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Welcome!

This blog’s purpose

My name is Dean Forman and I am thrilled that you have found me here. I’ve titled this site Leading a Revolution in Education because the right education has the power to lead change in a person, a community, and a country. 

I am passionate about our beautiful country and the liberties we enjoy. I don’t believe that those liberties are a given for future generations unless we are committed as citizens now to understand them and to protect them.

This website is dedicated to sharing the principles of an American Classical Leadership Education™ with its readers so that more citizens can benefit from the truth, virtue and wisdom of the past.

This site is dedicated to learning, discovery, discussion, and ultimately acting. Together we will travel back in time to dive deep into the minds of the most important philosophers, authors, and leaders to have ever lived. I have spent years of my life studying their words. The truths I’ve learned have inspired and changed me, and I know they will change you, too.

In addition to looking back, we will examine the events of this moment in time. There are things happening in our world and country that demand our immediate attention. The wisdom and virtues of the works from the past will inform the actions that we can take together to preserve our current liberties.

Share this site with a friend or close family member. We will learn here. We will be edified together. 

And if this all sounds a little heady, don’t worry. We will have a little fun as well with contests, prizes, and plenty of connection and interaction with new friends. 

Your friend,

Dean Forman

Joy, Felicity, and Bliss to Perfected Happiness

Joy happened again this morning with this 6:30 a.m. email! This is from the mother of an aspiring young scholar.

“Well, Eli has a new calling! Eli and I spoke out at the school board meeting last night in front of a room of at least 100. Eli was the star of the meeting, the only child to speak. After his speech that he wrote at the last minute, he recited his 10 core values and blew the crowd away. He had crowds of people coming up to meet him after the meeting. A couple came up and said, “He spoke so well. Even high school students here can’t speak like he did and also look the audience in the eye.” You would be very proud, and he said he owes it all to you. He plans to speak at all meetings, and I told him he is going to be a leader of greatness! Also, Ken told the board of his intent to submit the charter application! Very proud of Eli. I already know he is a great kid, but this room was impressed.” 

Joy Informed by Principles

My observation is that joy is informed by individuals guided by principles of happiness. First, they have a bedrock of principles. Second, they possess a strong moral compass. Third, they have a vision aligned with that compass of moral values. Fourth, they know how to communicate and build consensus and support for their vision.

It is moving to see how moral values can animate young people and help them discover purpose and joy.

Joy as a Destination

When we think of the word joy it is a state of being as well as a destination. Other words that fit that target are felicity and bliss. We may also think of the word happiness. Yet according to Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language, happiness may be a comparative word.

“To a person distressed with pain, relief from that pain affords happiness; in other cases, we give the name happiness to positive pleasure or an excitement of agreeable sensations. Happiness therefore admits of indefinite degrees of increase in enjoyment, or gratification of desires.” 

Happiness only exists in comparison whereas joy, felicity and bliss seem to be the goal or objective.

When finding joy, perhaps synonyms provide explanation and guidance on the path to joy’s fullness or perfected happiness. If bliss, felicity and joy are the ends, what are the words providing the means to the end? Consider happy, pleasure, ecstasy, delight, fun. These words also seem to be transitory, comparative, and more slight than joy. Picking the right word may help us discover what we experience and where we are going. Consider the word fun

Fun: Sport; vulgar merriment. A low word. (Webster’s Dictionary

Fun is amusement, temporary and also comparative. While fun, pleasure, and ecstasy are important for relaxation, I hope it is not our destination.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle explains that happiness does not lie in amusement. He suggests that ultimate happiness is found in leading a virtuous life—One that requires exertion over amusement.

Benjamin Franklin and Felicity

Of the founders, Benjamin Franklin was the one who may have best captured the creative and entrepreneurial spirit through discovery, improvement and living a flourishing abundant life. He noted, “Human felicity is produced not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen, as by little advantages that occur every day.” (The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, p. 123)

Felicity is a natural outcome from a life of discovery of virtuous and moral character and doing good for others. Such actions take us to the destination of bliss with a fullness of joy, perfected happiness and felicity. This destination is the harvest of a life spent for others; where all our preparation, work and industry turn our actions to happiness and joy for others and for self. Franklin knew well the outcome when one failed to use industry and frugality to fill the seemingly empty or uneventful days on the calendar. As he recited the proverb: “It is hard for an empty sack to stand upright.” (p. 91)

Franklin also noted, “Work and industry are the natural remedies for despair and depression. When men are employed they are best contented; for on the days they worked they were good natured and cheerful, and, with the consciousness of having done a good day’s work, they spent the evening jollily; but on our idle days they were mutinous and quarrelsome, finding fault with their pork, the bread, etc. and in continual ill-humor…”(p. 141)

Your Principles Are Your Compass

For me, the real pleasure is seeing how deeply principled core values impact our desired destiny of joy. 

“Principles are natural laws that are external to us and that ultimately control the consequences of our actions. Values are internal and subjective and represent what we feel strongest about and what guides our behavior. Values govern behavior, but principles govern the consequences of those behaviors.”

