August 15, 2023

Learning to Love Things That Are Worth Loving

Delivered at the 2023 SCCHE Back to School Workshop

The new school year is underway, and students have hit the books. Many students in classical schools, hybrid schools, and home schools are just beginning an awkward acquaintance with what we call the “classics.”

My own students just finished Dante’s Inferno this week, and next week, along with beginning Purgatorio, we’ll be considering the art of Giotto, Dante’s contemporary and probably the premier painter of the Proto-Renaissance.

I’ll be honest with you: it can be a hard sell – enticing students to love Dante and Giotto, not to mention Milton, Bunyan, Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Durer, Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi – all of whom are cued up in my lessons for this semester!

So, why do we do it? Why do parents harbor the suspicion that they and their students probably should love old things like classical literature and art? Why do teachers keep laboring in the trenches, encouraging, and cajoling, and modeling for their students a love for these old things?

In his book Love What Lasts, Joshua Gibbs, himself a teacher of the classics, says that “the defining feature of a classic is its goodness. The stability of a classic means that its goodness has been proven over centuries" (27). A thing has stood the test of time, he says, “if it is still loved, studied, understood, revered, sold, or practiced one hundred years after the death of its creator” (44).

One hundred years! And that’s the bare minimum! It would probably be sobering for each one of us to sit down and make a list of the books, music, and art that we’ve contemplated during the past year that are more than one hundred years old.

In Western Civilization, we have an incredibly rich heritage of literature, art, and music that has demonstrated its goodness to all kinds of people across centuries and continents. It is more available to us today than ever before in history. We can summon up on our computers high-quality images or recordings of nearly any piece of art or music. We can instantly access the “Great Books” on our Kindles or have them delivered to our door tomorrow.

We have access to a proverbial feast of the good, the true, and the beautiful. But every day, we choose gas-station burritos heated up under bright lights instead of this feast.


Joshua Gibbs offers an answer to that question when he posits that “Good things are hard to like and good taste is hard to acquire” (25).

My time tonight is short, so I’m not going to spend any of it defending that thesis. I think we all know it’s true, but if you’d like to read more about it, I recommend Gibb’s book.

What I do want to think about tonight is what we can do about it. If you don’t love something, how do you learn to love it?

Elsewhere, Joshua Gibbs wrote an imaginary dialog between himself (as a classical educator) and a fellow he meets on a train, who asks that very question. Gibbs asks that fellow to tell him a food he doesn't particularly care for. The fellow admits that he doesn't like coffee (or even tea), but he wishes he did because his friends “go out for coffee” a lot.

Here’s what Gibbs told him:

“Let’s say that you had a rich old uncle who owned a very profitable coffee empire, and that he wanted to leave you his coffee empire when he died but could not do so given that you don’t like coffee. Let us also say this uncle is very old and that he comes to you one day and says, 'I will give you one year to learn how to love coffee. One year from today, I’m going to hook you up to a lie-detector and ask you if you love coffee. If you do, I’ll give you a million dollars and leave you my coffee empire. If you don’t love coffee, I’m giving the empire to your brother Frank.' How would you spend that year? How would you try to learn to love coffee?”

And here’s what that fellow replied:

“First, I would learn as much as I could about coffee. I would read many books about coffee. I would learn the different kinds of coffee, then try each kind. Perhaps some are easier to like than others. I would drink coffee every day. Not a lot, but a little. I would drink a little in the morning, a little at lunch, a little at supper. I would try adding milk and sugar to it, but then gradually add less milk and sugar until I was just drinking black coffee. I would try to wean myself onto it. I would also go to places where people like coffee. Perhaps their love of coffee would rub off on me. I would spend every day in a coffee shop. I would put posters of coffee beans up in my house. Are there any people who are famous for loving coffee? Or famous for brewing the best coffee? Perhaps I would put photographs of those people up in my bathroom. I know that all sounds quite strange, but if there was that much on the line, I would do it.”

Sounds like a workable plan, doesn’t it?

Well, that’s pretty much what classical education is, except rather than coffee, we’re learning to love things that last.

The fellow on the train has one more question, though: Why? Why is it so important to learn to love things that last?

Gibbs explains, “Because classical educators believe that virtue follows from the love of lovely things. Virtue is what makes a human being last. If you don’t love things that last, you won’t last, because people become like the things they love. If you only love passing and ephemeral things, then you will become a passing and ephemeral man.”

During the past three weeks, my class has spent quite a bit of time getting to know Dante – this 14th-century poet with a mid-life crisis. He finds his life in shambles: exiled from his home and his family, deprived of his property, his political career ended. Dante is lost, frightened, and confused. He has strayed from the true faith, without realizing it, without knowing how it happened, and is seeking a return.

But Dante must learn to see sin as God sees sin before he can comprehend God’s grace, and so he begins his journey of discovery, and my students and I begin our journey with him.

This semester my students and I will reflect on the themes of love in Dante, on good and evil in Milton, on sanctification in Bunyan. Shakespeare will prompt discussions of justice and mercy, the futility of vengeance, and the nature of evil.

We’ll examine how the painter Giotto cleverly depicted the seven virtues and the seven vices in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy. We’ll listen to some of the most sublime music ever composed in Handel’s Messiah.

And as we partake of this feast, I will keep reminding my students that we are learning to love things that last that are good, and true, and beautiful because we become like the things we love.

Will I convince them? I don’t know. But like Joshua Gibbs, “I believe a classical education makes it easier to love good things, even if a student hasn’t entirely given himself over to good things by the time he graduates.”

That’s my gift to my students – at least a taste of the feast and a prayer that they will return often.

-- Patricia Samuelsen