NOTE: In this seminar, teachers showed that the way to have children really excited about learning and successful is through these principles stated by Eli Siegel:
1) "The purpose of education is to like the world" (Self and World, Definition Press).
2) Contempt—"the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it"—is the greatest enemy to education.
I am a teacher in East Harlem, one of the poorest school districts in New York City. My students are horribly affected by the brutality of our unfair profit economy, which denies them and their families the basic necessities of life, including their right to good food, decent housing, and adequate clothes to wear. Many live in crowded, rundown, sometimes rat-infested buildings without sufficient heat and adequate plumbing. They are vividly aware of the violence which surrounds them as they hear loud arguments in the hallways or gun shots at night. They see their parents terrified about losing their homes, unable to afford the extra notebook he or she needs for school, money for a school trip, or toys they want and see advertised on television. Some of my students’ lives have been cruelly disrupted as they have had to move many times, or worse, have been in and out of shelters for the homeless.
I saw that because of what they had been forced to endure so early in their young lives, the six-year-old first grade students in the class I tell about now were angry and confused, and I knew that only Aesthetic Realism explains the fierce debate in them between hoping to like the world, see meaning in it, and disliking the world, wanting to have contempt for it. Many of my students already unconsciously felt that the way to take care of themselves in a messy, unfriendly world was to protect themselves by retaliating against it, or by not letting it affect them too deeply.
For example, Judy withdrew into a world she felt was better than the one around her. When the rest of the class gathered in the front of the classroom, she remained at her desk, tore paper into little pieces and talked to each piece of paper. Mark laughed victoriously when someone made a mistake and scornfully insulted other children, calling them ugly and stupid if they did well. Aesthetic Realism kindly and definitively explains that both of these ways of meeting the world are contempt, the "disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world." I knew it was this contempt that stifled my students’ true intelligence, and I knew how it could change!
Eli Siegel, the founder of Aesthetic Realism, explained what the purpose of education is: to like the world through knowing it. And he gave educators the logical basis upon which this purpose can come to life in every classroom, enabling both students and teachers to learn enthusiastically and to become truly intelligent. Mr. Siegel stated, "The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites."
In sentences I am so grateful for in Self and World, Mr. Siegel writes about the deepest hope in every child:
Children are really desperate to see the world as pleasing; and their desperateness is part of a wise hope. The meaning of learning is intensely strong in childhood. The desire for order is intensely strong. The desire to see the world as good and beautiful is intensely strong. But of course children, like all beings, are changeable by what they meet. They have possibilities which find mighty pervasive opposition. The character of this pervasive opposition it is our job to know.
In the first two months of school, my students went from being passive and looking dazed to becoming so restless they were unable to listen even for short periods of time. I was concerned by their general slowness of response, their need for frequent repetition, and inability to retain what they learned. I knew that unless they changed their attitude to the world, they would not be able to learn to read.
Eli Siegel explained what true intelligence is. In his landmark definition, he wrote, "Intelligence is the ability of a self to become at one with the new." I wanted to show my students how every subject in the curriculum is an opportunity to do what we were born to do— to see meaning in the world and like it more because it has a beautiful structure, the oneness of opposites. And these young children needed to see that there is a difference between the way the world is made—its structure as shown in every subject—and how the world is unjustly run because of our profit economy. This was the one effective means to oppose the mind-dulling effect of contempt.
Reading: Welcoming Our Relation to the World
One of the most important new subjects children must learn in first grade is how to read. Reading is a great and proud accomplishment for every child, but words and letters on a page can seem fearfully strange to children because they see them as coming from an unfriendly world that doesn’t make sense.
The first day I told the children what I learned from Aesthetic Realism: the purpose of education is to like the world through knowing it. And when we want to shut the world out, or make fun of someone, or are mean to a person, we are having contempt, and this hurts our minds. We will see through reading we can have new, big feelings about the world and people we hope to have, and we can learn about ourselves. As you learn to read this year, the world will come inside your minds in new ways and your minds will become bigger and stronger.
First, in the story The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister, we learned about the feelings of a creature who seems so different from us, but who is like us, too. And through the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method, and questions I was able to ask these worried and hopeful six-year-olds about the opposites of separate and together, selfishness and generosity, we saw the story’s relevance to ourselves, and also the exciting ethical meaning in it—and they loved it!
In the beginning the Rainbow Fish is aloof from the other fish who call to him:
"Come on Rainbow Fish...Come and play with us...." But the Rainbow Fish would just glide past, proud and silent, letting his scales shimmer.
I said, "The Rainbow Fish is beautiful on the outside, but does he have beautiful thoughts about the other fishes on the inside?" "No, he doesn’t like them," said Jeffrey. "Does he use his beautiful scales to be kind to the other fishes or to feel he’s better than they are and has a right to look down on them?" "He thinks he’s better!" Eddy said adamantly. "Do you think the Rainbow Fish is trying to be fair to the world or he is trying to have contempt?" "Oooh that’s contempt," said Wanda.
A little blue fish asks the Rainbow Fish for one of his scales, but the Rainbow Fish gets very angry and tells the little fish in no uncertain terms to stay away from him. So the little fish and all his friends decide to stay away. Now that the Rainbow Fish has his wish, he is sad and lonely and says, "I am really beautiful. Why doesn’t anybody like me?" He goes to the wise octopus, and she advises him to give a glittering scale to each of the fish and says, "You will discover how to be happy."
Meanwhile, the little blue fish has not given up on the Rainbow Fish. He swims back and says, "Rainbow Fish, please, don’t be angry. I just want one little scale." Pfister writes, "The Rainbow Fish wavered." And then he "carefully pulled out the smallest scale and gave it to the little fish....A rather peculiar feeling came over the Rainbow Fish. For a long time he watched the little blue fish swim back and forth with his new scale glittering in the water."
I asked the children, "Did the Rainbow Fish feel that in giving a scale to the blue fish, he had a good effect on him?" Maria said, "Yes, the blue fish is happy. He’s dancing in the water." "Did having a good effect on the blue fish make the Rainbow Fish proud?" The story continues:
The more he gave away, the more delighted he became. When the water around him filled with glimmering scales, he at last felt at home among the other fish.
I asked the children, "So in giving up what he used to feel he was better than the other fish, his glittering scales, was the Rainbow Fish able to like the world more, to fit better with it?" "Yes, he’s happy now he has friends," said Maria. I asked, "How are we going to fit with the world—by keeping away from it or by wanting to know it and welcome it?" "I want to learn about the world all the time," Nellie said.
I was moved as I saw the children’s thoughtful faces at the end of this story. They all agreed that the Rainbow Fish was more beautiful when it shared its scales. "Did you like this story?" I asked. They shouted in unison, "YES!!" "Did it make your mind bigger?" "YES!!" and then there were spontaneous shouts "Read it again, read it again!"