Among certain thinkers in classical education, there exists the idea that one must strive to cultivate good taste in children, to the betterment of their eternal soul. Here’s the problem: good taste is often confused with parental preference. Poor taste is elevated to a place reserved for actual sin.
Lest you think I have imagined this — lest you think I have imagined the pedestal Christian classicists have given to taste — consider this from a prominent writer in classical education:
“One of the most important things we can offer students is good taste, by which I mean learning to love beautiful things that have lasted. Bad taste is not a personality quirk, but a significant moral problem. If our students don’t love beautiful things, we have failed them. If we are graduating students who love shallow things, they might as well go to public school.”
Bad taste is a significant moral problem? Sin is a significant moral problem. Taste is not. We cannot, and must not, equate taste with worth.
- Taste is subjective.
- Taste is personal and cultural.
- Taste is not synonymous with morality.
- Taste is not a good indicator of how edifying, deep, or worthy something is.
We can love tacky things and still love Jesus. And who is to decide what is tacky or kitsch? Your culture’s tacky may be my culture’s elegant. Does preferring French linen to double-knit polyester make you a better Christian? Does preferring stark, modern, angular furniture over a rich, carved walnut, Queen-Anne style make you morally inferior? Does a French-grey living room automatically imply the home’s resident has a better sense of taste than the owner of a living room with contrasting flamingo pink, adobe orange, and Caribbean blue walls? Are Diego Rivera’s lilies less refined than Monet’s? What about street art in the genre known as low-brow? Do flat-bill caps offend your sensibilities? One can sin just as easily in a fedora and leather loafers as one can in a hoodie and sneakers.
I understand what classical educators are saying: take the Greco-Roman tradition, pass down what has endured the test of time, and save Western Civilization. I understand this. I am not a progressive. I do not wish to cancel classics. I teach the history of Greco-Roman civilization in my own homeschool. But I do not pretend that Western Civilization has a singular monopoly on good taste.
My friend Bethany and I co-direct a classical education co-op. Bethany is Black: I am white. Our members are multi-racial. We represent five different countries of birth. In our group, we share a mutual Christian faith, and even a mutual approach to educational pedagogy, but we do not share a heritage story. We do not share a single aesthetic. We do not share the same artistic taste or standards of what is beautiful, nor do we wish to establish or teach a monolithic aesthetic.
Taste is cultural.
When my mom first moved to Mexico, she and dad rented a home right off the central plaza in Nochixtlan, in the heart of town. As with so many Mexican homes, the floors were patterned tile, the color changing from room to room. The color of the walls changed from room to room as well, but with seemingly little regard for color of the floor. Upon moving in, my mother painted all the adobe walls a uniform tan, to tie together the many floor patterns of all the rooms. “Oh!” exclaimed locals upon entering, “You have taken this beautiful house of colors and painted the walls the color of dirt. Why have you done this?”
These opinions about what is beautiful have nothing to do with what is moral. Our individual and cultural sense of taste is not a reflection on the state of our soul. It would do us all well to understand that the standards of beauty and good taste spoken of in classical education are most often carved from a Western-Europe-before-1900 block of marble.
“If our students don’t love beautiful things,” the classicist I quoted above laments, “we have failed them.” Perhaps the author has conflated beauty with truth, I thought. Perhaps he really means “If our students don’t love truth, we have failed them”. Perhaps I’m being too literal, while he is speaking metaphorically. But in another piece, he clarifies bluntly, “When classicists refer to Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, the Beauty of which they speak is almost always artistic Beauty.”
The author believes poor taste reveals moral failure, but I believe taste is meaningless without Christ. What does it matter if my daughter grows up with taste as tacky as a unicorn on glitter spandex, as long as she loves Jesus? I don’t care if my children unwind with twaddle and have so-called terrible taste if they love Jesus. The road to heaven is not paved with Western architecture, clean-shaven chins, dress pants, or tidy haircuts. I can love the abrupt concrete angles of Soviet brutalism and still love Jesus. I can worship Jesus to trap music. I can prefer leopard print to Liberty print; this does not water down the blood of Jesus.