—Stephen R. Covey

I think Eli is on the path of virtue and finding greater joy with each step.

What is your destination?  Is it fun? Pleasure? Excitement? Or is it fullness of joy and perfected happiness through moral actions that bring joy, bliss and felicity? Can you arrive at that ultimate destination absent self-transcendence for others?

Living a Life of Liberated Joy

I received a communication of joy today from a former John Adams Academy family that moved to another state a while ago.

Hello Dean,

Hope all is well. Congratulations on the expansion of EDH campus! Just wanted to stay in touch and let you know I am currently reading your book and pages 77, 78 and 79 brought me to tears! It was about core values and the scholar that moved to New Jersey and reported back to you the impact the academy had on him. When he said he still wears a suit everyday, a habit he picked up at JAA, it instantly made me think of my boys. They only wear slacks and dress shorts, and they call them their John Adams pants. Also the public school here does not have ten core values, and my son tells me kids here curse and are mean and disrespectful. I told him I don’t want him picking any of that up and he said, “Mom, I have my John Adams core values and I still practice them every day.” He is a wonderful kid so I am so happy he told me that. As far as at home, they all continue to read the classics I surround them with, and even the little ones tell me they love the classics. I think it is important you know the impact your school has! Also, every time we see an empty field both boys tell me it would be an excellent location for a future JAA! They have high hopes mom will make that happen …

Joy may come in a lot of ways. As I pondered the idea of joy, it led me to a 19th century dictionary.

The passion or emotion excited by the acquisition or expectation of good; that excitement of pleasurable feelings which is caused by success, good fortune, the gratification of desire or some good possessed, or by a rational prospect of possessing what we love or desire; gladness; exultation; exhilaration of spirits. Joy is a delight of the mind, from the consideration of the present or assured approaching possession of a good. Happiness; felicity. A glorious and triumphant state.

Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language 1828

Yet things are not always joyful in building a school, a business, or a family.

However, they are totally worth it. Joy is the word most closely associated with the most significant moments in our lives — like finding faith, purpose in the passing of a loved one, or birth of a child. C.S. Lewis described an encounter with joy as he was trying to identify and describe the events surrounding his accidental discovery of and consequent search for the phenomenon he labeled joy which was his best translation of the idea sehnsucht (which is German for “longing”). In his book Surprised by Joy he noted, 

A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere, “Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,” as Herbert says, “fine nets and stratagems.” God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.

C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life 

We also see the word joy used at the resurrection of The Lord Jesus Christ, “And they departed quickly from the sepulchre with fear and great joy; and did run to bring his disciples word.” (Matthew KJV 25:8) When the apostles saw The Lord and “they believed not for joy.” (Luke 24:41). Or recall the birth of The Lord in Luke 2 expressed by the angel to the shepherds. “I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” Or the joy our children bring us. “I have no greater joy than to hear my children walk in righteousness.” (3 John 1:4 KJV)

What if joy has been eluding me? There is great hope that joy will find you, perhaps unexpectedly. I love the poem, “Surprised by Joy” by William Wordsworth.

Surprised by joy—impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport—Oh! with whom
But Thee, long buried in the silent Tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind—
But how could I forget thee?—Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss!—That thought’s return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

Wordsworth was surprised to find and experience joy during grief. The psalmist shares perspective with these words. “For his anger endureth but a moment; in his favour is life: weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.” (Psalms KJV 30:5) And “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy.” (Psalms KJV 126:5)

Don’t be surprised by joy when it comes to pay you a visit. In the interim, remember that gratitude for your current joys may be the bridge to more joy as it wends its way to you. I love this quote by Cicero, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” My wife Linda taught our family this over the years by inviting us to have an active gratitude journal. The act of expressing gratitude for a grace or mercy each day may do the most to liberate joy in your life.

Art and The Scholar

Guest post by Greg Blankenbehler

Although it is widely misunderstood and seems mysterious and esoteric to many, doing the arts in school is not that different from how a good classical education looks in the other subject areas. There are grammar, logic, and rhetoric elements to its skills, just as there are in the development of other communication skills. Its goal is to experiment upon and discover the deeper structure and laws of nature (including human nature), just like the sciences. It does this through imitating the “contours and textures” of reality (even when abstract) so that we can examine the world around and within us with fresh eyes. But where the arts far outstrip the sciences is in their ability to model and study human nature— including perception, emotions, actions, and possibilities. And when they hit the mark of truthfulness, the arts are unmatched in their ability to move, inspire, and change people.

Good classics in the arts (as in the other subjects) are technically, intellectually, sensually, and morally rich. They are appropriate to the experience and development of the participants. Scholars have to be taught how to “read” and understand great classics in the arts, as in other areas. This requires systematic instruction of skills, discussion, self-reflection, and mentor-modeling. A skilled artist-mentor, in addition to great classics to study and imitate, is crucial.

