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Doors to Beauty: The Aesthetic and Saint David’s

In his 1911 short story, The Door in the Wall, H. G. Wells, through the eyes of a man close to the end of his natural life, reflects on a door he discovered accidentally in the earliest years of his childhood. The door led him to a garden of incredible beauty—a place of awe-inspiring wonder where even the air “exhilarated,” “gave one a sense of lightness and good happening and well being,” a place where he felt “exquisitely glad” and where “everything was beautiful.” Of all the attributes held close by those who ascribe to the classical tradition, the aesthetic, true beauty, lies at the epicenter.  From the middle of the last century and now, embracing the dawn of the next, a mission driven commitment to the aesthetic is what has distinguished Saint David’s as a unique and marvelous school for boys. On the sixtieth anniversary of the school’s founding, we celebrate this attribute. The beauty Lionel Wallace, Wells’ protagonist, sought behind the green door, life’s quest ancient philosophers1 would argue, not only makes us happy, but also has the power to shake us up, confront us, and transform us. Like Wallace, we too have experienced this revelation when a painting, a piece of poetry or prose, an experience, or a person has exposed a previously unknown truth, portrayed something so uniquely or has touched us so deeply as to leave us speechless, awe-inspired or overwhelmed. When we come face-to-face with true beauty, time seems suspended and we feel ourselves transported to another place. The result: old beliefs, fears, and prejudices can give way. Old ways of perceiving the world can disappear. In order for this to happen, though, unlike Wallace, we must allow it, we must make time for it, and we must learn how to recognize it.

Wallace searched often for the door in the years that followed his first encounter with true beauty but entering it again forever eluded him. On the rare occasions he did see it, he found himself too busy with the pressing needs and tasks of “his daily life” to stop, open the door, and experience the aesthetic.
Wallace lacked the necessary tools and training, the habits of mind needed . . . the intelligence . . . to recognize the potential for beauty and to then appreciate it. Wallace’s perspective was too narrow; his mind too closed to recognize and appreciate beauty.

In an effort to comprehend the aesthetic, we must examine intelligence, and more specifically, our definition of intelligence. Traditional definitions have focused on the standard “verbal” and “non-verbal intelligence.” In recent decades, more enlightened institutions have recognized the need to broaden this definition to include linguistic, mathematical, spatial, social, and even emotional intelligence—all of which good schools address. At Saint David’s, we extend this definition further still and add yet another . . . aesthetic intelligence.

Cultivating an aesthetic intelligence requires a capacity to perceive the beauty around us. It’s what Piero Ferrucci refers to as the ability to tune in.2 Imagine two radios; one picks up one or two stations, the other, hundreds. The multi-stationed radio receives a variety of broadcasts in many different
languages and formats: classical music and golden oldies, political debates and talk shows, comedy, sports news, and stock market commentaries. Aesthetic intelligence develops out of aesthetic experiences, and these experiences can be much like these two radios.

Some people remain anchored to the familiar, the reassuring. They listen to only one or two stations, which make them feel safe, their world predictable. Their sense of the aesthetic becomes not so much “the aesthetic,” but more what Ferrucci calls “aesthetic habits.” Those with a limited aesthetic range have not only a more restricted world, but also an experience that is less rich and less interesting. Thinking can be more protective, parochial, and provincial. Fear and suspicion often dominate, dictating action and thought. They are more closed off to the world.

Those with a wide aesthetic range, however, can be more adaptable and elastic. They have a greater capacity to understand others, to appreciate difference. They have the potential to see beauty everywhere—for the ancient Greeks it was the Golden Mean, that code of proportion that was at the core of all beauty. For me it’s the fragrance of the sea, especially the Pacific Ocean, east coast of Australia, latitude 29 degrees, 25 minutes South—the place where the rays of the sun’s early light touches the continent first. In a nutshell, those with the broader aesthetic are continually ready to learn. This is the meaning of Saint David’s mission in stat- ing, “the School seeks to engender intellectual curiosity . . . and an enduring love of learning.”

