Dear Unknown Friends:
We interrupt our serialization of the lecture Ownership, Strikes, Unions, by Eli Siegel, to publish an article by Leila Rosen about the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method. Ms. Rosen, an English teacher at Norman Thomas High School in Manhattan, was chosen last year by the New York State English Council as one of the 1998 Educators of Excellence. An article of hers appears in the Fall '98 issue of the Council's journal, The English Record. The article by her that we print here was first heard at a public seminar at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation titled "Through the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method—Students Choose Knowing the World, Not Fighting with It!"
The success of this method is a beautiful, documented fact. For over two decades, in the midst of an ever-intensifying "crisis in education," teachers using the Aesthetic Realism method in New York City public school classrooms have been accomplishing what America is desperate for. Because of its infinitely kind logic, students want to learn and do learn the subjects in the curriculum, from science to reading, math to history. What is more, they come really to care for knowledge. And this includes children who had once seemed unable to learn. It includes children with all the cards stacked horribly against them by our profit economy, who have been deeply lacerated by the poverty they have been made to endure, and by the humiliations and terrors that accompany poverty. Through the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method too, students of different races and ethnic backgrounds respect and want to strengthen each other instead of wanting to hurt and humiliate each other!
And increasingly, the Aesthetic Realism Method is becoming known: through workshops at professional conferences and public schools, conducted by teachers who use it; and through teachers' articles about its beautiful, historic results, published in professional journals.
Eli Siegel was the philosopher to explain that there are two desires constantly at war in every person, whether senator or kindergarten student. "Man's deepest desire, his largest desire," he wrote, "is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis" (Self and World, Definition Press, p. 1). And from that desire in humanity comes education itself: "The purpose of education," he showed, "is to like the world." But we have another huge desire: to have contempt—toget an "addition to self through the lessening of something else." Mr. Siegel showed that contempt, which is so very ordinary, is the source, the beginning, of every human ugliness and cruelty—including racism and war—and that contempt is also the thing in us which weakens our own mind.
Contempt, he explained, is the chief cause of learning difficulties. And a child, confused and buffeted by the things he meets, can unconsciously go for the diminishing and aloofness that contempt provides. "Contempt," Mr. Siegel writes, "is our soothing revenge for a world not sufficiently interested, as we see it, in what we are hoping for" (Self and World, p. 10).
Meanwhile, in various ways all through history, the contempt of persons with power has interfered gigantically with education. I mention three ways.
1) The more a nation's government is tied up with profit—with making sure some few persons get rich at the expense of others—the less that government wants its citizens to be well educated. The persons who have wanted to own the wealth of a nation have wanted others not to know much, so as not to be able to question and oppose them. A large test of a government's respect or contempt for people is how important it makes education, how much it really wants to have children, all children, in school and learning.
2) It was contempt that made for segregation. It was the contempt of white Southerners that said, "Black children aren't good enough to be in the same schools as our children"—and enforced this filthy lie as law.
3) And contempt is what came to the truly crazy and ugly idea that profit should be made from children's need to learn. The existence of public education arose from respect for people: the seeing that knowledge is a human right, and that the means to it, the schools, should belong to everybody. The effort to make education more "private," to undo public education by withholding appropriate funds for it, is monumental contempt.
The basis of the Aesthetic Realism teaching method is this great principle, stated by Mr. Siegel: "The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites." And here, now, are two poems by him. Both, in their brevity, are richly musical. In the first, grammar is at once intimate and sweetly wide: romantic. The second is about a way people are untrue to themselves, and Mr. Siegel describes it with the courageous critical clearness and tremendous compassion that were always one in him.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
They Chose Knowing
By Leila Rosen
Through the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method, students' boredom, failure, desire to fight with people and the world change to real, solid learning—and the pleasure and pride that come with it! Eli Siegel explained that the purpose of education is "to like the world through knowing it," and that the world can be liked because it has a permanent, beautiful structure: the oneness of opposites. I have seen the Aesthetic Realism method work magnificently in my high school English classes for 18 years. I'll tell now about one lesson I taught my 9th grade students at Norman Thomas High School.
Many of these young people come from neighborhoods that are dangerous. Many know people who have been shot. Their families are ravaged by our brutal economy. These 13- to 15-year-olds had, without knowing it, used what they had met to feel, "The world is going to hurt you if you let it. Better fight it or keep it out," and this feeling affected how they saw words. In TRO 982, Ellen Reiss explains:
A person will engage in a warfare with words... because that person is in a steep fight about how to see the world itself....Every word happens to be...an honoring of an aspect of the world, through naming it, and through millions of people agreeing for centuries on that name.
The students in this class had been selected because of their very low scores on standardized reading and writing tests and low grades in language arts classes. I wanted very much to teach them, because I knew the Aesthetic Realism Method could show them that words stand for a world they can like, which they would want increasingly to take into their minds.
