Education: What For?
By Lois Mason
The question “Education: What For?” is immediate and pressing. And Aesthetic Realism gives the answer: to like the world through knowing it. “Education,” Eli Siegel explained, “can be defined as that which brings out from yourself what is best for you to be brought out, and what is best for everything” (TRO 599). This combination of what is best for you and what is best for everything is part of the aesthetics of education and its ethics.
As a student, I had large emotions in history classes, yet I did not see how studying history was useful. I was to learn from Aesthetic Realism that the study of history made me feel more complete because through it I was caring more for the world. In sentences I love, Mr. Siegel writes:
History is about every single thing. History aims at the grand, inconceivable inclusiveness of existence. History is therefore about the development of shirts, the attitudes to idols, transactions on South American savannahs, and about history itself. History should include dead infants and disappointed maiden ladies. It should include the possible boredom of the year 412, and the excitement of the year 1649. Whatever has been is history’s field. [TRO 297]
When I became a teacher, the opposites of point and relation, sweetness and severity, hardness and softness, aloofness and warmth, which had fought in me all my life, fought in me as I was in the classroom. I saw myself as essentially different from and better than the young people I taught. My students felt patronized and insulted. There were discipline problems and students often cut my class.
What I was hoping for, and why I suffered, are in this Aesthetic Realism explanation: “Good will...is an aesthetic thing: the ability to be just to oneself, and to all— near and far— that is not oneself....If we do not have good will, a great need of ours is despised” (TRO 1000). To like the world and to have good will for the people and things in it are inseparable. And in Aesthetic Realism consultations I learned about that in me which was against having good will: my hope to have contempt— be important by making less of everything else. Aesthetic Realism brought out the best in me.
I changed as a person and teacher. I was more interested in other people, in my students. I felt warmer. I was able to encourage my students to know history through showing it was a means to like the world. The atmosphere in my classroom changed. There was less anger; attendance was more regular. Through the opposites in a particular historic event, both the students and I were learning about the world and ourselves.
I attended many classes conducted by Eli Siegel, and as I heard him talk about physics, poetry, the questions of an individual, I saw in him the might, kindness, and exactitude of good will.
Opposites in an American President
I’ll tell of a lesson I taught this year to 11th and 12th graders at Seward Park High School on New York’s Lower East Side. It was about Andrew Jackson. The seventh president of the United States, Jackson served two terms, from 1829 to 1837. In large ways, his presidency shows good will as tough, having power, and this, I felt, would encourage my students to see good will as practical for their own lives. “Nations,” Mr. Siegel writes,
are like high school girls or boys. The only time they will stop misbehaving or having ill will for each other is when they see clearly that good will pays them and ill will doesn’t. And the only way to see clearly that good will is good for oneself, is to see it as the tempered oneness of criticism and caress, of exactness and devotion. [TRO 121]
I believe Jackson at his best illustrates this. The terrible mistake he made, however, was his cruel way of dealing with the Indian tribes: there the “tempered oneness of criticism and caress” was definitely not present.
First we looked at descriptions of Jackson from the textbook Exploring Our Nation’s History, by Sidney Schwartz and John R. O'Connor, and at this representative statement from the Columbia Encyclopedia: “Although he was known as a frontiersman, Jackson was personally dignified, courteous and gentlemanly.”
I asked the class, “What opposites does this statement show Jackson as putting together?” The students mentioned wildness and dignity, the frontier and civilization. These were the same opposites, I pointed out, that America was trying to make sense of then. America in 1828 included the frontier of the West and the cultivated cities of the Northeast. Jackson, my students were seeing, brought together in one man the qualities of America. And they saw with surprise that they had these opposites in common with America: they were trying to put together wildness and dignity too!
Next, we studied an event in Jackson’s presidency. In 1828 Congress had placed a tariff on imported goods, which only South Carolina refused to pay. That state threatened to secede rather than abide by the tariff law, which it declared null and void. Jackson had been a strong supporter of states' rights, but he saw that if South Carolina were allowed to have its way over the laws of the federal government, the whole country would be weaker. He prepared to send 50,000 troops into South Carolina to insure the state’s compliance with federal law.
The class was seeing that this was an instance of good will, the oneness of “exactness and devotion,” “criticism and caress.” Jackson’s toughness was out of care for America and to protect her strength. If he had been soft on South Carolina, any state could have taken the right to ignore federal law. Because he wanted to do what would be good for the whole nation, he changed his mind about states' rights. He was taking care of each individual state by taking care of the Union. Through Andrew Jackson, my students saw good will as more practical for themselves.