Art and Active Learning

Scholars can learn a lot from passively experiencing and studying the arts, but the greatest benefits come from experiencing creating in the arts first-hand. As in any type of communication, the place of speaker and listener has to interchange regularly. Even if the scholar is only imitating a master-artist (which is a helpful method to use, especially at the beginning of instruction), taking their turn to actively create art is important. As technical and aesthetic sophistication increases, scholars should be encouraged to begin trying to express personal, authentic Truth in their art. This can mean drawing something from their own experience or singing songs with personal feelings.

The Artist-Scholar and Imitation

Scholars often feel lost at the prospect of creating an original artistic masterpiece out of whole cloth, but when they are invited to contribute their piece of authentic experience into the framework of an existing song or a directed drawing they usually feel they can rise to the challenge. Great master artists did not come out of the womb composing nocturnes or painting Madonna and Child. They first studied and imitated the great artists that came before them, adding their own personal touches to their copies of those great works, and eventually progressing to original work within the framework of existing aesthetic structures and languages. Mozart, arguably the greatest composer of all time, wrote entirely in musical language and forms invented by earlier masters like Haydn and J. C. Bach. Even the great innovator Beethoven started with the regular forms of his era, which he then continued to modify to fit his own intentions. As post-modern art has shown us, originality is not the best indicator of great art — relatability and generativity of meaning are.

Art and Meaning

The arts are intimately connected with morality and the revelation of life’s meaning. But though they cover the same area as philosophy and religion, the arts should co-exist and connect with them, rather than compete or attempt to destroy them. The ultimate goal of the arts must be the betterment and connection of humanity, not perfection, though the pursuit of excellence is an important aspect of it. Art does not need to be perfect to be meaningful. This is not true for entertainment, though it is an enjoyable pastime. To be constructive, the arts must be higher values-driven, rather than wants-driven. Nor can it be driven by extrinsic rewards like popularity, awards, or scholarships, though those things may come. The arts corrupt and die when they become a transactional experience of making something to get something else. True ideals then give way to superficial expediencies, and the Beauty is lost.

Art and Love

Ultimately, participating in the arts is an act of love. It is an appreciation of the Beauty the artists sees in the world and tries to imitate— an effort to share that Goodness with others through their artistic rendering of it. The whole of art includes the observer’s appreciation of that natural Beauty and the efforts of the artist to bring it to them— and a connection of understanding and appreciation between the artist, the observer, and the community of other observers who have shared the same aesthetic experience through the work of art. And while school must prepare scholars to make money when they get older, there is hardly a more important thing it can teach them than to love and connect with others.

This famous excerpt from the New Testament about sharing the message of the gospel equally applies to the making and experiencing of the arts:

“If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump, ” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.”

1 Cor 13:1-7, MSG version

Point of View: A Teacher of the Arts Answers the Question “What is the Point?”

Guest post by Greg Blankenbehler

After the moving premiere performance of his sublime oratorio Messiah it is said that a spectator came up to George Frederic Handel and congratulated him on providing “a wonderful new entertainment” for the English public. Maestro Handel soberly replied, “I should be sorry if I only entertained them. I wish to make them better.”

Only slightly better is Plato’s abuse of the arts in his famous dialogue The Republic. Socrates does not seem very interested in the truthful explorations of human nature that help us appreciate the good and redeem the bad. Instead, he wanted to manipulate the populace by only allowing contrived moralistic stories that would help him meet his goals of creating patriotic and well-behaved youths that he can go on to train in the “higher” arts of mathematics and philosophy. Whether in earnest or irony, Plato’s depiction of Socrates in The Republic seems to have a shallow understanding or respect for the important place the arts have in connecting communities through the sharing of experience and ideals. There is little surprise that in a reductionist, scientistic society the arts are often considered irrelevant “fluff.” 

When it comes to limited facilities and budgets, mere entertainment rightfully doesn’t typically make the cut in schools. Even utilitarian uses don’t stand much of a chance. What is the use of doing a non-math activity that “has been shown to indirectly increase mathematical skills” when you could just do direct math instruction? No, all justifications of the arts without addressing the aesthetic experience fall flat. They all miss the point.

Moved by Beauty

The purpose of the arts in schools is not to give scholars an enjoyable guided recess activity. (Just because an activity is enjoyable does not mean its outcome is the most important.) It is not to teach times tables or grammar rules. (It can be used for that, but that is a shallow application.) It is not even to build self-esteem, leadership skills, or make friends (although it does do each of those well). The main point is to see the Truth-Beauty-Goodness in nature and in humans in a way that cannot be adequately addressed or quantified in science or math, and that cannot be adequately explained in essays and term reports. The point is to be moved by the beauty of it to the extent that your perspective on life shifts and your values are rearranged to what really matters.

The enlightenment gained through the aesthetic experience is nearly impossible to understand or value without having experienced it yourself. But once scholars, parents, staff, and administration experience and value the aesthetic experience of the arts, the facilities, funding, and scheduling necessary to help it thrive always follow.

