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Education & Schooling

EDUCATION/ Beauty and the Classroom Wall

Beauty has become suspect in the American public education system, where the transience and sterility of the decor are its dominant feature. Unless we welcome beauty into our institutions of learning, the lessons we teach will remain as barren as our classroom walls.

The School of Athens by RaphaelThe School of Athens by Raphael

Across the United States, the public school year concludes for teachers with a spectacle of administrative rituals: assigning final grades, organizing students’ permanent records, filing reams of completed forms. Once the last staple has been cast and the final three hole-punch driven, each teacher looks about her class and sighs. Paperwork is but the penultimate task of the departing pedagogue. Unless she has abandoned all pretense of instruction in the closing weeks of school to enlist her students in classroom disassembly, she must now restore her room to its original state of vacancy. Like a departing tenant, the teacher must strip the walls and cupboards of the classroom of her affects.

There is much that has been and could be said on the subject of the sterility of contemporary school architecture. Rather than examining the bare walls of the classroom, however, let us consider what the teacher removes from them as she dismantles her temporary dominion. The masking tape that she uses to affix her decorations to the walls assures their impermanence—anything more durable would leave a mark. Given their transience, the teacher restricts her embellishments to inexpensive posters and laminated paper cutouts.

As the school year closes, she removes from her walls the maps, formulas, definitions, strategies, graphs, and diagrams that have assisted in preparing her students for a battery of district and statewide assessments. She may have sent her students home with a bundle of original artworks that had been displayed throughout the year. Perhaps she reluctantly tears down a favorite inspirational quote or motivational image as she completes her annual purge.

As the teacher peels away strips of tape and rolls her posters into tubes, does she pause to ponder the purpose they have served? Does she consider merits beyond their functionality? In The Montessori Method, Dr. Maria Montessori does not merely muse over the purpose of classroom decorations, but asserts their profound significance to her pupils’ formation. She writes that her Children’s Houses should be hung with “attractive pictures, chosen carefully, representing simple scenes in which children would naturally be interested”. Montessori specifically declares Raphael’s “Madonna della Seggiola” (Madonna of the Chair) to be the emblem of her Children’s Houses throughout the world.

She explains:

The children, of course, cannot comprehend the symbolic significance of the “Madonna of the Chair,” but they will see something more beautiful than that which they feel in more ordinary pictures, in which they see mother, father, and children. And the constant companionship with this picture will awaken in their heart a religious impression.

Her object in fostering a “constant companionship” between her students and Raphael’s work is not comprehension, but awakening. For Montessori, consciousness of the exceptional beauty of the artwork is prior to the students’ understanding of its import. While the public school teacher uses her wall displays to reinforce her lessons, Montessori offers her students the freedom to recognize both ordinary and extraordinary realities for themselves. The public school teacher lacks the luxury of trusting to epiphanies; she must follow a state-determined curriculum to produce a mandated number of passing test scores by year’s end. Consequently, her wall hangings consist of factual information to be digested with a spoonful of sugary inspirational imagery.