Beauty in the classroom

March 22, 2021

Beauty in the classroom

James Pietsch

In Bentley Hart’s book The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness and Bliss, one finds surprisingly cogent philosophical arguments against materialism, outlining how our thinking and our minds transcend the physical world. Our minds always go beyond the given, identifying the degree to which each aspect of reality participates in transcendent qualities such as truth, beauty and goodness.

How different this is from the concept of mind that I appropriated from modern-day psychology. For psychologists, with their fundamentalist adherence to materialism and scientism, there are no transcendent categories. The mind is merely a machine that responds to certain inputs in particular ways to produce certain outputs. For many, such as Skinner and Watson, there has been a rejection of the concept of mind altogether. While the cognitive revolution in psychology reinstated cognition as a valid object of scientific inquiry, it merely replaced one materialist model with another. According to modern-day psychologists, human beings are merely complex biological organisms that have evolved to think in a particular way.

These two approaches to mind could not be more different in terms of their implications for our place within the cosmos, our understanding of thinking and, consequently, learning as well. The first approach, which has its antecedents in the thinking of Aristotle and Plato as well as traditional theism, suggests that our thinking involves a participation in a greater intelligibility, a Logos, that is present in everything that exists. Thinking, according to this view, always engages with the transcendent qualities that are associated with this Logos.

The latter view begins with the assumption that thinking as a process is fundamentally biological, something that has evolved over time which may, or may not, have any connection with the real world. Bentley Hart’s arguments in relation to this materialist view of the mind expose the inadequacy and the fundamental irrationality of this modern approach to the mind. The principle of survival, so central to the evolutionary theory of mind, is unable to explain the joy that we experience pursuing activities wholly unrelated to survival—pursuits as abstract as pure mathematics, propositional logic and the visual arts. None of these have any apparent survival value; each of them, however, have been passions of the human mind for millennia. 

If we accept the former worldview, then learning is profoundly intentional, driven by an inherent desire for truth, beauty and goodness. It is this fundamental quality of learning that I think we need to recognise as teachers. For implicitly, we know that we cannot engage with knowledge separate from concerns regarding that which is beautiful, that which is true, or that which is good.

Truth and goodness are qualities often associated with the development of understanding and the acquisition of knowledge. Beauty, however, may not be the first quality we consider in relation to concepts and areas of knowledge our students engage with in the classroom. Beauty, however, is more than just the aesthetic. The word ‘beautiful’ is associated with something being as it is intended to be (such as in Roberto Benigni’s film ‘Life is Beautiful’). From a Christian eschatological perspective, beauty is found in those moments which reveal to us some aspect of the restored creation that is to come. Education, therefore, focused on that which is beautiful, has an eschatological element to it, looking beyond ‘what is’ to ‘what ought to be’ or ‘what will be’. It involves an engagement with the aesthetic but also the moral, the ethical, the logical and the rational.

Learning, of course, has always been fascinated by the beautiful. It is why mathematicians are so enamoured with the most surprising, yet elegant and beautifully rational, result that e^{i\pi} = -1. It is why we study Shakespeare, in which we find so much that touches on our human natures and potentialities—some beautiful, some not so much. Finally, it is why we seek to know and understand the biblical narrative in which beauty is found on an old, rugged cross. By returning to that which is beautiful in this world, we can begin to point our students to the person from whom all beauty has its genesis, the person whose death and resurrection open up for us the opportunity to be part of the now-and-not-yet beautiful kingdom of God.


Dr James Pietsch is the Principal of Inaburra School, Sydney. After studying psychology and mathematics, James undertook a PhD in education at Sydney University, focusing on sociocultural theories of mathematics education. He is married to Margie and was the Dean of Residents at New College from 2003 – 2009.

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