Beauty and the Community

As with any other subject, it is almost always a good idea to involve the greater school and outside community in educational experiences. Community artists or performers provide great support to the teacher’s efforts to show that the arts are indeed relevant in the real world. Public art shows and performances also show scholars that their efforts are accepted and valued by the world, building confidence like nothing else can.

However, another way that I think the arts should effectively connect with the greater community is through service. It is easy to believe that the arts are about showing off for others in pursuit of admiration or accolades. We see many models of that in our society today, though we have a natural distaste for it. Instead, it is important for scholars to learn that creating and sharing art is an act of altruistic service. It is, quite literally, learning how to find yourself and then sharing it with others.

Surface—Inside—Out

I like to use a simple formula with my classes called Surface—Inside—Out. For example, I mentor the scholars in discovering all there is on the “surface” of a piece of music: all the right notes and rhythms, tempo and dynamic markings, words, and composer-indicated expressions. We work to get it all right. But we don’t stop there. Next, we delve into the meaning expressed in the words, melody, harmony, rhythm, and texture of the piece to feel the deeper truth and beauty within the piece. We seek it out with our minds, but we also feel it out with our hearts. In short, each person determines what the piece means to them, how it personally connects to their own thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Finally, I invite the scholars to share part of that personal meaning with each other and with the audience through their performance in the concert. They don’t need to share everything; many things are too private to share publicly. But they can share many authentic and meaningful personal truths through their facial expressions, emoted feelings, and vocal inflections as they perform the piece.

In sharing these personal meanings through performance, the scholars effectively connect their technical skills with the authentic Truth-Beauty-Goodness they have discovered in the piece and share it with their audiences. They give their audience a gift of genuine Beauty, a priceless treasure in this world! And what is more, they feel that Beauty even more strongly from the giving of it. This is a genuinely transformational experience, for both the scholar and the audience. This is the greatest gift the arts has to offer, and it is as possible from a moderately-skilled as from an experienced scholar in a school.

Another way to “Support the Arts”

The most important thing a parent can do to support their scholar’s arts education is to show that they genuinely value and appreciate it.

Parents understandably want their children to get a good education that prepares them to support themselves in the world when they come of age. Sometimes, this causes parents to devalue the arts (What good will this do them in getting a good job?) and either directly or implicitly discourage them from participating. This, again, comes from a low level of sophistication of aesthetic understanding. There is often the case that the parents only experience the arts in their lives as a sort of cheap entertainment, a functional distraction from the “real” efforts and problems in life. And why would any good parent encourage their child to spend a lot of time and effort on distracting themselves in school? Even supportive parents sometimes betray this belief with comments like “I just hope she is having fun in choir, that is all I care about,” or “I don’t understand it at all, no one else in our family has been into art, but he likes it, so we support him in it.”

Many of the most successful people in history (Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking) were artists and musicians as well as hugely successful scientists, public figures, and entrepreneurs. Developing determination and aesthetic sensibilities in the arts does not handicap a person going into another field like medicine, law, or business, but rather greatly improves their character, creativity, and drive to be successful. The famous violin teacher (and friend of Einstein) Shinichi Suzuki said, “The purpose of [music] education is to train children, not to be professional musicians but to be fine musicians and to show high ability in any other field they enter.” (Nurtured by Love) And he would know — millions of children have become fine musicians through his Suzuki method and gone on to successful and high-paying careers in other areas.

Be Invested

My strong recommendation to parents is that they take the time to attend their scholar’s performances and shows, carefully view their artwork, and give as much thoughtful praise as they can genuinely muster. Ask the scholar to talk about their experiences and what the artwork means to them. They will likely learn the profundity of meaning that piece has for their child, or they may even draw closer to their daughter or son in discussing things that really matter to them. Yes, participating in the arts is making them happy, but why? Do they feel more connected with their peers in the group? Do they feel a sense of accomplishment in what they have created? Are they fascinated by the ideas and experiences that the art works brought up? Whenever possible, talk with them like an adult as they discuss the things they have learned. Maybe they can’t even articulate every benefit, but you can start to make them out through their excited comments on the songs or drawings they have started doing non-stop at home. Yes, they are happy, but not in the same way they are when they get to play video games all day. They are connected to their peers, to great artists from the past, and to great ideas and experiences that great minds have pondered over the centuries.

And that is where you will find both the Beauty and the point.

Art Without Truth, Beauty and Goodness is Not Art at All

Guest post by Greg Blankenbehler

It is the birthright of all humans to appreciate and imitate Beauty, but it is not necessarily something that comes automatically. There is beauty on all levels of perception and understanding, and it often takes a good deal of training and experience to appreciate the more sophisticated and sublime manifestations of it.

