Through the Aesthetic Realism
by Rosemary A. Plumstead
NOTE: 96% of Mrs. Plumstead’s 9th grade students passed their New York State Basic Competency tests in science.
The purpose of education, Aesthetic Realism shows, is to like the world. And there is a mathematical relation between increased like of the world and a decrease in one’s anger. Young people today suffer from a horribly unjust economic system. They cannot find jobs and the future looks bleak. When I asked my students at LaGuardia High School how many of them were afraid to go out on the streets near home, more than half of the class raised their hands. Ariadne said, "Once I get home, I’m not allowed out again because of the shootings around my way."
Yet every teacher and student needs to learn from Aesthetic Realism that there is a hope in a person to have contempt — despise the world and use what one endures to feel justified in doing so.
I am going to tell about a class I gave to 9th grade students on Environmental Science. Early in the term, I heard a Hispanic student call an Asian girl "wonton." Students told one another, with great gusto, "Why don’t you shut up!" At times two students would exchange threatening words clear across the classroom. They were quick to insult and be insulted, making the atmosphere in the classroom often tense.
Before my study of Aesthetic Realism, I was angry, often intensely — I didn’t know why — and it frequently included my students. First in Aesthetic Realism consultations, and later in classes with Eli Siegel, I learned the cause of my anger and why it could even be so attractive. In an Aesthetic Realism class Mr. Siegel asked me these kind and critical questions:
It will take a lifetime to express how grateful I am to Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism for criticizing my desire to be angry and for lovingly encouraging in me the only opposition to unjust anger: the desire to know and like the world. What I learned and continue to learn in Aesthetic Realism classes taught by Ellen Reiss, Class Chairman of Aesthetic Realism, has made me a happy person and a useful teacher.
Expansion and Contraction in Trees
As students in my science classes see — through study of the atom, or the formation of ozone — that the world, with all the unjust things that take place in it, has a structure of opposites that is beautiful, they learn happily and their anger with things and people changes.
As part of the Environmental Science curriculum, for example, we study biomes — areas of the world that are characterized by their vegetation, like the tundra where, because of intense cold, there are no trees and the vegetation consists of short grasses and shrubs.
In the tropical rain forest, however, the temperature is very high and the vegetation lush, due to the copious amounts of rain the area receives.
The tropical rain forest
As students see that the very earth is a diverse and exciting relation of opposites such as warmth and coolness, wet and dry, the lush and the sparse, they are seeing evidence that the outside world is interesting, exciting, made in a thrilling, logical way. Further, they see that the same opposites that make such a variety of vegetation are in oneself. We can be cold and hot, stingy and generous, like the tundra and the rain forest. A person will NOT want to be angry with or attack a world he or she sees as like oneself, as having a good meaning for oneself, and every subject can provide limitless evidence for the fact that the world has a structure of opposites like our own, which we can learn from.
Two lessons that affected these 9th grade students very deeply were about trees. They learned that it is in the leaves that photosynthesis takes place and a tree makes its own food. I asked the class, "What position is it best for the leaves to be in so that photosynthesis can take place?"
Fred said, "Flat, so the sun can hit as much of the leaf as possible." Yes, we saw that for the tree to be strong the leaves have to be wide and expansive.
However — I then read this by Steven Vogel from Natural History:
[In] violent gales, the sideways drag of the leaves in the wind becomes a threat.... The tremendous surface area of leaves becomes a major liability.
When I asked the class how they thought trees solve this problem, everyone was thoughtful and actively involved. "They get rid of the leaves," Manny said. "They can’t just do that," Maria objected; "they need the leaves."
The students were thrilled to see that the answer lies in aesthetics — the leaves have to put opposites together in order for the whole tree to fare well. In order to find out what the leaves actually do in gale-force winds, Steven Vogel created a wind tunnel and subjected the leaves to different wind speeds. I showed my students a slide of the leaves of a tree and asked, "What do you notice about the leaves at zero miles per hour?" Rick said, "They’re spread out flat."
Leaves at zero miles per hour
"What happens as the wind increases?" I asked, showing a slide of leaves in wind. "Oh, wow!" Max called out, "They’re curling up."
Tulip tree leaf in light wind
My students were enthralled seeing this: how the same leaf that was expansive could fold and contract in order to minimize the wind’s drag; how opposites, expansion and contraction, power and delicacy, work together for one purpose. "That’s crazy good!" Umberto called out.
Tulip tree leaf in high wind
"Do you think," I asked, "we’re trying to put together the very same opposites of contraction and expansion, that these leaves are?" As I read this passage about a young woman, Hilda Rawlins, from Self and World by Eli Siegel, looks of recognition came to their faces.
On June 4th, Hilda went to bed feeling — quite sincerely — ill, and told her mother she did not wish to answer telephone calls, receive visitors, or read letters .... She remained in bed until June 9th, talking to no one except her mother, and with her curtly .... On June 9th, Hilda had a sudden desire to see people, to talk to them, to have them near, near to her. She flung the bed clothes off her. She called up friends. She talked buoyantly, raptly. She went out.
"I’m like that," Tania said, "when I’m sad I keep to myself. When I’m happy, I open up. I go places and I hang out with my friends." And Felicia said, "When I am angry, I could only think about what’s wrong — draw together all my anger." I asked, "Do you think we can learn from the leaves of a tree how to have these opposites one in our own lives?" They said, "Yes." I said, "The leaves have the same purpose in expanding as in contracting — and it is for the well-being of the tree." As my students saw that opposites which they were pained and confused by every day are beautifully made one by the leaves of the tree, a deep anger was being countered — because they had more respect and admiration for the world itself — and they were very pleased and excited. On the way out of class, Jaime said, "This was a good lesson by Mrs. Plumstead."
January 21, 1999Read part 2: A Tree Puts Together the Opposites of Individuality and Relation, Generosity and Withholding, Strength and Gentleness.
Further Important sites and articles on education:
Aesthetic Realism Foundation
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New York, NY 10012