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Reprinted from...
Pennsylvania State Teachers Association 
        Volume 25 Number 1
Spring 2002       

The Success of the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method
By Rosemary Plumstead

     I was very proud to give a presentation titled "The Success of the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method" on December 6th at the Hershey Lodge and Convention Center. This method is based on the philosophy of Aesthetic Realism, which was founded in 1941 by the greatly important educator, Eli Siegel.

     Mr. Siegel explained that: "the purpose of education is to like the world." And he provided the scientific means through which the world can be liked, in this principle: "The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites."

     When I learned of this method, after I had taught for three years and was close to burnt out, I felt something like what Leuwenhoek felt when he saw microorganisms in his laboratory for the first time: "Eureka!"

     I teach science at Fiorello LaGuardia High School of the Arts in Manhattan to students of diverse ethnic backgrounds. Many face very difficult situations: illness at home, violence in their neighborhoods, great economic hardship. Every day, I see young people in danger of using injustices they endure to feel the world is a hateful place and that they should despise it. After the recent terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, this temptation is even greater.

     Contempt for the world, Mr. Siegel showed, "the addition to self through the lessening of something else," is the big interference with learning. It is also the cause of prejudice and violence. It was massive contempt that caused the horrific attack on September 11th.

     I told the persons present at the workshop that it is crucial that students and teachers see that there is a difference between the way the world is made and how it is run. It may not be run right or managed fairly, but science shows it is made well.

     Through the Aesthetic Realism teaching method, every fact in science gives solid evidence that reality has a logical, even beautiful structure of opposites; and when my students see through the opposites that — with all the confusion, even cruelty, in the world — reality itself is made in a way they can honestly respect, they want to learn and they do!

The Heart: An Organization of One and Many

     I teach Regents Biology to 9th graders, and I'll describe now part of the lesson I gave on the heart at the convention. The first pair of opposites that we discussed was one and many. When students first see a diagram of the heart, a sudden terror can descend upon them. "Do I have to learn all these parts?" they ask. When they see how the heart is one organ the size of their fist, and that each of its many parts — the chambers, the valves, the two separate sides — work for ONE purpose, to get blood to the 60 trillion cells in the body, they are seeing an organization in the heart, a structure of opposites that they can respect. Because of this, they see the heart and learning about it as more friendly to themselves.  

    Through the opposites, the Aesthetic Realism teaching method kindly and gracefully relates the subject students are studying to themselves. I told those present a question I've asked my students about how one and many are in themselves: "Are you the same person on Saturday night with your friends as you are singing in the choir on Sunday morning?" "What do you think my students said?" I asked. I then asked the teachers: "Do you use the same mind in studying a scientific principle that you use knowing your spouse?" People often feel that as they go from one aspect of their lives to another, they are not the same person. The heart, however, with its many parts and activities is magnificently unified as it transports blood.

The Chambers of the Heart, or, a Oneness of Assertion and Yielding; Strength and Gentleness

     The chambers themselves put together relaxation and contraction, yielding and assertion. As the atria fill, they relax and expand, yielding to the incoming blood. But the same chambers then contract and send blood surging into the ventricles, which yield and then assert themselves in turn with even greater force.

     Every teacher is trying to put these opposites together in the classroom, and I told those present how I have not always had assertion and yielding in the best relation. For instance, in the past, I'd notice two students talking in the midst of a lesson several days in a row and let it go. Then one day they would talk again and I would then clamp down upon them only to find out that one person was asking another for a pen or a piece of paper. This is not a good relation of yielding and assertion. The chambers of the heart show that we can assert AND yield for the same purpose and when we do, we can like ourselves.

     I pointed out to the teachers a fact that I love — the right ventricle and the left ventricle have different musculature. The right ventricle has less muscle; it's thinner than the left, because it is sending blood to the lungs. The left ventricle has more musculature because it has to propel the blood to the whole body. Because of this musculature, they contract at the same time, with differing amounts of force. The right ventricle is pumping the blood a short distance to the lungs' delicate tissues, and so it has to contract gently. The left ventricle contracts with great strength in order to send the blood into the far reaches of the body. 

     These chambers show that the world — which the heart comes from and represents — is made by reality with a beautiful fittingness of structure and function.The teachers were affected to hear that if the right ventricle pumped with the same force as the left, we would drown in our own plasma.

     Meanwhile, in another way the structure of the valves is also a oneness of delicacy and strength. Near the end of the presentation I read this quote about the valves from "The Incredible Machine," by the National Geographic Society:

"Valves as thin as tissue paper and sturdier than iron hinges open and close with each heartbeat, controlling the blood’s passage through the heart." 

     We can learn from the heart how we want to be. We're hoping to feel that when we're forceful or strong, we are also kind — because we have the same purpose in both: to encourage another person, make him or her stronger. Teenagers are aching to feel these opposites can be one in themselves. 

The Drama of Separation and Junction

     One of the awesome feats of the heart, we learned, is that it has two separate paths of circulation passing through it simultaneously. This can be very confusing to students and hard for them to learn. One path, by which blood is sent from the heart to the lungs, is called the pulmonary circulation; the other, by which blood is sent from the heart to the rest of the body, is called the systemic circulation.

     But are these two sides ONLY separate, or are they also joined? The heart is wrapped in one pericardium. They are also wrapped in one muscle that makes for a thrilling junction — these two sides beat in synchrony with each other. They are separate AND joined. Isn't this what we want to feel — that we are separate, distinct individuals and yet we want also to be joined rightly to other things and people?

     Through lessons such as these, my students' minds become keener and deeper. They pass standardized tests with flying colors. They become kinder as they like the world more and see their relation to it and to other people. I am particularly proud of the fact that my students, who came to LaGuardia HS to study a particular art form — dance, drama, visual arts, vocal or instrumental music — come to respect and love science more. They see that the beauty of art and science are not in separate worlds but that through the opposites, they are related. 

     After nearly three decades of successful results — including with hundreds of students who thought they would never learn science — I say with bedrock conviction: the Aesthetic Realism teaching method can end the failure in America's classrooms! This teaching method is being studied in the bi-monthly workshop for teachers of every grade level "The Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel As Teaching Method."

     For more information you can visit the website of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation at: AestheticRealism.org


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