Perception

One way of looking at education is as a training in how to see Truth-Beauty-Goodness in various areas and degrees. The natural sciences and visual arts train us on how to see the truth/beauty of our natural world. The humanities, and the performing arts show us how to see the truth/beauty of human nature. Mathematics and the more abstract sciences show us the truth/beauty of the underlying order of the natural world. And so on . . . it is the job of every teacher of every subject to open the eyes of her scholars to the previously-invisible Truth-Beauty-Goodness of that part of reality.

This is an especially important job in the arts, an area that creates imitations or models of the “contours” of reality through a medium of expression. This could be painted shapes on a canvas that represent whole landscapes of mountains and rivers, dialogues on stage that suggest an infinitely complex web of individual and interpersonal lives, and songs and poetry that hint at subtle and otherwise inarticulate emotions and sensations. Since the smallest object in reality is still too complex to reproduce in full detail, the arts uses media (paint, clay, pitches, rhythms, gestures, expressions, etc.) to “render” reality and emphasize the aspects of Beauty that the artist wishes to point out to the observer. It takes a good deal of training, experience, and reflection to increase one’s aesthetic perceptive abilities.

Imitative Skills

As I mentioned before, once a person identifies and appreciates Beauty, there is always a drive to try to more intimately experience it themselves by imitating it. Those who do have experience in imitating Beauty can more fully appreciate it in the creative imitations of others. This is especially the case in the arts. The sculptor who has worked in the language of three-dimensional human form is the best equipped to understand the expression of beauty in Michelangelo’s Pieta. Even a little dabbling in creating art goes a long way to better understanding the ongoing Great Discussion on Truth-Beauty-Goodness in that particular arts genre.

For the musician, these skills could include the following and more: ear-training in pitch, harmony, rhythm and meter; reading and writing music; musicianship experience with dynamics, texture, and musical form; and technical and expressive experience in singing and/or instruments. For the actor, these skills include: diction, vocal tone and inflection, pacing, facial expression, physical gesture, and dancing. For the visual artist: skill with the pencil, pen, brush, chisel, or computer; understanding of the principles of visual art including color, shape, texture, and perspective.

Connecting Skills and Beauty

A drawing without skill cannot be good art because it fails to effectively imitate the subject it is portraying. Likewise, a skilled drawing without underlying Truth of Beauty cannot be good art because it portrays the physical aspects of the subject without any deeper meaningful aspects of it. This is why an artistic drawing has the ability to evoke aesthetic feelings while a technical drawing typically does not.

In developing both technical and aesthetic skills, great artists traditionally experience the following areas of growth:

Imitation and Rudimentary Skill Development — Early on, this is traditionally accomplished in all of the arts through the instruction and model of the master artist. Piano teachers lead their scholars through daily training drills and demonstrate with their own playing how to breathe life into a Chopin etude. Aspiring painters likewise were traditionally apprenticed to a master painter and learned daily how to paint simpler to more complex things under their careful tutelage. It has always been common to see young painters with their easels at art galleries copying great works of art on display. This is one thing the general public often misunderstands about artistic excellence: it is not so much granted by a favorable fairy at birth, but rather developed minute by minute through good role models, coaching, and an astonishing amount of practice.

Self-Discovery — Great art, however, cannot come from simply imitating another artist. In addition to perfecting their technical and artistic skills, every great artist must go out into the world and discover the Beauty and Truth to be found out there, and delve deep into their own selves to discover the Beauty and Truth to be found inside themselves. This concept is wonderfully demonstrated in Letters to a Young Poet, a collection of correspondence from the experienced poet Rainer Maria Rilke to his younger colleague Franz Xaver Kappus. In these letters, Rilke repeatedly encourages Kappus to live life with his eyes wide open, experiencing and carefully noting the Truth and Beauty it has to offer. This includes deeply examining his own thoughts, feelings, and sensations, and expressing the genuine aesthetic experiences he has through his art. This process is the only way to create original and authentic art that moves others.

Performance/Presentation — The creation of great art is never a “safe” endeavor. It requires the bold exploration of Truth (both within and without) and bravery in presenting it to a potentially hostile world for their contemplation. The artist grows in skill and eloquence by repeating the artistic process again and again, creating more and more art. Each step can feel like a “leap of faith” or a “baptism of fire,” but the successful artist is courageous and inventive in repeatedly turning out works of personal, authentic art.

Evidence of Aesthetic Skills Development

According to Roger Scruton in his article for BBC News entitled Faking It, ever since Duchamp’s infamous inverted urinal, the modern art world has created a racket in which disingenuous artists create silly or disgusting art that they claim is profoundly meaningful, insincere art critics publish fawning articles praising their “originality” and aesthetic genius, and art museums spend millions of taxpayer and patron dollars to put those artworks on display, thereby “proving” to everyone that the artwork (and the artist, critic, and purchaser) is worth so much. And so, Scruton asserts, the indecently dressed emperor continues to be praised for his non-existent clothing. This great art con continues to repeat itself because no one seems to know what great art is anymore. No one knows what great art is because anyone can claim to have created or experienced art that generates profound aesthetic experiences, but it is much harder to prove it, especially in a society that values individualism and diversity.

