The Answer to Fury & Failure
By Christopher Balchin
Young people in New York City are up against a great deal. They go to school not feeling safe, worried about family members who can't find work. Some of them live in dangerous, vermin-infested buildings, amidst a failed economy that offers them no future and which they hear politicians and the media lying about. Yet after 23 years of teaching in New York City schools, I know that even in the most difficult circumstances—which should not exist—learning succeeds when the Aesthetic Realism teaching method is the basis.
Every person who wants education to succeed needs to know what Aesthetic Realism explains: "The purpose of education is to like the world through knowing it." And learning about a subject in the curriculum through the opposites satisfies the deepest hope of a student: to see the world as honestly likable.
I'll tell about two lessons in global history that I taught to a Special Education class at Norman Thomas High School . It makes me furious that these students have to endure so much. Their worry and anger don't get into the statistics, but the effect on learning is devastating. "An Aesthetic Realism Manifesto about Education" explains:
Behind every "learning difficulty" is the feeling that the world cannot be liked. If a child sees the world as an enemy, why should he take inside him letters, equations, coming from that world; why should he give himself to the world in the form of writing? [TRO 703]
An economy in which your mother is laid off after 15 years' hard work, and in which you have to work long hours after school to help your family while some people have millions of dollars from birth, can have a young person feel the world is a cruel mess and not worthy of getting inside him or her. At least one of my students was so hungry that by 8th period he couldn't concentrate. So I started doing what many teachers do: bringing fruit to school for students to take if they wanted to.
These young people were in Special Education for a variety of reasons. There was Michael Rosario,* a young man of 16 who could understand almost nothing of a 5th grade reading level history textbook we used in this high school class. Shaniqua could read very well; she was there for throwing chairs and attacking a teacher. Louis couldn't stop moving and told me later that he was hyper and on Ritalin. Smiling, he said matter-of-factly but sadly that he was crazy. He smiled every time he spoke, whatever he was saying. Other students made fun of him. Meanwhile, he and Jorge, who could hardly read, together made fun of another student who was very separate.
Felix, aged 15, sat silent and stony-faced. His mother was very worried about him, she said, because he was cruel to their kitten, which he would hold up against the wall as though he were a policeman arresting a dangerous suspect. He was also verbally abusive with his mother. Yvonne said with relish that she was going to be the first woman president, and that all the boys would be put to work picking up garbage. Students would tell each other they "belong in Bellevue." Several had spent time in a juvenile detention center.
They all had in common a tremendous anger at the way they were seen by adults, including teachers and administrators. Had I not been studying the Aesthetic Realism teaching method, I likely would have taken what they showed me as being the whole story and would have given up on them.
I've learned that the way to combat the contempt which has a student mock another or be unable to take in knowledge, is to show that reality itself has a structure that is sensible, even beautiful: the oneness of opposites. And so I would be showing that global history is a study of sameness and change, justice and selfishness, and that through these opposites, my students had a deep and large relation to people and events of the past. Seeing this, they became excited about the subject, and learned it successfully.
Sameness & Change in Evolution
Towards the start of the year, we studied evolution. As the class looked at a slide showing five steps in the development of hominids, we saw that we were looking at sameness and change through millions of years. We saw that as the heavy-boned jaws and brows which were used for protection and aggression receded, the parts of the face used for perception and expression became predominant. As our forefathers and -mothers came to walk upright, their hands became free, enabling them to hold tools, carry objects; and the eyes gained a wider range of vision; the brain capacity grew.
I asked: What do you think was the purpose for these evolutionary changes? As we discussed this, we began to see that each change made it possible for living beings to be in a richer, more efficient relation with the outside world.
I asked: Do you think every moment we are both changing and staying the same? They liked this question. Through the Aesthetic Realism teaching method, they saw that the changes that took place throughout the centuries show that a human being evolved in order to be able to take in the outside world more richly—and that this was their deepest desire! These students had had such a reluctance to be deeply affected by anything, but this they were interested in. They had more wonder, and more respect for each other and the possibilities of their own minds. Already the atmosphere in the classroom was less combative and mocking.
The Fight in the Reformation & Ourselves
Later in the term we studied the Reformation, a very difficult and often dreaded part of the curriculum. We learned that the Reformation was a religious revolt against the Catholic Church as it existed in the 16th century. It is now agreed by historians, including Catholic theologians, that, as the New Catholic Encyclopedia states, this was a time of continued "abuse and corruption" in the Church, and "call for reform became more insistent" (2nd ed., 2003). I asked my students to think about whether this struggle corresponds to a battle within every person: between selfishness and justice.