There Was Injustice Too
In this class we also discussed Jackson’s treatment of the Indian tribes who lived east of the Mississippi. He wanted to make their land available to settlers, and our textbook describes what happened:
During the next few years he persuaded or forced almost a hundred tribes...to move to the western side of the Mississippi. They suffered greatly as a result.
One instance was the removal of the Cherokee tribe from the state of Georgia. The Supreme Court upheld the Cherokees’ right to their Georgia land, but Jackson refused to protect them. The westward migration of the Cherokees has come to be called “the Trail of Tears,” because many thousands died from the hardships they suffered.
The class was very stirred. They’d had new respect for an American president—and he had done this! Some students looked disappointed; some angry. Some wanted to defend Jackson. “That’s not good will,” said one student. “Jackson didn’t care what happened to them,” added another. I said, “Being fair to Andrew Jackson means seeing him as clearly as we can: he has both good and evil; he is both kind and cruel.” “Do you think,” I asked, “ Jackson saw the Indians as more the same as, or more different from, himself?” More different, the class agreed.
In James and the Children, Mr. Siegel writes—and I believe it explains Jackson’s treatment of the Indians—“As soon as you don’t want to see another person as having the fulness that you have, you can rob that person, hurt that person, kill that person.”
Money and Good Will
The last discussion in this class was about the Bank of the United States, created under a charter that lasted until 1836. It was the bank in which the US government deposited its money, and was owned not by the government but by a group of wealthy investors on the Atlantic coast and in Europe. Jackson was passionately against the power of this bank. In our text, Schwartz and O’Connor write:
He said it was undemocratic “money power.” It gave a few hundred men, the owners of its stock, power over the entire nation. It was especially unfair to the South and West. The people from these sections had borrowed large sums from the bank. Every year they had to pay millions of dollars in interest to the rich easterners who owned it.
Jackson, the class saw, was against the bank for essentially the same reason he’d been against South Carolina’s attempt to nullify federal law: it took care of the few at the expense of the many.
In 1832, Henry Clay introduced a bill to renew the Bank’s charter, four years early. This was shortly before Jackson was to run for a second term. The bill passed both houses of Congress, and Jackson knew that if he vetoed it he would lose many votes. He knew also that the money power of the United States would work to have his opponent, Henry Clay, elected. Jackson vetoed the bill. He said indignantly, “Many of our rich men...have besought us to make them richer by acts of Congress.” The result of the 1832 election—with Clay heavily supported by the owners of the Bank of the United States—was an overwhelming victory for Jackson!
What Students Bring Out of Each Other
As this term is ending, I see dramatic changes in my students. Young men and women who seldom came to class, refused to do homework, kept their heads on the desk for most of the period, now come to class regularly, do homework, participate in class discussions. They’re seeing that the facts of American history can, through the opposites, teach them who they are and what they want for themselves. One result is: they’re excited by those facts and learn them successfully. Another result is: what the students bring out of each other is changing.
Frankie Ayala and Jorge Rivera (not their real names) are in my sixth period class. They have cut classes together, made fun of other students together, hung out in front of the school together. They are like many young men in American high schools.
Earlier this term they both went to court because they’d been in front of the school, playing a radio and lying on cars with their friends, when the police came by. They refused to move, and the police arrested them. Clearly, what they were bringing out of each other was neither best for themselves nor best for everything else. When they told me about what had happened they were complaining about how unfair the police had been. “Maybe they were,” I said, “but what about your own unfairness? You felt important out there blasting your radio, lying on someone else’s car, defying the police. How do you feel now?” They didn’t answer me, but they looked ashamed.
Several weeks later I noticed they were both absent again. Shortly after the lesson began they burst into the room and put on my desk call slips from the public library. After class they explained: “We did what you told us: we went to the library and worked on our term paper. We brought these back. We didn’t want you to think we were cutting.” The day before Christmas vacation they proudly handed in their term projects. This is so different from what had gone on between them before. As a result of learning history through the Aesthetic Realism method, they increasingly wanted to bring out of each other what is best for themselves and best for everything.
I hope teachers everywhere will be able to learn what I learned from Aesthetic Realism, and I’m glad I can use my life to have this be.