This dilemma reproduces itself in our scholars’ classrooms. If technical skill cannot reliably assure a great artist, and we can’t just take people’s word that they are truly having great aesthetic experiences, how can we recognize if our scholars are making or experiencing great art, or at least progressing towards it? 

The solution to this problem is to be found in the classical model. It is really very simple: great art elicits profound and generative meaning, which comes out in personal reflections and discussions. If, due to problems with its execution or subject matter, a work of art fails to mean much to a group of aesthetically-skilled observers, it fails to be a great work of art. (Sometimes it does take an “interpreter” to show the world the meaning in certain works of art, but the fact that the work of art is able to generate meaning after the individual helps society to see it still proves my point.) Likewise, the clearest evidence that a scholar or anyone has developed aesthetic sensibility is their ability to perceive, interpret, analyze, and synthesize the deeper meanings of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness in a demonstrably great work of art. You can tell if a scholar (or adult) has developed aesthetic sophistication in the way they discuss the piece: they excitedly make connections to other great classics, to themselves, and to fundamentals of the human experience. In the most profound interactions with Beauty, you can see the moral and existential effect that the work of art has on their lives moving forward. It is barely a metaphor to say that they “glow” with the enlightenment of Truth-Beauty-Goodness.

Beauty and the Fine Arts

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.

The Classics

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.

Creating 

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.

Living 

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.

Beauty Armed With Virtue Bows the Soul

Where can we find beauty? Beauty is captured in the idea to restore what has been hollowed out, emptied by the ugliness that is also a part of this mortal experience. Beauty is also a marriage of the intellectual and moral virtue. Beauty fights off barbarism, and with so much conflict, crime and debauchery around us we are in dire need of a revolution in beauty!

Beauty is multidimensional and can be experienced through many of our senses. It brings a spiritual sense of gravity. Rhythm produces a sort of musical beauty in poetry. Unity in multiplicity, autonomy and freedom are the natural state of the universe which is also a form of beauty. Springtime and its colors open our eyes to beauty. Beauty can be found in every virtuous activity we observe or undertake.

As I pondered the atrocities and war crimes being committed in the Ukraine I came upon this beautiful chorus of chanting performed acapella by 15,000 people in a stadium in Latvia. Their chanting allowed them to synchronize with others in a unity of voice and harmony that produces great peace and comfort and remarkable beauty. The title of this post comes from Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language. If you are hoping for an example of where beauty and virtue intersect to bow the soul, look no further than the smiles of the participants in the video below. I hope you will enjoy the brief clip of patriotic culture in Latvia.

This originated at the 1950 Latvian Song Festival during the Soviet-era occupation. It provided song, story, legend, and lore intended to take a downtrodden people to a place of refuge. What could the occupiers do to prevent or stop it? Beauty and the fine arts provide refuge, rescue and redemption for our souls. The arts help heal a life, a culture and society that are sick and at the brink of devastation. Music irrigates the deserts and provides an oasis for healing our souls.

One of my greatest discoveries with beauty was listening to Roger Scruton who said,

“Through beauty we shape the world as a home. In doing so we both amplify our joys and find consolation for our sorrows. Art and music shine a light of meaning on ordinary life. Through them we can confront the things that trouble us and find peace and consolation in their presence. The capacity of beauty to redeem our sufferings is one reason beauty can be seen as a substitute for religion. However, the sacred and the beautiful stand side by side. Two doors that open to a single space, and in that space we find our home.”

Scruton, Roger (28 Nov 2009). Why Beauty Matters (Documentary).

I continue finding personal beauty with music which speaks to my soul. I leave you with what is one of the greatest musical creations of beauty I have ever heard. 

Where have you recently found beauty?

The Power to Make a Different Choice

Winter gave way to spring these last few weeks. Blooms, buds, and blossoms are everywhere. What is nature showing and telling you? Change is here! What will this new season offer you? What is or will be your new normal?

We have a family couplet that goes like this. “If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.” During a lifetime, and especially after the challenges of the past two years, there are moments of reflection where we consider the outcome of our choices and whether they are leading us to happiness, abundance, and joy.

Steven Covey nailed it when he says, “Between stimulus and response is a space. In this space lies our freedom to choose our response. In these choices lies our growth and our happiness.” (Covey, Stephen R. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic. New York: Free Press, 2004.)

Do you find yourself on autopilot as the world bombards your senses?

I read a poem this week that brought to my attention principles of perspective, personal growth, and happiness, which by design may include making changes and taking greater responsibility with our choices and our habits.

An Autobiography in Five Short Chapters 
by Portia Nelson

I

I walk down the street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk

I fall in.

I am lost … I am helpless.

It isn’t my fault.

It takes me forever to find a way out.

II

I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I pretend I don’t see it.

I fall in again.

I can’t believe I am in the same place

but, it isn’t my fault.

It still takes a long time to get out.

III

I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I see it is there.

I still fall in … it’s a habit.

my eyes are open

I know where I am.

