From Parking Lots to Bulletin Boards: Why Aesthetics Matter in a Classical Classroom
In his book, Christ and Architecture, Donald Bruggink says, “A church interested in preaching the Gospel must be interested in architecture as well. For the architecture of a church either augments the preached word or conflicts with it.” This is true of the classical, Christian school as well. A classical, Christian education places a high value, not only on the redemptive work of Christ, but on the whole child of God. We believe that if Christianity is true, it must not be true for just the mind, or the body, but for the whole man. And if we are interested in educating the whole man, we must bring our students into the great hall of wisdom, truth, goodness, and authentic beauty.
But, as is the case with many modern day churches, aesthetics are often value-engineered out and we are left with nothing more than vanilla boxes. One could argue that it doesn’t matter where you worship, or where you teach as the case may be, because a church or school is made of hearts and minds, not brick and mortar. But I believe that philosophy misses the opportunity we have to be imitators of Christ, the Creator, and negatively impacts our pursuit of the good, true and beautiful.
We know from scripture that God was the architect of the tabernacle and was indeed interested in beauty. Time and time again, we see the Lords appreciation for craft, imagery, symbolism, and artistic beauty throughout Scripture.
As Frances Schaeffer says in his book, Art and the Bible, “An artwork can be a doxology in itself.” For an artist, a work of art is an expression of self. For the school, architecture is an expression of self.
Many classical schools rent a facility, possibly from a church, and have no control over the environment in which they teach. But schools who are fortunate enough to own their own property, should not waste the opportunity to craft spaces and buildings that augment the rich feast of goodness and truth that is provided within a classical education.
It is a God-given responsibility for man to create; therefore, our buildings are a doxology in and of themselves. We must think about what our campuses say to the parents who are making significant sacrifices to pay for their child’s education; to the prospective family who walks on campus for an admissions interview; and for the outside world that knows nothing of classical education.
Buildings matter. They give shape to who we are and to what we say we believe.
If we aim to enable our students to engage with the culture around them, then we must reinforce the scribbles on the chalk board with the surroundings in which we teach. This is often an overlooked aspect to an education, but plays a critical role in the health, culture, and success of a school. The architecture of a school should reflect the fundamental belief that God exists. What if classical, Christian education not only stood for truth, goodness, and beauty, but truth, goodness, and beauty were made evident in the beauty of our spaces as well?
Buildings matter. They give shape to who we are and to what we say we believe.
But, while all of this is good in theory, how can a school - traditional or otherwise - develop an atmosphere of order, joy, light, and beauty? It takes planning, and a patient “weeding of the garden”. It happens over time, with the removal of hand-me-down pieces, the planting of new gardens and courtyards, and a slow addition to the budget for campus improvements. Much like the maturation process of our children, sometimes its two steps forward, one step back.
To that end, let me offer a few larger guiding principals, and then several more specific concepts for creating a culture of aesthetics and beauty in your school. I will use The Covenant School in Dallas, Texas, where I am a board member, as an example, but these same principles can apply widely, whether you work in a traditional school or you teach at home. While our school has not “arrived” or perfected this by any means, it is a concentrated effort and worthy goal in which we believe deeply.
Theology of Aesthetics
Educators who are interested in helping students order their loves, and who want to create an atmosphere of beauty throughout their space should develop a theology of Aesthetics. At the Covenant School, we have an architectural design committee that oversees the implementation of landscape as well as the design of permanent buildings, signage, furnishings, and the interiors of classrooms and common spaces. This committee has created a position statement, or a theology of aesthetics, to help guide us, as well as future board members and school administrators long after our children have graduated. While the purpose of this document is not to be restrictive or limiting (such as prescribing one color of paint or one color of brick) it is meant to create a general aesthetic, and the reasoning behind it, so that consistency can be maintained throughout the campus and throughout time.
If you work in a traditional school and have not yet developed a master plan, consider interviewing several architectural firms and hiring one to develop a plan with you. In thinking about a master campus plan, we should be thinking about creating the world that ought to be. We live in a broken and dysfunctional culture. The campus should act as a haven, a respite, an example of beauty to the city in which we live. Think about the kinds of buildings you will need long term to deliver the educational product you offer. But don’t stop there. Think about the spaces in between those buildings: the landscape, areas of rest, focal points of beauty, and places to gather – both in small and large groups. If you put in the work up front to think about some of these more abstract realities, the campus will develop and grow and thrive - and so will your students.
FIVE CONCEPTS FOR CREATING BEAUTY ON CAMPUS
While expressed primarily in connection to a traditional school, these concepts can be applied to any educational environment, including the home.
Remember that consistency is key. From the front entrance to the school to the playground, from the Head of School’s office to the bulletin boards on the Grammar School classroom walls, establishing a consistent look and feel will go a long way to providing a sense of design, purpose, and beauty.
Connect the Inside Out
Use glass, covered walkways, outdoor gardens and green space to connect the inside out. Open windows and let natural light in. Natural light communicates hope, freedom from sin, and the gospel. Plant trees and natural beauty outside of classroom windows and entrances to buildings so that the natural beauty outside becomes part of the rich curriculum being taught inside.
View of end of locker hallway at our school in Dallas.
The floor to ceiling window connects the outside-in, and provides natural light.
Accent wall on the left is a soothing, calming, but joyful aqua/teal color.
Develop the spaces in between
Just like we need time to rest and rejuvenate in our busy and hectic schedules, so a campus needs places for respite – quiet courtyards, gardens, and intimate gathering places.
This courtyard outside of our Rhetoric Hall provides shade, natural beauty and a quiet place
as you enter into the building.
Representation of joy as found in the Gospel
The Gospel offers us joy and therefore, we desire to teach our children in an atmosphere of joy, community, and a nurturing environment. Use soothing paint colors, simple finishes, and uncluttered spaces to create a calm and joyful atmosphere.
Less is more
Remember that these students deserve respect as individuals made in the image of God. There is a distinct difference between creating an environment that entertains the student and a space that nurtures the student. Classroom walls don’t need to be filled wall-to-wall with images, scalloped borders, and posters to whet their appetite, order their loves, and shape their hearts for that which is good, true, and beautiful. Just like we have spaces in between outside, don’t be afraid of what we call “white space” inside. Its okay to have some empty wall space.
Rhetoric Hall classroom with Harkness table to seat 18. We used lots of natural light and left
most of the wall space empty. When the room is filled with rich, Socratic conversation, there is
no need for anything else.
Ultimately, if we earnestly believe and pray “Thy Kingdom come,” then we must be about the task of caring for creation the way God has cared for His creation. In doing so we are imitating the great Architect and designer, infusing Christ in every aspect of our education — from the outside in — and pursing all that is good, true and beautiful as we walk along the way.
Charlotte Mason said “But we hold that all education is divine, that every good gift of knowledge and insight comes from above, that the Lord, the Holy Spirit, is the supreme educator of mankind, and that the culmination of all education is that personal knowledge of and intimacy with God in which our being finds its fullest perfection.”
From parking lots to bulletin boards, Latin to The Illiad, and everything in between, the classical, Christian school seeks to train up a generation of students who love the Lord with all their heart, soul and mind. May we do so in the context not only of the beauty of the Gospel, but of the created world as well. May we be about the business of ordering their loves, and crafting their habits to be imitators of Christ, the architect and designer of the world that ought to be.