Recently I came across this wonderful quote from Plato on education. “The purpose of education is to give to the body and to the soul all the beauty and all the perfection of which they are capable.” These lines capture a lot and reveal the incredible process that occurs in education. The purpose of education is not the memorize things by rote and know enough facts; it is something more incredible. Plato sees an essential element of education as the soul. Something which is now rarely talked about in education and perhaps one of the reasons that schools are so often failing to engage with students. If education depends upon giving to the body and the soul all the beauty and perfection that they are capable of then we need to rediscover how to give the body and soul these things in order to rediscover how best to educate.
The Christian Tradition of course inherited a lot of its philosophical understanding from the Greeks but it also developed it. As such we see the seeds of this idea blossom into the beautiful understanding of Christian education shown by Edith Stein. In her essay “The Spirituality of the Christian Woman” Edith Stein writes the following: “Formation requires the creation of educational subject matters which will place duties before intellect and will, stir the emotions and fulfil the soul. But here we enter into the realm of values – the good, the beautiful, the noble, the sacred – the specific values which are unique to each soul and to its individual quality.” Here Edith Stein expresses the Catholic understanding of education. It is not just about inducing the will and the intellect blindly but in obedience to duty. We all experience those soul destroy school tasks forced on us by bad teachers which only look to improve our intellectual capacities or our will power through mindless repetition. This crushes and suffocates the soul. For the soul longs for increase in its powers of its will and intellect not for their own purpose but in order that they might be used to unite the individual with The Good, The True and The Beautiful and so ultimately for God. Edith Stein recognizes the need to involve the whole person in education and there by allow them to accept the Christian values into their soul. She sees that through creating education material that utilizes the will and intellect properly by showing the end to which they are ordered, by utilizing material that can stir the emotions and fulfil the soul, we can help each person to grow their soul such that it blossoms into a beautiful fulfilment of their human nature. In so doing they become more perfectly formed in the image of God and so are better able to unite themselves with him.
Now both Plato and subsequently Edith Stein have helped develop our understanding as to the role of education and how it should be done but they of course didn’t wish their words to only be theory. Edith Stein especially was instrumental in the encouragement and development of education in the early 20th century but there are also others who implemented these ideas in the middle of the 20th century. In the 1950s and 60s the Musical became one of the most popular film genres and began to take over Hollywood. Perhaps the greatest known creators of musicals during this time is Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein. They recognized the way in which beautiful music engaged the whole person and therefore was one of the best means to in still values into the young. No clear can this be seen than in perhaps their greatest hit “The Sound of Music”.
The sound of music shows Maria (Julie Andrews) who plays a novitiate sister (i.e. a sister in training before she takes her vows) being sent off by the Abbess to work as a governess for a nearby former Naval Officer and widower. At the start of the film the children are closed and difficult with Maria. As such this creates a difficulty for Maria in trying to educate them. Maria recognizes that the reason for their troubled behavior lies in the suffering that the children have endured due to the loss of their dear mother. As such Maria has incredibly difficult task ahead of her if she wishes to educate these children.
This is where the ideas expressed by Plato and Edith Stein come into play. Maria knows she needs to offer up educational material that will both show the children what their hearts truly desire but also will stir their emotions and fulfil their souls. As such she takes the children out into the mountains of the Austrian Alps where the children live and she teaches them through song. The beautiful and entertaining songs that Maria sings lifts the children up and draws their minds beyond just the physical that they see and into the transcendental values that she wishes to reveal to them. In so doing the children both learn the necessary practical skills of how to sing using do-re-me but also why they would want to sing in the first place. As such the children see the beauty of God revealed through the heart of Maria and in being drawn to it now they learn to sing themselves. The begin to sing to their father and his friends as well. We see therefore in the sound of music the ideas of Edith Stein’s Catholic understanding of education being implemented and we get to watch as each child becomes immersed in the holy spirit.
This fuller understanding of education and the importance of the soul sadly now has often been lost in recent years but its legacy still remains. The Sound of Music is just one example among many. We see Deborah Kerr utilizing song to educate the children in the King and I and we see writers like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien using fantasy instead of music, to help raise the mind of the young beyond the ordinary towards those values which reveal to us God’s love. So let us once again rediscover the beauty of the soul as expressed in these many works of art and so bring the divine life into a stifled understanding of education.