Gene Edward Veith reveals how literature can give students the occasion to think and talk about that which is good, true, and beautiful.

I don’t like Jane Austen, but I do like those Twilight novels about vampires in love.” “I don’t like Bach. He’s boring! I like rap music a lot better.” “I really liked that movie, especially the part when the slasher cut off the girl’s head with a chainsaw.” Hearing students talk like that makes teachers cringe and stirs thoughts of going into another line of work. How can they be so impervious to what is true and good and beautiful? How can they take such pleasure in absolute dreck? And how can they be so arrogant and so shallow and so narrow-minded as to judge the whole world according to the wholly subjective standard of whether they “like” something or not?

The problem goes beyond the education of children. In our postmodern climate, objective considerations hold less sway than subjective considerations. As a result, “likes” and “dislikes” take the place of reason (so much for truth), moral obedience (so much for goodness), and aesthetic reflection (so much for beauty). We say, “I really like that church,” rather than, “I believe what that church teaches.” “I got a divorce and abandoned my family because I no longer loved my spouse and I fell in love with someone else.” “I enjoy just vegging out in front of the TV, so leave me alone.”

Today we are surely more pleasure-centered than we should be. The answer, though, is not to deny pleasure altogether. Aristotle said that virtue in regards to pleasure, along with other feelings, involves learning “to feel these emotions at the right times, for the right objects, towards the right persons, for the right motives, and in the right manner.”1

That is to say, we must cultivate our affections. It is certainly good to have affection for things. “Liking” is a form of “loving.” The problem for us fallen creatures is that our affections and virtually all of our other emotions are disordered. We need to learn how to order them rightly. That is, we need to come to the point of “liking” (subjectively) what is “good” (objectively).

Cultivating the affections has always been a key goal of classical education and Christian discipleship. An education in the liberal arts is designed to “form” a free human being. This involves orienting the child’s affections to what is true, good, and beautiful. This goes beyond the knowledge of truth, goodness, and beauty. The child also must learn to love them.

The Apostle Paul says that a leader in the church should be “a lover of what is good” (Titus 1:8;NKJV). This also entails feeling revulsion for things that are not good. “Abhor what is evil,” says the Apostle to all Christians; “Cling to what is good” (Romans 12:9;NKJV). This has to do with developing a moral sensibility, but Paul also goes beyond that:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8; ESV)

These are not the “whatevers” of the bored, apathetic student. These “whatevers” open up the Christian to “excellence” of every kind, wherever it may be found.

So how can the affections be rightly ordered? Not everyone takes pleasure in truth, honor, justice, purity, or loveliness. Others may commend something and recognize its worthiness, but how can we teach others—not to mention ourselves—to join in the praise?

Learning to love what is lovely is the work of a lifetime, but schools can play a critical role. Most helpful, in my experience, in cultivating this growth are the arts in general and literature in particular.

It is impossible to browbeat someone into loving something, and frontal attacks on what someone already loves simply provokes defensiveness and resistance. My own practice is to build on what the person already “likes” as part of my strategy to direct the affection to a more worthy object and to deepen the shallow affection into love.

“You don’t like Shakespeare?” I might say. “Do you understand him?”

“Well, no.”

“So you really don’t know whether you like him or not.” Knowing that my students “like” sports, I will help them see that in order to enjoy football, they need to understand the game, and that the more they understand it—its rules and strategies, its different plays and the techniques necessary to execute them well—the more they enjoy it. The same is true for literature, music, or any of the arts. The more you know about them—the rules and conventions of art form, the strategies and techniques of the artist—the more you will find to enjoy.

I will explain that some books you can just enjoy on your own without any help. You already understand the Twilight vampire novels, so there is no need to study them. Other books, though, are more challenging. You need help with them. But when you do understand them, you will find that there is even more to like than in the easy books.

I will go off on tangents like this: “Everybody likes fast food. Grease, salt, and sugar taste good. But compare a McDonald’s Meal Deal to your mother’s Thanksgiving Dinner. Notice the turkey, the dressing,
the cranberry sauce, the pumpkin pie, and all the rest do play off those basic tastes. But there are so many other tastes going on at the same time: not just salt but sage and rosemary; fruit confections that are simultaneously sweet and tart; multiple levels of flavor; symphonies of different textures that play in your mouth.

“Classical music is like that, with lots of melodies and rhythms and layers of sound going on at the same time. And Shakespeare is like that, with every character having a story, with themes and ideas and images woven together in many different configurations, and yet they come together into a whole.”