If you hang out in classical circles for any length of time, it will not be long before you hear someone equating the advent of modern architecture with the onset of moral failure and societal ills. I am reminded of another leading classical figure who regularly posts photos of elaborate cathedrals, walnut-shelved libraries, and university halls, pointing to the beauty of leather-bound books and Gothic architecture as examples of good taste and morality. Equating good taste with old things is the refined scholastic version of “they don’t make ’em like they used to”. But taste is not an inoculation against evil. Children are abused in old-world cathedrals as well as in multipurpose-buildings. Extravagant beauty did not save them, nor did modern practicality. Sin is still sin. Books on the occult exist in both libraries with antique carved mahogany shelves as well as in drab libraries with utilitarian metal shelving.
Lest you dismiss me as merely a lover of modernity with no sense of the all the great thinkers who have gone before, allow me to offer some context. I like old things. I own books more than a century old. I listen to music and chants so ancient, they makes Mozart sound like he’s living on a Mars colony. I think America lost a rich theological heritage by embracing the bare-walled churches of the Puritans. I am in more awe of an icon-studded church than I am of non-denominational blandness. The roots of our faith are ancient and deep. Repackaging the gospel in terms of seeker-friendly relevance does nothing for me. But I’m under no delusion that human nature was any less sinful at the dawn of time than it is today. Old things are not inherently more holy merely on the basis of their chronology. Lasting power alone is not proof of wholesomeness; murder is observed in Genesis as well as in 2021. Evil still creeps on after centuries.
In our bid to decry the lies of progressivism, let us not become reverse-progressivist snobs. This does not draw people to Christ. People are not going to hell because the ink on their paperbacks is too fresh, or their trap beat is too distracting. If you think that converting people to old books and old music is going to save their souls, your gospel is false and your god is an idol. If you think that homeschooling with vintage books and European classical music is going to save your child from the moral abyss of this age, perhaps you worship more idols than one.
Yes, our children should love what is true. They should not love debauchery or what has been perverted. But that is a battle between good and evil, not between good taste and poor taste. It’s the truth that’ll set us free, not a code of aesthetics.
What really matters, friends? That our children love the exact same music we do? The exact same books? The exact same clothes? The exact same curtains and furniture? Do we think we have a difficult fight for taste in front of us, and think we have succeeded only when our children have internalized the same subjective aesthetic taste as the forefathers of Western civilization?
I do not love French brocade or the gilded pillars of Versailles. I prefer Guatemalan textiles and Scandinavian pine. The same classicist I quoted above complains, “It’s hard to like good things because they are good and we are not.” Perhaps he is forcing himself to try to like things a classics professor once told him he is obligated to love. It is not hard to love what God has put in our hearts to love. It is not hard to love beauty. We are created for beauty. But it may be hard to conform to the aesthetic of modern Western civilization, especially if your heritage is from another culture. Thankfully, we don’t have to. We look for the city to come.
Friends, are you okay with the idea of raising a misfit with mismatched clothes who dances to world music and knows the kingdom of heaven transcends the Judeo-Christian Greco-Roman civilization? Or are you adamant they must accept the physical forms of Western civilization along with the Christian faith? Do you accept that fully sanctified and redeemed image-bearers of Christ are walking among you right now in hoodies and sneakers, or do you think conversion includes switching to Dockers and getting a haircut? If you believe moral conversion and sanctification needs to also include an aesthetic conversion, then your gospel isn’t Christ, it’s Western culture.
Be a classical educator, yes. But also be a bridge-builder, a global Christian, and a citizen of the world to come. Do not let snobbery enter your gates. Worship in whatever sort of architecture you wish, but do not forget the global church, worshipping outdoors and underground, with instruments and songs unfamiliar to your Western ears, in fabrics and styles too bold for your Western eyes — a brotherhood and sisterhood encompassing all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues.
For such is the kingdom of heaven. And we seek the city that is to come.