Early in the term they often mocked each other, including with ethnic insults, and some talked continually during a lesson. Miguel Vargas* said disgustedly, "I hate books. I hate reading." He went from frantic activity and talking loudly to sinking down, his head on his desk. Melinda Suarez sat with a vacant smile, rarely spoke, and wouldn't do any work unless I stood right next to her. For some of the students, writing anything seemed painful, nearly impossible. When they said they wanted to do better, I told them I respected this very much and would do everything I could to encourage them.
Suffixes: Sameness and Change
I wanted them to see that English words have a logic that can be counted on. I told them many words have what is called a root, which remains the same as different suffixes—groups of letters added to the end—change that word. I put two words on the board—create; creative—and asked, "What's the difference between them?" Eneida said, "One has -ive, but they mean the same thing." "Can you use them exactly the same way in a sentence?" I asked. She didn't think so, but couldn't say why. I wrote on the board, "The students in the dance class like to creative new dance steps." "No! Ugh!" they shouted. When I asked how we could change it to make it more exact, they said, "Write create." As I wrote "... to create new dance steps," there was an audible sigh of relief: it fit. The reason is in what Shu Lan said: "We needed a verb."
"When we added -ive," I asked, "was a new possibility brought out of create?" "Yes," they said; and to illustrate, Eneida gave the sentence "The dance step was very creative." I explained that the word is now an adjective, which is used to describe something. Armando, who loves to draw, kept looking at the word. Then he said aloud, "Creativity—that's what I have!" I told them that -ive and -ity are called form-changing suffixes. And the class began to see that each suffix did something different and each was needed to bring out the full possibility of the word.
"Is this what we want to have happen to us," I asked: "that when we meet something new, it changes us, adds to us, enables us to be in new relations to the world, having us be more the people we want to be?" Their seeing this was a combating of the deep feeling my students had that new things would not enable them to be more themselves, but would lessen them, and that they had to keep those things away. I was very moved to see how much they wanted to give examples of where new experiences added to them.
Peter said excitedly, "Baseball! I didn't like it. But then I played one day with my friends and I found out how much fun it is!" Glenda said she felt she was more herself through meeting her friend Alma: "I can tell her what I feel." Armando said his pet ferret has added to him: "I like to take care of him. It made me more responsible." Then he proudly said, using the suffix we had just learned, "I have more responsibility!"
I asked, "Can we add just any suffix to any word? Suppose I wanted to add the suffix -ment to create to make a noun." They tried it out: "Createment." "That's not a word," said Marco definitely. And I said we can ask why people felt creativity should stick as a word, while createment didn't make it. There was a sense of wonder as we tried other combinations. Some made words; others didn't. We saw that we need to add suffixes in a way that is fair and exact; otherwise, instead of adding new meaning, we take away meaning or distort it. "Is that what happens in life too?" I asked. "Can we add something to ourselves that changes us in a bad way, brings out possibilities that aren't good?" "Yeah—drugs," said Eneida. "Hanging with a gang," said Glenda. Also, "dissing people"—which we saw always comes from making yourself big by making other people look stupid.
I am tremendously grateful to have learned about my own desire to add to myself by looking down on people, including my students—which, had it not been criticized, would have made it impossible for me to teach the classes I now do. Early in my teaching, I said in an Aesthetic Realism class that some of my students were clearly angry with me and I thought it had to do with the way I spoke. Chairman of Education Ellen Reiss asked me, "Do you think superiority can be in your words and also in your expression? Your students are objecting. They feel, Teachers have contempt too and they're not honest about it!"
I saw that I had been insufferably patronizing and had given my students the impression I was doing them an enormous favor imparting my vast knowledge to them. I would alternately be cool during a lesson, then admonish them in a sanctimonious way about how they were disrespectful. The criticism I heard made me a better teacher immediately. And my students were grateful!
They Change—& Are More Themselves
Danny Stokes is a person who had a very hard time writing a clear sentence and changed the spelling of even the most common words. He would become suddenly distracted and unable to sit still—slamming shut a dictionary in which he couldn't find a word, getting up to throw out a piece of paper or get a drink of water, playing with an electronic pet. Through seeing that something happening to a word could make it stronger, freer, more itself, he was better able to concentrate. He said deeply, "It's really interesting. You can learn a lot about words."
The other students were changing too. "I liked learning about suffixes," said Glenda, who earlier had talked during lessons. She was listening now, and kinder encouraging Melinda Suarez, who had been too quiet, to take part in lessons. Peter said, "This is the first time I understand what adjectives, nouns, and verbs are. I was so confused about that. I never thought I would get it!" Miguel, who had earlier said he hated books, is reading, and liking it; and he said, "I'm writing better now." He is, in complete sentences!
The fact that through the Aesthetic Realism method, students who were tremendously at risk are learning, reading, are kinder—and want to know the world rather than fight it—is the most urgent news for American education!