Two people of the 16th century represent opposite sides in the struggle. I told the class that we would ask: What was important to each man? What were his priorities in life? We read this from Allyn and Bacon's The Age of Western Expansion:
Giovanni de Medici...was used to wealth and luxury. He was far more interested in riches than in religion. Even so, Giovanni was elected pope. He took the name Leo X. "God has given us the papacy," he said. "Let us enjoy it." He set out to do just that.
I asked the students, "What do you think of this description?" Felix, who had been so silent and sullen, asked, "Isn't the Pope supposed to give to the poor?" Louis said, without his continual smile, "He should be helping people. He shouldn't be interested in riches if he's the Pope." Other students agreed with him, saying Leo X was more interested in himself than in other people and thought "he was all that." They said he was greedy.
"What does this have to do with everyday life?" I asked. "In what ways are people greedy?" "Money and toys," Shaniqua said. To the question "What would it mean to be greedy in a classroom?" she answered, "Like if one person dominates and doesn't listen to anyone else." This young lady, who had been so angry that she threw chairs, seemed very much affected by the discussion.
I asked the class, "Did you ever have a conversation and all you remembered afterward was what yousaid?" Michael and others pointed out, "Yvonne does that!" Yvonne, who had said that as president she'd give all the boys menial jobs, grinned and nodded courageously. I added, "We all do, in different ways—but it's contempt, hurts other people, and stops us from learning."
The class saw more about the fight between justice and selfishness in history as we read in our text that this same Pope Leo X was interested in art and responsible for the continued construction of something the world cherishes, St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome. One of the artists he employed was the great Raphael. My students were affected to see that this man was not just selfish.
However, we read that in order to get money for the very expensive renovations, Leo stated that persons contributing would be given what was called an "indulgence"—a paper granting the forgiveness of sins. You could even buy one for a crime you hadn't yet committed. Our textbook recounts how a preacher, John Tetzel, was sent out to sell them. "He described all the terrors of purgatory [so that] his frightened listeners were eager to buy indulgences so they could be saved."
Yvette, who was 15 and looked as if no one was taking care of her, had said almost nothing during the term. But now she exclaimed: "That's not fair—you could only get into heaven if you were rich!"
Something in Common
I said, "Your objection has something in common with someone who lived nearly five hundred years ago." She was amazed, agog, and the class was eager to continue. We read:
In the town of Wittenberg, Germany, lived a monk who was angered by all of this. He thought of the luxury-loving pope. Then he thought of the poor men and women who believed the preacher and were frightened....Someone must speak out!...His name was Martin Luther.
"What do you think mattered to Martin Luther?" I asked. "He was angry," Yvette said: "the poor people were being treated badly, tricked." "He was different," said Shawn Parker, who had never commented before and had only come to school perhaps twice that semester. "He wasn't selfish," he said.
"Did he feel that what happened to other people mattered to him?" I asked the class. "Yes," they said. "Do we want our anger to be like his—in behalf of justice?" They said yes, definitely. "Do you think," I asked, "we all have something like both Martin Luther and Pope Leo, and we can see which looks better to us?"
We read that on October 31, 1516, Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses to the church at Wittenberg , questioning the value of indulgences and condemning the means used by agents of the Church in selling them. In a few months, thanks to the printing press, his theses were known throughout Europe . Though his life was in danger, his words have become famous: "God help me, I can do no other." He held that a person's conscience was sacred, that what was in a person's heart was the most important thing.
There have been criticisms of Luther's doctrine over the years, but even the New Catholic Encyclopediadescribes him as a "brilliant biblical scholar" with a "natural bent toward piety" and a real "call to religion," and notes that the bishop of Brandenburg "found no error" in Luther's argument about indulgences.
The Reformation marked the beginning of both new branches of Christianity and reforms within the Catholic Church itself.
The Effect of the Aesthetic Realism Method
At the end of the period, Shawn Parker, who was visibly moved, walked up to my desk and said, "I never thought of history like this. You're showing me something new." And he shook my hand.
Yvette Stone had come to the 10th grade with failure after failure in exams. The fact that she felt the Reformation was something to be passionate about, is evidence for the success of the Aesthetic Realism teaching method with some of the most tired and angry students in the city.
I want to underscore the fact that this was a Special Education class learning about European history. On the last day of the semester, when they already knew what their grades were, they were eager to read and learn more. Another teacher told me in impressed amazement one day, "They're really into those reports you gave them. They all have books about Leonardo, Michelangelo, Galileo, and they're reading them! They're taking it very seriously." Christina's mother told me on open school night, "Christina is much happier these days. She used to get angry all the time. