherited solid woods desks from a government school one of our teacher was able to refurbish these old pieces of furniture and make them lovely. They must be decades old. We are thankful for the charity that got us those desks, but surely their loss was great for the public school. Coulnd’t they have been refurbed by the district? My grandparents generation (pre-World War II) built their own church and school buildings and the furnishings from that era are sought by collectors. Perhaps the schools could restore classes to produce arts and crafts and make their own furniture, decorations, and interior space.
At the very least, we can provide teachers some funds to make “icon corners” in each room. The icon corner is an Orthodox tradition where a place of beauty and prayer is made in even a humble home. One need not be Orthodox to use this good idea and it would enable schools stuck with monstrosities from the 1970’s to make a spot for beauty.
Finally, the cuts to the arts are part of the problem. We cannot value beauty and not teach beauty: literature, art, craftsmanship, theater, and music. This humane arts are the capstone of the educational experience and bring together all we are. This is not to put the arts against science, technology, and mathematics. Math in particular needs more emphasis in most colleges and schools. Merely pause and note that beauty matters and that sending students, teachers, and professors into ugliness and then proclaiming their value is incoherent.
Many can retain beautiful souls in the ugliest of surroundings, but many cannot. Let’s help where we can and see what happens if our schools are smaller, more beautiful, and full of humane letters.
Ugliness breeds the ugly. Beautification makes saints.