The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

America's Schoolchildren Need Aesthetic Realism!

Dear Unknown Friends:

I love the sentences by Eli Siegel I am about to quote. They are true. They are great. And they also contain the answer to the well-known agony of non-learning and anger in America's schools:

Things have in common a oneness of a series of opposites....Every thing, let alone every person, says something about us, explains ourselves. The structure of what thing cannot illuminate our own structure? Does not a sheet of paper in its wideness and narrowness bring some essential likeness to us, to ourselves?...Education, principally, is the pleasant finding out of how things can help us know who we are as we see them. [“Aesthetic Realism: Some Central Notions”]

In turbulent New York City, in the classrooms where teachers use the Aesthetic Realism teaching method, children are successfully learning. This is because they are seeing how the structure of each thing studied illuminates [their] own structure, brings some essential likeness to” their very selves, helps them find out who they are under their own skins. And children are seeing how every subject shows that this world—which can so confuse them—has sense after all: it is the oneness of opposites.

The eager learning by children who had seemed unable to learn, their increased kindness and new care for the world—all because of Aesthetic Realism—is a tremendous, historic, beautiful fact. It is described by New York City teacher Lori Colavito in this issue of TRO. Her paper was part of a public seminar at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in May. The second poem by Eli Siegel printed here is humorous and serious. Do abstract shapes have a valuable message for us that a child studying geometry can see?

Why do we say such things as I got a new angle on life or Tell it to me straightor I'll do it fair and square? Are our most intimate feelings told of by the outside world—including that seemingly cool world of geometry? The answer is yes, and the joy of that answer is in this poem.

The first poem is about this Aesthetic Realism principle, which America's children and adults are thirsty to know: Whether we like a thing or don't, whether it is lovely or ugly—we can see it so fairly, that we are proud. We will be proud if we use anything to see how the world itself is made.

The music of these poems, sure and tender, stands for the utterly kind honesty of Eli Siegel.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Two Poems by Eli Siegel

The Situation

Everything exists for pride;

There's nothing in the world beside.

One can find it in a yawn;

Likewise in a Tuesday dawn.

See pride in a fingernail;

In a slow and distant wail.

There's pride in a mean distress,

And in the absence of a Yes.

Praise of the Inner Meaning of
Geometrical Forms

The circle seems so very still,

A triangle a little ill.

The square is that, and oh, so sure.

The line is there, and oh, so pure.

Ellipses set all things agog,

They're made of circle and of log.

An oblong straightens matters out,

Ellipses can no longer pout.

Parallelopipeds—those are dears,

You can't see one and be in tears.

A hexagon's a friendly thing,

The angles all go ting-a-ling.

If you adore a polygon,

It's never dark but always dawn.

A rectangle makes all things right,

It is a true and and lively sight.

So curves and straight lines, all a-heap

Just think of them, your soul will leap.


They Now Want to Learn!

By Lori Colavito

I want every educator, every person, to know that Eli Siegel is education's best friend. He stated: The purpose of all education is to like the world through knowing it.” And Mr. Siegel scientifically explained that the world can truly be liked because it is made well—it has an aesthetic structure. He wrote: The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” I love Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism for enabling me to be deeply useful to the third grade children I teach at PS 59 [M].

I have learned that children, like adults, are in great danger of using situations they have met to have contempt for the world. Aesthetic Realism explains that the greatest interference to learning is this contempt, which Mr. Siegel described as a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not [one]self. The children I teach are directly and indirectly affected by racism, homelessness, unemployment—for instance, by seeing a father lose a job three times in seven months, or the despair of a single mother who has to rent out a room in her apartment because she cannot afford the whole rent on her salary.

In An Aesthetic Realism Manifesto about Education, the consultants of All For Education describe what children and teachers need to know:

The one way to like the world—a world that has wars, economic injustice, and parents that confuse us—is through seeing that the world has an aesthetic structure: it is a oneness of opposites, like difference and sameness, freedom and order, motion and rest, manyness and oneness. Further, these opposites are in us all the time, and we are trying to make sense of them, see them as one.

When I met my class last September, some children were excited to learn, while others were listless and seemed not to care about anything, putting their heads on the desks and sometimes falling asleep. Most of the time during lessons, the children hardly listened to one another or me. Some boys would make paper guns and pretend to shoot each other across the room, and paper airplanes were in flight. Often, the children shouted shut up and stupid to one another. During lunch, there were hitting and fights.

Getting Back at the World

One student, Tim Lorenzo,* who is in the midst of being placed in a foster home and is in and out of family court, had an anger that was intense. During lessons, he would rearrange books in the bookshelves, then go to the coat closet, put on his coat, and walk around the room. Early in October, I expressed my concern about the safety of other children in the class to Tim's school-based counselor because of the violent way Tim threatened them. Through my study of Aesthetic Realism, I knew that Tim was getting back at the world he saw as unkind to him. I also knew that the only thing powerful enough to oppose his despair and anger was for him honestly to feel the world does make sense.