It’s important to tune in and be present; to be curious and open, but one must tune in with a well-prepared, criti- cal mind. The acquisition of clear standards of beauty and criteria for evaluating beauty allow one to deconstruct, question, and apply skills to experiences encountered and objects observed. One is then less likely to accept everything thrown at him. It’s this ability to recognize, analyze, and then deconstruct the image or experience intelligently that leads to a deeper understanding and a cultivated appreciation of beauty. The more frequently one reaches outside the usual and customary, beyond the routine, to take the risk and apply the tools learned, the more one can cultivate and develop this aesthetic intelligence.

Education, then, is the key to unlocking the aesthetic. Like most things in life, the ability to understand and appreciate beauty doesn’t come easily, or naturally. As with all habits of mind, it must be cultivated, learned, and practiced. From the youngest ages, deliberate, purposeful exposure to a broad range of aesthetic experiences is essential. Knowledge of “standards of beauty” must be acquired and the senses trained. Skills associated with rigorous pursuit; critical analysis of ideas and ideals; reflective, introspective thinking; and moral deliberation must be learned. This is the teacher’s role. When combined, these skills result in the development of discerning taste and critical judgment—both essential for the recognition and appreciation of beauty.

Building on the labors of those who came before, Saint David’s has committed to enhancing and further refining the four pillars that philosophically support the program—scholarship, athletics, spirituality, and the aesthetic—and the school has been particularly successful with deepening and widening the boys’ aesthetic experience. The school’s Curriculum Initiative, now in its sixth year, has resulted in a second language (Spanish) being added to the boys’ repertoire beginning in the earliest years, and a third (Latin) extended in the later years; field experiences and trips both inside and outside the city, state, and country being increased; exposure to great works of art and artists, along with tools of analysis, being added at younger ages, developing a visual literacy throughout the grades; additional sports, dramatic productions, and community service projects also being implemented, to name just a few examples. And we have made these aesthetic experiences tangible for the boys.

When boys are required to recite Shakespeare or Dante at Saint David’s, we know that they know it better than those who simply read it. When the boys play Mozart or Verdi, or when they sing medieval chants or The Beatles, we know they understand the music, and the composers, more deeply than those who merely listen to or study the music in a textbook. When the boys are asked to apply the skills associated with the elements of analysis to their own painting or sculpture, or are required to integrate a motif or a particular master’s style, such as Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro or Giotto’s use of iconography in their own work, they comprehend it better than those who only read about it. And when the boys visit a mosque, a synagogue, and a church; when they experience other faiths; when they visit a nursing home, or feed the poor—when they do good, we know they gain a deeper appreciation for the role of religion and faith than by merely discussing it in class. By requiring Saint David’s boys to actively and critically engage with a wide variety of media, travel experiences, speaking opportunities, service, sports, dramatic performance, and interdisciplinary learning, the school exposes the boys to a wide aesthetic range that cultivates their aesthetic intelligence.

This cultivation of aesthetic intelligence with its continual search for beauty is the aesthetic defined in our mission. It is that which feeds and nourishes the soul. It represents the school’s on-going commitment to requiring boys to pursue rigorously, analyze critically, reflect deliberately, question
thoughtfully, and to think deeply on all aspects of the world around them. It represents the less tangible and the less accessible, but the far more valuable. Recognizing and appreciating the aesthetic connects the boys more deeply to themselves, to each other, and to their broader community. It helps them see and enjoy the beauty of life.

These are the habits of mind Saint David’s seeks to instill in her boys. This is the aspect of our mission that we aim to explore in this our sixtieth year and every year. Lionel Wallace found it difficult to find the beauty in his life. He couldn’t see the doors; and when he did, he couldn’t open them. We want our sons to find beauty more easily and purposefully by recognizing it and appreciating it in everything they do. The school’s mission in developing a wide aesthetic and thereby cultivating an aesthetic intelligence is to “lead our boys out”—to help them keep the doors of their minds open.

1. Plato in particular saw beauty as the most perfect knowledge.
2. Piero Ferrucci, Beauty and the Soul (New York: Tarcher, 2009)


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