I am trying to teach my students how to appreciate complexity and the aesthetic principle of unity in variety.

I also try to teach them about literature as a whole, including the simple literature they already like. This will include helping them see when literature violates its own principles.

“Every story, whether in a book or a movie or a TV show, has to have some kind of conflict.” They give me examples. The most common, of course, will be between good guys and bad guys slugging it out.

“How can you tell who is good and who is bad?” Bad guys are usually ugly. “Is that how it is in real life?” No. “So the ugliness is symbolic. The story uses superficial appearances to create a meaning and an effect, to make evil unattractive.” Then I will point out how literature today often does the reverse, making evil attractive and making goodness repellent. Classic comedy ridicules vice; modern comedy often ridicules virtue. This can lead into discussions of how storytellers, including filmmakers, present what happens through the point of view of different characters, and how artists can manipulate readers’ responses.

I then show how some of the greatest works show human beings in their complexity. Shakespeare’s “good guys,” like Hamlet or Lear, may have a streak of badness inside, a tragic flaw; and his “bad guys,” like Macbeth or Claudius, may well have some admirable qualities. They are complex and conflicted, like us. The most profound conflicts are those that take place within the human heart. What I am doing through all of this is teaching my students how to critique works of art, both aesthetically and morally.

I also try to make them see the distinction between the statement “I like this,” and “this is good.” That you like it tells us something about yourself. That this is good tells us something about the work. We can like something for many different reasons—because something in a story reminds us of someone we know or conjures up some fantasy that we have had or an emotion that strikes a chord with us. And, yes, liking varies from one person to another. To say a work is “good,” though, means that it was made with skill, that it fulfills its purpose, that it has qualities that are worthwhile, etc., etc.

I make my students realize that we can like something that is not good. Fast food is not “good for us” in the way that mom’s home-cooked meal will be. We can get a kick out of an inept movie like Plan Nine from Outer Space. Much popular art, I will show them, cares only about whether people “like it.” The success of a television show depends exclusively on ratings; movies have to score a big box office; pop music producers care only about selling records. The artistic merit of the work is secondary and sometimes gets in the way—as the artists themselves are always complaining!

One way to make large groups of people “like” a movie or other work and so to spend money on it is to put in sex, crude violence, and other appeals to our vices.

That is much easier than creating a work of art that is actually “good.” Work that is “good” may well deal with sex, violence, and vice—Shakespeare certainly does—but the good work will typically do so in a way that does not provoke the “sin in the heart” that Scripture warns us against. Rather, it sheds light into these darker regions of the human heart, often helping us realize why they are so twisted and redirecting our affections to what is good, not just artistically but morally and spiritually.

A Hollywood sex comedy and the King Arthur saga both deal with adultery. The Hollywood version may make the viewer want to commit adultery. The story of Lancelot and Guinevere shows how their adultery— for all of its passionate romantic love—destroyed their families, friends, and their civilization itself. No one would want to commit adultery after that, and the characters themselves, standing as virtually the sole survivors in the rubble of Camelot with now no obstacles to their love, respond by repenting of their sins and entering the cloister.

What I want to do with my students is to help them grow in their tastes. Yes, tastes differ, but that is not a reason to shut down a conversation about aesthetics. Developing good taste can be defined as learning to take (subjective) pleasure in what is (objectively) good. So helping students—and adults for that matter—grow in their tastes is an important educational purpose.

I am not so naïve as to assume that aesthetic taste always translates into moral or spiritual growth.

Education itself, even classical liberal arts education, has its limits in how well it can create virtue. Plato was surely wrong when he taught that to know the good is always to do the good. One of Socrates’ best students was Alcibiades, who betrayed Athens first to Sparta and then to the Persians. Students need the grace of God and the disciplines of the Christian life to order their affections in the fullest sense.

But education has its part to play. And educators—whether teachers or parents or pastors—must remember to cultivate not just external knowledge but also the inner life. That is the realm of emotions, the will, and the imagination. Literature, as well as the other arts, engages all of these and can become the occasion to meditate upon and to talk about the whole spectrum of life.

We classical educators often speak of our subject matter in terms of the true, the good, and the beautiful. They all have to do with love. Love of truth is what motivates the quest for knowledge. Love for others
is at the essence of moral goodness. Aesthetic delight is love for the object. In a sense, then, cultivating the affections—that is, cultivating love—is for education both the motivation and the end.

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