I am very grateful that I was able to ask Tim this tremendously kind and important question asked by Eli Siegel: Is this true: No matter how much of a case one has against the world—its unkindness, its disorder, its ugliness, its meaninglessness—one has to do all one can to like it or one will weaken oneself? At first, Tim didn't understand the question; but as we talked, he saw what it meant and said quite sadly, Oh, yes. I feel like I've been hurt 250,000 times... at least. I asked him what he does with this hurt, and Tim said, I've got a few tricks up my sleeve, and when I need to I use them.

This conversation was a turning point for Tim Lorenzo, because, through what Mr. Siegel asked, he felt for the first time someone was trying to understand him; and he began to see he didn't like himself for getting revenge on the world. In fact, he began to care for things more. He saw opposites in things and in himself.

During a science lesson m which we classified seashells, Tim volunteered to glue together a shell which had fallen off a table. Upon successfully fixing it, he proudly showed it to me. I asked him, Did you like repairing the shell, making it whole again? Tim answered, Yes, and thoughtfully continued, I just noticed, Mrs. Colavito, this seashell puts together part and whole. I like fixing things, especially beautiful things like seashells.

Beginning and End in Geometry

In December, as the children were being introduced to geometry, I quoted this description of the world, by Eli Siegel: the world is what begins where your finger tips end” (Self and World, pp. 370-1). The opposites of beginning and end, which are in this description, are opposites we learned about as we defined a point, line, ray, and line segment. A child can feel there is no end to the confusion he or she has met. At the same time she can also feel, as I did, that she is the center of everyone's attention, that the world begins and ends with her. Either situation will have her feel lonely, bored, and empty.

I put a point on the blackboard and defined it as an exact location in space which begins and ends in the same place. A point, I explained, is the beginning thing needed to make every shape in the world. Next, I put a straight line on the board and explained that a line goes on forever in both directions; it has no beginning or end.

I put a ray on the board and explained that a ray is a line that has a definite beginning but no end: it goes on forever m one direction. The children were excited to see how a ray is like both a point and a line. I then drew a line segment and showed how it has a definite beginning and a definite end.

I asked the class what pair of opposites these different descriptions have in common. Robin Coleman carefully observed the board and said with surprise, They all have beginning and end. I then asked what other things put together beginning and end. Diana Franco said, A sentence. It begins with a capital letter and ends with a period. William Blackman added that a flower begins with a seed—and keeps growing. Ramona Wilson said, A year. It begins with January and ends in December.

The class was excited as we saw that every day, hour, minute, second each has a beginning and end. Yet when you think of a second, it seems, many children said, like a point. The class was amazed to see how time as in a second, can be exact like a point, and at the same time go on infinitely, like a line.

Next I asked, Are we like a point, ray, line, and line segment in any way? Steven Saunders said, Our life is like a line segment: we have a definite beginning and a definite end. Bobby Reynolds then said, We can continue like a line, by knowing a lot about the world. Mike Reynoso said in reply, I wouldn't want to be a line. You couldn't sleep; you'd always be on the move! The whole class laughed, trying to imagine this. I asked Mike, Would you like to be a point, and stay just in one place? No, he said. Then I asked,Do you want to be like both—a point at rest and a line in motion going out to the world? Linda Lopez shouted with excitement,I want to be both! Other children were nodding and raising their hands in agreement. I told them we are already both: we are one person, exact in space, like a point, and we have thoughts, which are like lines and go out to the world. The children loved this lesson, and their attention was riveted.

Respect Represents Them

Through the Aesthetic Realism teaching method, the students in class 3-1 more and more want their thought to go out to the world and have it become part of them. This shows in many ways—from the way they come in in the morning and enthusiastically check Our plan for today” while they unpack their bookbags, to the thoughtful questions they ask during lessons, as they try to see how different things in the world are related through the opposites.

There are no more paper guns, or airplanes flying. They want to learn! The children are also much kinder to each other. Instead of so much name-calling, I now hear the children ask one another, Are you having respect? During a science lesson in which the children learned how the earthworm fertilizes the soil and helps plants grow, Margarita Sanchez said, My cousin and I kill slugs when we go home to the Philippines during the summer. Now, I'll never do it again. Tim Lorenzo added, I’ll never step on a worm again. We owe them! They helped make the world and us. Without them, we couldn't have fruit like apples and oranges.

And one day in January, on the way upstairs from lunch, he said excitedly, I want to go upstairs and learn. I can’t wait to learn about the earth, and math. I want to do something I can be proud of. I no longer worry that Tim's anger will be hurtful to other children. These children are seeing that respect, not contempt, represents them.

I am grateful without limit to Aesthetic Realism for the pride and pleasure I have as a teacher. I love my job. This is what all teachers can feel through the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method.

*The students' names have been changed.