BY BARBARA McCLUNG
Eli Siegel, the founder of Aesthetic Realism, explained: 1) "The purpose of education is to like the world through knowing it"; and the way to like the world is to see its aesthetic structure of opposites. 2) The biggest interference with learning is contempt, "the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it"; and contempt is also the cause of prejudice. These principles are the basis of the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method, proven successfully for over 25 years by teachers in their classrooms.
The students to whom I teach science at JHS 56 on New York's Lower East Side—Asian, African American, and Latino—are justly furious at the prejudice they have met.
Meanwhile, I saw that they, too, had contempt for each other. Name-calling and ethnic insults are common. And I have heard teachers show contempt by referring to students as "worthless" and "garbage." In prejudice, the opposites of sameness and difference are horribly awry, because a person does not want to see what is different from him as being in any way like him.
I am very happy to say that my students and I are learning the powerful, scientific alternative to prejudice and contempt. In the international journal The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education Ellen Reiss writes, "When we see, through Aesthetic Realism, that the world in all its difference is like us—we do not want to have contempt for the world and punish it."
This fact was dramatically clear in a class in which my 12- and 13-year-old students used the microscope to study the structure of cheek cells they had gently scraped from the inside of their own cheeks. After they viewed the cells through their microscopes, I labeled the slides so we would know which cells belonged to whom, and I randomly put slides under a microscope hooked up to a television monitor so everyone could see. "Whose cheek cells are these?" I asked the class. It was exciting as we saw that we couldn't really tell one person's cells from another's.
"Do they all have something in common?" I asked. "They all have a nucleus," said Deshawn Simons. (Students' names have been changed.) "They have a cell membrane," added Emmy Bandella, "and cytoplasm." And we saw they all had pretty much the same shape. I asked: "Is this a beginning point, based on the facts of science, for seeing we have something in common with every person?"
Our textbook, Life Science (by Jantzen and Michel), explains that "the cell nucleus contains chromosomes" and "hereditary factors are located on the chromosomes." We saw that while the structure of every person's cheek cell was alike, in the 23 pairs of chromosomes inside the nucleus is genetic material which has to do with our being uniquely ourselves. Seeing how opposites—sameness and difference, relation and individuality—are beautifully one in our cell structure made for pleasure and excitement in everyone and new respect for each other.
This lesson took place shortly after the shooting of many people by a man on the Long Island Rail Road, and I asked: "Do you think the man who shot those people saw himself as like them or different from them?" "Different," said Kareem. "Did he see their feelings as real, like his own?" Everyone said No. "Is contempt, which took such a horrible form," I asked, "the same contempt that has two students stare each other down in the hallway because of an accidental bump?" My students were very thoughtful; and I asked, "If this man saw he had something in common with the men and women on that train, the way you saw your cheek cells had the same structure as everyone's in the class, would he have been able to do what he did?" I respected my students so much as they said strongly, No.
"Prejudice," Mr. Siegel writes, "is a preference for an opinion we choose to have rather quickly, as against one that might arise from judging fairly." When I first said we would be studying organisms from the protist kingdom--organisms that have only one cell, or very simple multicellular organisms—there were not shouts of joy. "Do you think there is a lot of variety in organisms that are one cell big?" I asked. Everyone agreed there couldn't be. Then I handed out drawings showing some of the variety of one-celled organisms--including the amoeba, paramecium, stentor, and vorticella--and the students were surprised and thrilled!
Studying them under the microscope, we saw how the amoeba creeps along as its cytoplasm slowly pushes outward, creating a pseudopod, or false foot; while the paramecium, with its rapidly beating cilia—hairlike structures around its body—was able to dart gracefully about.
After several days of learning about and observing these wonderful creatures, we talked about the meaning of prejudice. Students were quick to say that prejudice was when one person hated another because they were different--for instance, of a different race. I told the class that prejudice literally means to judge before you know the facts. "How many people were prejudiced against the protist kingdom before you began to study it—you didn't think it would be so interesting?" Many hands bravely went up.
To see how we had a relation of sameness and difference with these one-celled creatures, I read sentences from Eli Siegel's lecture "The Drama of Mind" as we watched the paramecium under the microscope and on the TV screen. In. this lecture Mr. Siegel defined mind as "the power of at once meeting something and having pleasure and pain." And from a textbook by Margaret Floy Washburn, The Animal Mind, he read a description of the paramecium swimming away from trouble, such as ultraviolet rays or temperatures that are too cold or too warm. Mr. Siegel explained: "The paramecium has met something and has shown pleasure and pain, and therefore it is properly and lauditorily in the field of mind. We can do no better. We can't go beyond knowing something and showing pleasure and pain."
Students had a good time drawing their favorite protists and writing about why they liked them. Deshawn Simons wrote about the paramecium: I like the way they think and the way they move." Ernesto Rodriquez wrote: I like the stentor because it looked like a saxophone and the saxophone is my favorite instrument." And Angel Vasquez wrote about the amoeba: "I love the way it looks. I love the amoeba when it moves. I love the word amoeba."
Students showed the pleasure and pride of seeing the sameness between themselves and these tiny creatures. Shameka Collins wrote: "The thing that surprised me is that the protist kingdom is only one-celled animals and they can do a lot of things like us." Jenny Xu wrote: I was glad to learn that there are all sorts of things that we can't see, but they are alive and well, just like a person." As students saw their kinship with the paramecium and amoeba, they became kinder and were concerned about what would happen to them after we viewed the slides: we carefully rinsed them back into their culture jars .
Because these students are learning to see their true relation of sameness and difference to all things and people, there is an atmosphere of greater respect, and fights in the classroom do not occur! Students become more thoughtful, critical of themselves, kinder, and truly excited by what they are learning. This is the educational method—thrilling, practical, and beautiful—that should be available for every teacher and student!
This article was originally published in the Tennessee Tribune 2/16/00