It is my fault.

I get out immediately.

IV

I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I walk around it.

V

I walk down another street.

What will this new street have to offer? Self-awareness and our freedom to choose and direct our lives are the most important and precious gifts we possess.

A Twenty-First Century Renaissance

One day a little boy arrived at school, grabbed his crayons, and began thinking of all the things he could draw. The teacher asked him to pause and then said, “Today we will be drawing flowers.” Enthused, the boy thought of all the types of flowers there were. Just as he was about to begin his creation the teacher said, “We are going to draw a particular type of flower.” She then drew one with a green stem, two leaves and four pink petals. After several attempts his drawing soon looked like hers. 

As school began the next year, the boy was given crayons but this time he waited for instructions from the teacher. Upon inquiry as to why he was not drawing he asked, “What should I make?” The teacher replied, “A flower.” He dutifully drew a green stem with two leaves and four pink petals. (A Thomas Jefferson Education p. 19-21)

This story is a metaphor for the industrial economy, world, and education of the last century. The education of the 1900s delivered a conveyor belt style of learning introduced over 100 years ago by John Dewey. The goal of an industrial education was to give a child what was needed to find employment and land a job, which is a good thing. But a liberal arts education helps us aspire, attain, and transcend to something greater—to discover personal arête, as the Greeks called it, or excellence as it would be translated. The idea is to find your calling in life over a job or career. While those will provide a means of living, they may not provide passion, satisfaction, or happiness of becoming the best you. 

The Renaissance was rebirth

I could not let this month pass without reflecting on the fruits of the Renaissance which comes from the Latin nasci—to be born, rebirth, or born again. It is credited to have begun in Florence where there was a revival in classical antiquity from the 14th to the 17th century. Music, art, architecture, math, science, and literature flourished and were born again. Names such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Dante, Vivaldi and many others burst on the scene to open the minds, eyes, and ears from centuries of sleep…. “both Greece and Rome destroyed the vital elements on which the prosperity of nations rests, and perished by the decay of families and the depopulation of the country. They survive not in their institutions, but in their ideas, especially on the art of government, they are, The dead, but sceptered sovereigns who still rule Our spirits from their urns.” (Lord Acton, The History of Freedom p. 39) 

Education and the future

A classical liberal arts education, anchored in the classics and utilizing great mentors, returns an individual to what once informed and inspired the founding of liberty and freedom.

The goals are as follows:

  • First, produce thinkers, leaders and entrepreneurs who know they have genius and excellence waiting to bud and burst forth. A great parent/mentor/teacher helps us discover that. Education comes from the Latin educare which means “to lead out” or “draw out.” We educate by drawing out the latent virtues and gifts we possess. An American Classical Leadership Education invites you to discover your gifts and use them to bless others. Once voice and genius are found, you pivot and use your special excellence to change self, home, and community for the better. You are then ready for the task of self-governing.
  • Second, it is to perpetuate freedom and self-governance with the principles of liberty and natural law. Thomas Jefferson laid these principles down in the Declaration of Independence. They replaced monarchs and “Divine Right of Kings” with a natural aristocracy of self-governing citizens-kings. Nobility and dignity came to all by virtue, which honors impartiality in the sight of a Creator, deference to the laws of nature and a guarantee of equality of the natural rights of life, liberty, and property.
  • Third, such education teaches us how to think through difficulties, problems and challenges we face today. The old industrial ways of educating and thinking will not be adequate for leading in the 21st century.

The key to this type of education is individualized learning intentionally focused on the discovery of arête. Great stories found in “the classics” are central to this type of education. They allow us to project ourselves into the stories of great women and men, grapple with our own human nature as the characters grapple with theirs, and ultimately to identify principles of truth. True principles help us recognize true beauty and we are then compelled to apply those qualities to become servant leaders and thinkers. In the words of one of my alma maters, “To build men and women of virtue, wisdom, diplomacy and courage who inspire greatness in others and move the cause of liberty.” (Mission of George Wythe University)

What the Wizard taught us

One of my favorite movies as a child was The Wizard of Oz. You may recall our heroine Dorothy is born again to the beauty of the family she left, and she desires to go back home. On her journey, she must find Oz by following the “yellow brick road.” Along the way she finds three friends who also need to see the great Oz for gifts of liberation. The Scarecrow wanted a brain. The Lion wanted courage, and the Tin Man wanted a heart. These virtues were unwittingly already in their possession but laid latent, having been dormant or undiscovered for some time. At critical points in the journey each is invited to use those undeveloped virtues to help the others. They frequently flopped and had to repeatedly try again after unsuccessful trials and challenges up against the Wicked Witch and the Wizard of Oz. Ever-patient and loving Dorothy continues to ask them to use their hidden virtues of knowledge, courage, and soul to save the day. They miserably stumble yet continue to persevere after each challenge. Finally, facing a real fire and affliction in the noble cause, which is ultimately to help Dorothy at the possible expense of their own lives, they combine as a team to exercise entrepreneurial thought, persistence, and bold actions. We know the suppressed gifts of wisdom, courage and heart already existed in the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, and the Tin Man. Self-transcendence produced the nobility in each to help Dorothy find her way back home to safety, prosperity, and happiness.

