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The great irony of many classical schools is that while the coursework is beautiful, the classrooms are often banal. Teaching in dingy church basements was a sad necessity at the beginning of the classical school movement, which worked overtime to open schools and meet demand. But now, decades later, there is another classical school movement sweeping the country, and this time it must raise its ambitions: Classical school buildings should reflect the beauty of the curriculum they teach.

Utilitarian-minded people balk at the idea of building beautiful buildings. Some deny that there even is such a thing as objective beauty. To them, I would ask: When you imagine Budapest or Vienna, do you think of the Hungarian Parliament Building and the Schönbrunn Palace, or the concrete brutalist structures that pockmark the cities? Would you rather live in British council housing or in the picturesque village of Burford in the Cotswolds?

Others are concerned about the costs of building beautifully. Classical schools are often cash-strapped, oversubscribed, and understaffed. While I cannot diminish the financial concerns of any board or headmaster trying to make tough decisions, the truth is that beautiful buildings are an asset that reinforce our vision of life and contribute to our very happiness. 

Bolshevik apartments had communal kitchens in part to break down the solidarity of the nuclear family and breed a communist mindset. Modern offices with labyrinths of undefined cubicles implicitly tell workers they are not individuals, but cogs who can be used and replaced at will. On the other hand, gothic vaults and arches lift a person’s eyes and heart upward in wonder. Beautiful architecture dignifies; bad architecture dehumanizes.

People don’t always reflect the buildings they occupy—just look at Congress. But buildings do shape our perception of ourselves, our capabilities, and our missions. One is much more likely to contemplate God in a church than in a stadium. For that matter, one is much more likely to contemplate God in the Cathedral of Notre Dame than in the Cathedral of our Lady of the Angels.

Our buildings not only shape but also reflect our vision of life. Is it any wonder that the earliest universities were built in the medieval era when theology, the practice of contemplating God, was crowned the queen of the sciences? The colleges at Oxford and Cambridge were built to reflect their holy mission of training students to know and understand God and his work. Now, centuries later and long after these schools have lost their sense of mission, students, visitors, and donors still flock to their campuses in large part because of the excellent craft and visual splendor of their buildings.

Our schools became ugly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when the purpose of education shifted. Rather than imparting virtue and character, education became utilitarian, a means to acquire skills, political opinions, status. The University of California, San Diego and SUNY Binghamton are a far cry from the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge.

The ugliness of our schools reflects our culture’s impoverished vision of education. Classical schools make a statement—and make themselves much more attractive to students and donors alike—when they embody an elevated vision of education through the beauty of their buildings.

Many classical schools around the nation that led the charge to bring the beauty of ideas back to education are now doing the same in architecture. St. Benedict Classical Academy in Natick, Massachusetts, broke ground on their new campus last year, a tasteful mixture of federal and neoclassical architecture that fits within the New England style. On the other side of the country, the Oaks Classical Christian Academy in Spokane, Washington, recently opened its new campus, which evokes the homey feel of a Tudor manor.

Instead of building its own structure, the Chesterton Academy of St. James was able to move into the Tudor-style archbishop’s house in Menlo Park, California, featuring a full-length porch and mature oaks on the tranquil grounds of St. Patrick’s Seminary. Likewise, Heritage Preparatory School signed a fifty-year lease with Morningside Baptist Church in Atlanta to teach generations of students in its aged brick building, adorned with neo-gothic pointed arches and gray stone window trim.

Meanwhile, the Veritas School in Richmond’s Northside bought and refurbished a training school originally built in the 1920s by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. The red-bricked facilities and the stately portico of a historic house recall Virginia’s rich history.

Each of these schools draws from different aspects of our architectural heritage. Some had more resources than others. But all have what modern architecture lacks: traditional materials, symmetry, balance, orderly design, durability, and purpose. All convey to students and supporters that in those halls, young men and women will learn something valuable, enduring, and true.

The exponential growth of classical education proves that people are hungry for beauty. Classical schools have expanded incredibly by showing people that beauty in books. Now, they must show it in their buildings.

Jeremy Wayne Tate is the founder and CEO of the Classic Learning Test (CLT), a humanities-focused alternative to the SAT and ACT tests.

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Image by HeinzLW licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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