Please enjoy this guest post written by Greg Blankenbehler, M.A. Mus. in response to questions posed by Dr. Dean Forman, co-founder of the John Adams Academies, Inc., regarding beauty and education, specifically at John Adams Academy.
About the author: Greg Blankenbehler has been teaching music at John Adams Academy since 2012. His choirs at JAA have received many “unanimous superior” ratings at district festivals, and recently won first place and the “adjudicator’s award” at the 2022 National Heritage Festival in Nashville. His students have won a number of music awards and scholarships, and hundreds of them have been accepted into honor choirs on the local, regional, state, and western division levels. Greg holds Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Musical Performance and has performed in Italy, England and France, and with professional groups in the Bay Area and the Sacramento foothills. He is a sought-after voice teacher and the author of the successful “Little Singers” published singing method for children.
Beauty and the Fine Arts
Question: How does beauty manifest itself in the contours and activities of a classical school/classroom?
Beauty is a severely misunderstood concept in our world today. In order to identify how it manifests itself at John Adams Academy, I must first take some time to identify what I think Beauty really is.
Beauty is one of the triune transcendentals that philosophers and moralists have observed and pondered for millennia: Truth, Beauty, Goodness – the pinnacle and pure essence of all the many different values we seek. They are transcendentals because they shine through the best of all things as a deeper truth or order to the diverse manifestations of reality. They are triune because they are in reality three different perspectives of the same ideal. What is True is also Beautiful and also Good. They are ideal and difficult to exhaustively define or circumscribe because, I believe, they are the very personality, nature, and character of God. Truth, Beauty, and Goodness are ideals that we as humans can never fully live up to, fully explain, or even fully understand. But our efforts to understand and live up to them represent the greatest learning and acts that the human race have ever produced.
At its best, our society’s concept of beauty is deeply entwined with individual preference. (“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”) But how can we even talk about beauty when what I think is beautiful is different from what you think is beautiful? At its worst, our society’s concept of beauty focuses on animal attraction, capturing the things that titillate our senses and consuming them in a rush of selfish debauchery. But if Beauty is the same as Truth and Goodness, how could Beauty contradict them so strongly at times? How could many of the most “beautiful” people be so cruel and the most truthful and good “ugly”? It is good to ask ourselves these questions because they are the jumping off point to developing moral and aesthetic maturity.
Clearly much of our society is missing the point when it comes to beauty. Roger Scruton does a great job of explaining this concept in his BBC documentary Why Beauty Matters. True beauty is experienced, for example, by women who gather around a young baby who is happily laughing and cooing. Why is that baby beautiful to them? They don’t want to consume the baby. They don’t want to make any money off it. The baby won’t do anything for them. It is useless. And yet, that baby is as full of truth and goodness as you can get. Full of potential and love of life. Experiencing that baby inspires those women to also live their own truth and potential to the fullest. We are affected similarly by beautiful vistas of nature, striking portrayals in dramas, a sense of the mathematical order of the world, a philosophical discussion that seems to get to the heart of why humans act the way they do and how they can live their lives to their full potential. Anytime we experience thriving nature (and that includes human nature), we are moved by the beauty of it.
Beauty is not lust, but it attracts us because it inspires. Beauty is not propaganda or pedantic moralizing, but it educates and motivates us on how to live better. Beauty is not a superficial thing one can paint on their face, shape their body into, or social protocols one can learn. It is living with truth and goodness, being true to the highest ideals within one’s self and truly loving others. Rembrandt and others painters prove this by showing beauty in the most ordinary, old, and marred of faces. This is also proven (in a negative way) by many fashion advertising images in which a haughty airbrushed figure attempts to solicit your interest in order to relieve the weight of your pocketbook.
Question: Describe those features of John Adams Academy (JAA) that you are most proud of, as embodying the beauty JAA seeks to cultivate in its scholars. Or, said another way, where is beauty at John Adams Academies?
Once you know what Beauty really is, you can find it all over, but it is not where you might expect it if you don’t know what it is.
Beauty is present in the great classics that we study and discuss at John Adams Academy. A great book like Les Misérables or The Brothers Karamazov helps us to experience the deeper truths of human nature (both the good and the bad), and shows us how to participate in Goodness. Great dramas, songs, and paintings do the same. Seeing the feelings and actions of people just like us, sympathizing with their situations, understanding their choices (even the bad ones), and feeling genuine joy at their redemption fills us with the feelings of enlightenment that is the aesthetic experience.
Contemplating and Discussing
As teachers and scholars begin to uncover and understand the beauty in classics — and in their everyday lives — the light of beauty begins to dawn upon their countenances as well. As they identify and understand, they contemplate and analyze these holy transcendentals; compare them to other works and situations; evaluate their own actions and what beautiful and good things they could also do in their lives. Aesthetic and moral maturity grows in these scholars, and the beauty they develop is evident to those around them.
It does not take much experience with beauty before scholars are seeking to imitate it, to grow their own ideas and projects of Beauty. This manifests through more original ideas and applications in discussions, creative writing, works of art, etc. All lovers of beauty are also lovers of Truth and Goodness. They seek out the deeper truth in themselves, in others, in history and science, institutions and systems of belief. They freely share what they have discovered with others.
Probably the best manifestation of Beauty (and the one I like best) is in the interpersonal lives of the staff, faculty, and scholars at John Adams Academy. You can’t really learn about real Truth-Beauty-Goodness without putting it on yourself — becoming it to a degree. I see Beauty every day at JAA in scholars who smile at one another and invite one another to feel a part of the community. Scholars who open up about their anxieties and challenges and feel support from each other. Scholars who squeeze the hand of another, put an arm around their shoulder, encourage them to keep trying, tell them in so many ways that they are lovable just for being who they are. In my opinion, there is nothing more beautiful, good, or true than that.