Refuge, Remembrance, and Renewal

This past week has provided disturbing footage of refugees fleeing and defending their homes in Ukraine. At the same time that these images floated in the periphery, I happened to note that our three academies are now approaching 5,000 refugees on the waitlist to enroll– with a current population of 4,000 scholars already inhabiting the sturdy fort known as John Adams Academy. As I exchanged an email with an educational mentor of mine, he pointed out the following related to our time: “We are, both of us, standing atop the gate of a fort watching refugees stream toward us. Behind them is the enemy that drives them.”

There are refugees of life everywhere. So, who is driving the educational and displaced war-torn immigrants? The power hungry, the avaricious and special interests. What are the evacuees seeking? Safety, opportunity and freedom for themselves and their families.

Remember and Renew

Memorials provide a way to recognize, remember and renew principles of our heritage and allow us to be repeatedly reborn as citizens of a nation when we lose our way or forget our past. G.K. Chesterton is credited to have said, “Every revolution is a restoration of something that once guided and inspired people in the past.” 

In the year 1215 King John put his seal on Magna Carta (The Great Charter) at Runnymede. England was in political turmoil. King John had bitter disagreements with the church and had established unpopular taxes on land barons to fund an ongoing war with France. This fostered an alliance between feudal barons and key members of the clergy. By the start of 1215 the barons seized control of London – the seat of government.

In early June, King John met to hear their demands, and on June 15th he agreed to seal the proposed “Great Charter of Liberty,” enshrining their rights into law. What were these liberties?

The charter addressed unalienable rights, including 63 clauses covering law, liberty, and the church. The most important of these clauses enshrined the rights of “free men” to justice and a fair trial.

At the outset, Magna Carta had very little legal impact. At King John’s request it was repealed by the Pope, who emphatically declared the document “null and void of all validity forever.”

After time and successive kings, The Great Charter began to have real consequences. King Henry III released three revised versions of Magna Carta during his reign, and over the years it began to take on legal and symbolic status. This document also became foundational to our Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights was signed into law on December 15, 1791. Do you think it coincidental that John Adams signed the Bill of Rights into law and the Constitution on that particular day in 1791? Consider the preamble to this document. Its purpose was clear. While the Constitution listed the powers of government, the Bill of Rights listed what powers the government did not possess as a way of preventing arbitrary actions. Consider the preamble. 

THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.

While visiting England in June of 2015, on the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, we saw a memorial to The Great Charter of Liberty. Here is what we read:

Memorials at Runnymede: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/features/memorials-at-runnymede
  • At the front of the plinth/wall: This memorial was dedicated on 28th July 1957.
  • On the central pier: To commemorate Magna Carta, symbol of freedom under law.
  • On an inner frieze, just above the pillars: Erected by the American Bar Association – a tribute to Magna Carta – symbol of freedom under law.
  •  Three of the stone flags in the floor outside the pavilion have been inscribed:
    • 18 July 1971 – on this day the American Bar Association again came here and pledged adherence to the principles of the great charter.
    • On 13 July 1985 the American Bar Association returned to this place to renew its pledge of adherence to the principles of the great charter.
    • 15 July 2000 – the American Bar Association returns this day to celebrate Magna Carta – foundation of the rule of law, for ages past and for the new millennium.

So here we have a memorial of perhaps the greatest foundational document for freedom on British soil where the American Bar Association recognizes The Great Charter.

Will you assure the success of liberty?

Guess what else? Next to this site an acre of English ground was given to the United States of America by the people of Britain in memory of John F. Kennedy. Written on this monument are his words: 

Let every nation know whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, or oppose any foe in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.

John F. Kennedy, Inaugural address of President Kennedy, 20 January 1961. 

Are we as Americans and citizens of the world still willing to do that?

The designer, Geoffrey Jellicoe, wrote that he had based his ideas on John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and that the piece is intended to be seen as a point in a journey through the landscape. Behind the memorial stone is an American scarlet oak, which turns red in November, the month of Kennedy’s death. You continue a paved walk or “Jacob’s ladder” through the wild woods of human existence along a stepped cobbled path. The cobbles symbolize people met along the way and the 50 unique different sized stone steps represent the American states.

With this memorial being contained within an acre of British land, and gifted by the people of Britain to the people of America in perpetuity, it is poetic to notice that virtually the same location commemorates both John F. Kennedy and Magna Carta.

My discovery of these two memorials during the commemoratory month of June in 2015 energized me! I felt reborn and renewed again in the ancient principles of freedom. In the words of another father of freedom Abraham Lincoln. 

The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they have, thus far, so nobly carried on. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—….that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Abraham Lincoln, “The Gettysburg Address” 1863.