This article was originally published in the Tennessee Tribune 8/26/99
Aesthetic Realism was founded in 1941 by the eminent educator, Eli Siegel.
This paper was part of a public seminar by New York City teachers who presented, with evidence from their own classrooms, the proven success over 20 years of the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method, at the not-for-profit Aesthetic Realism Foundation, 141 Greene Street, New York, NY 10012.
The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method is based on crucial principles stated by Mr. Siegel, as outlined in the published announcement for this seminar:
1. “The purpose of education is to like the world through knowing it.” To like the world is also the deepest desire of every person, whether Latino, African-American, Asian, European, student or teacher.
2. The central cause of failure to learn is contempt for the world...“the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.”... And contempt is the cause of prejudice.
3. Every subject in the curriculum has a structure which is logical, understandable, beautiful–and which represents the world itself: “The world, art, and self explain each other,” Mr. Siegel wrote: “each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” Through this principle, the very subjects that children across the US are failing — including spelling, phonics, arithmetic, history — become clear, vivid, and tremendously meaningful, and they learn!
It is a beautiful fact that through the Aesthetic Realism teaching method, children learn to read with eagerness and real pleasure — including many who have been brutalized by an economic system that is contemptuous of their needs and so unjust to them. For the past 26 years, through this method, I have been able to teach young people — some of whom, at age seven, were already so weary and angry they had great difficulty learning — to read with comprehension, and to love the English language!
I teach English as a Second Language at PS 97 to children from kindergarten through sixth grade, who live on the Lower East Side, in one of the poorest neighborhoods of New York City. Every day I feel more keenly how shameful it is that in this wealthy country children and their families have to struggle so hard for the basic necessities of life. Many do not have warm clothing or enough food; and some live in a center for homeless families. They are frightened by violence they see. One young boy often spoke about his uncle who was shot on the street.
Aesthetic Realism is new and so kind in explaining that a child's ability to learn is very much affected by whether he or she sees the outside world as a possible friend or as a cruel and fearsome place — to be fought or shut out. To these students, who came from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, South Africa and Mali, English words and sentences represented a world they saw as hurting and disappointing them. I knew it was my job to show them — and I could through this teaching method — that the English language is not an enemy, but, in fact, has a structure which makes sense, is beautiful — that it can bring the feelings of other people, the sights and places of the world to them, and add to them. And that is what occurred through lessons I gave based on this principle stated by Eli Siegel: "The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites." The essential opposites in reading are self and world.
I will describe a series of lessons in the ESL classes I taught last Spring to third grade children who were able to speak English, but who had difficulty reading and comprehending the words on a page. In his landmark essay "The Purpose of Aesthetic Realism as to Education," Mr. Siegel writes this about the way self and world are related in every instance of reading:
I. They Saw that Reading Puts Together Themselves and the World — and Prejudice Was Opposed!
[I]t should be pointed out that every instance of reading has been a merging of the thing read and the person reading. The thing read can be described as the outside world taking the form of type. [The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, #429]
There is such respect for the mind of a young person in this exact and warm description of the process of reading. A child's mind, I learned from Aesthetic Realism, was made to take in the whole world, and so I was very proud to tell my students: "When we read we are taking words which stand for the world into our minds so our minds can be larger."
Eli Siegel, whom I consider the greatest and kindest educator, showed (as I quoted above) that the purpose of all education is to like the world through knowing it. And reading is a big way of liking the world.
ESL is often taught to small groups of students taken out of other classes for instruction for one period a day. The 8- and 9-year-old students I tell of now fought with each other almost constantly. Various children were angry with and mocked others who looked and spoke differently from them. Some hit and pushed others on line. José and Pedro made fun of Yosef's African accent.1 Zinnia was frequently silent and in angry tears, always ready to accuse someone of pushing her chair or hurting her in some way. Celeste often laughed uncontrollably when a child from another country pronounced a word wrongly. Prejudice, I have learned from Aesthetic Realism, is a form of contempt — it is based on the feeling that we are big, if we can look down on, ridicule, be scornful of someone who stands for the world different from ourselves — and it begins very early.
While the circumstances of my life were more fortunate economically than these young people, before I began to study Aesthetic Realism I was prejudiced against much of the world, particularly persons who were not devout Catholics. Though I saw myself as shy, I was inwardly cold and scornful of others. When I began to teach, I saw the classroom as a stage on which to demonstrate my intellectual superiority to my students. They objected. Once, to my mortification, a student called out, "Why don't you get off your high horse?"
In an Aesthetic Realism class taught by Mr. Siegel in 1975, when I was having difficulty teaching, he asked me: "Can you relinquish your aloofness from people?" I said, "I would like to," and he asked: "But you feel you need it?" "Yes," I said. And he then said:
There's a line in a very famous poem, Tennyson's "Ulysses," "I am a part of all that I have met." And I paraphrase: "And whatever I have met has made me more me as me." What do you want: to shut out experience or to have it composed with what you are?
I thank him for asking these questions. As I studied them, they enabled me to change — to welcome diverse experience and feel it adds to me. I love teaching, and I care deeply for my students and the subjects we study.
