Learning with Leonardo

It may seem odd at first, but the life of Leonardo da Vinci provides some interesting insights on the nature of learning.

The school year has officially settled in! Even as we all enjoy the return of routine, there remains the impending urge to brace ourselves for how quickly the weeks will fill up and fly by. Before we are waylaid by the 60-mile-an-hour gusts of schedules, assignments, lesson plans, and after-school activities, it does us good to stop and consider how we can help our students learn happily and restfully.

It may seem odd at first, but the life of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), related by his biographer Giorgio Vasari in The Lives of the Artists, provides some interesting insights on the nature of learning. To begin with, Vasari notes Leonardo’s extraordinary range of interests. At various points in his life, Leonardo took up literature, mathematics, music, sculpture, architecture, drawing, painting, herbology, anatomy, astronomy, mechanical invention, and poetic improvisation. He even tried to invent a way to raise an entire church off the ground, so he could place steps underneath! The artist’s investment in so many particular things shows that a wide range of interests does not hinder excellence. Students should not be mere specialists. Understanding one subject often aids another, and school should consist of a well-rounded diet. This doesn’t mean a schedule crammed with twelve different subjects per day—quite the opposite. It means the freedom to pause what’s on the agenda and take the time to be curious about something worthwhile. After all, God has placed an abundance of wonderful things around us. It’s only natural for Christians to be intrigued by them!

A second lesson from Leonardo can be found in one of his faults. “He began many projects,” Vasari writes, “but never finished any of them, feeling that his hand could not reach artistic perfection in the works he conceived, since he envisioned such subtle, marvelous, and difficult problems that his hands, while extremely skillful, were incapable of ever realizing them.” This “constant search to add excellence to excellence and perfection to perfection” continually slowed Leonardo’s work. Perfectionism is, of course, simply an overgrown virtue. We want our students to strive for excellent work. But we don’t want an obsession for perfection to frustrate and hinder them. Like Leonardo, sometimes our hands are simply “incapable of realizing” what we wish to do, whether that’s writing a perfect letter “a” in kindergarten, or remembering the ins and outs of early American politics in high school. It is almost comforting for students to know they shouldn’t expect perfection, and to simply be content with using the abilities God gave them.

Finally, Leonardo can point us to the importance of working with a restful mind. He had almost completed his famous Last Supper painting for the Dominican friars of Santa Maria in Milan— all that remained were the face of Judas and the face of Jesus. Despite the painting’s incompletion, Vasari tells us that Leonardo “sometimes passed half a day at a time lost in thought,” much to the annoyance of the prior of the church, who finally persuaded the duke of Milan to try to talk some sense into the artist. Leonardo told the duke, “The greatest geniuses sometimes accomplish more when they work less, since they are searching for inventions in their minds.” So often, students are tempted to rush through their work, and so often, we urge them to just “get it done.” While efficiency is good, we can’t overlook the importance of a mind that has leisure to think well. Painting a landscape, writing a poem, solving a logic puzzle—these things cannot and will not be rushed. Perhaps daily chapel is exemplary of such leisure, where the hearers are eager and alert, but quite at peace, and certainly nothing is hurried.

The coming school days may seem to fly, but our students can still enjoy an education that is both restful and joyful. May Christ bless us with His peace as we take up the teaching and learning He sets before us!

In Christ,
Miss Hahn

Musings in
your inbox:

Subscribe to receive the school newsletter articles when they publish