A required skill in the reading curriculum is listening comprehension. As the term began, I saw that these children did not listen to each other; they all wanted to talk at the same time and constantly interrupted each other. Each saw the others as interferences. When one child spoke, others waved their hands to say what they wanted. I asked them, "Do you think it is better for us to want words, and the ideas and feelings they stand for, to be part of our minds — or to keep them out? I was moved when Celeste became thoughtful and answered, "To be part of our minds."
I read these sentences from Mr. Siegel's essay on "Books" in his Children's Guide to Parents and Other Matters (Definition Press: New York, 1971 ):
Every time you read a book someone else's feelings meet yours and mix with yours. You are always being affected by other people's feelings but books are the big way of bringing to a person the feelings he may never have otherwise.
And so, when a person reads, I said, a wonderful thing happens: opposites — such as ourselves and the world, sameness and difference, facts and feelings — become one.
I read many stories to the class which they saw brought new facts and emotions to them — about the solar system, the environment, and, from Aesop's fables, which they loved, about "The Lion and The Mouse." I read about people — "Cinderella," "The Fisherman and His Wife," and "Beauty and the Beast." One day, I told them about a man I have so much feeling about, a character in a book I was reading: Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. "His name was Jean Valjean," I said. "He was very poor, and he stole a loaf of bread to feed the children in his home, and was in jail for 19 years. This book is about what happened to him." The children were very interested. "Can you bring it in and read it to us?" asked José. I explained that it was a very big book. He said, "You can read us a part of it every day."
I respect these children so much because with all they are up against they are thirsty to learn. And when, through the Aesthetic Realism teaching method, children see that reading is not just a subject in school, or words on a page, but that it stands for the way they want to be related to the world and have the world in them — something big takes place. I brought in my copy of Les Misérables, and I was amazed by how deeply they were affected by the passages they heard. We spoke about the opposites: here are facts about the feelings and life of a man who is different from us and is like us too. The first was from chapter 6 of Book One. I explained the meaning of difficult words such as occupation, pruner, labor, peasant. Hugo writes:
Jean Valjean was born into a poor peasant family in the Brie region. In his childhood he had not been taught to read. When he had come of age, he chose the occupation of a pruner at Faverolles. ... His mother died of a poorly treated... fever, his father, a pruner before him, was killed when he fell from a tree. Jean Valjean now had only one relative left, his older sister, a widow with seven children, girls and boys.
This sister had brought up Jean Valjean, and as long as her husband lived, she had taken care of her younger brother. Her husband died, leaving the eldest of these children at eight, the youngest one year old. Jean Valjean was just twenty-five. Taking the father's place, he supported the sister who had reared him.... His youth was spent in rough and poorly paid labor; he was never known to have a sweetheart; he had no time to be in love. (pp.82,83)
"What do we learn about Jean Valjean from these sentences?" I asked. "He didn't learn how to read," said Pedro. "His father died when he fell from a tree," said Zinnia. Remembering facts and details, and the meaning of new vocabulary words is an important part of listening comprehension. The world, in the form of English words and sentences (translated from the French), was getting into these children in a new way. I asked, "Why does Hugo write that he had no time to be in love?" "Because he had to work all the time," said Celeste. "We are learning facts about this man's life," I said. "Are we also learning about the tremendous feeling Victor Hugo has about him?" "Yes," they said enthusiastically.
"Do you think Victor Hugo cares very much for Jean Valjean?" "He does," said Pedro. And does Hugo stand for a world that is kind in putting down in words, what Jean Valjean went through? As they heard these next sentences, which describe a painful situation — one that these children are all too familiar with — they were seeing reality as cruel and kind, harsh and sweet at once. The phrases "the best of his meal," "a bit of meat," "a slice of bacon," and "the heart of the cabbage" have a pleasing rhythm of sameness and difference that makes for a lightness and almost cheerful feeling:
At night he came in weary and ate his soup without a word. While he was eating, his sister, Mother Jeanne, frequently took out of his bowl the best of his meal — a bit of meat, a slice of bacon, the heart of the cabbage — to give to one of her children. Eating steadily, his head down nearly in the soup, his long hair falling over his dish, hiding his eyes, he did not seem to notice and let it happen.
"How did Victor Hugo know this?" asked Zinnia who had previously been so silent and tearful. "Did he know Jean Valjean?" "Was he real?" asked Celeste, "Did he really live?" "I can see him in my mind," said José, "with his hair over his dish." I said: "There were many people in France in the 19th century like Jean Valjean," and I asked: "Do you think Victor Hugo really wanted to know what a person felt who had hardly any money or food, living in France at this time?" The students were very thoughtful. Yosef, who himself lives in a shelter for homeless families, said that when he sees somebody on the street who is poor he wants to give them money or food. The other children who before had made fun of Yosef's accent, agreed with him and respected him.
"Yes," I said, "It is wrong for anybody to be poor in 1795 or now." It is a huge thing for children to feel what Aesthetic Realism is the first to show: that words in a book are the world able to get within you. And seeing this opposes powerfully their desire to make less of people standing for that world different from themselves, which is prejudice.
[Click here for Part 2]
It is a beautiful fact that through the Aesthetic Realism teaching method, children learn to read with eagerness and real pleasure — including many who have been brutalized by an economic system that is contemptuous of their needs and so unjust to them.
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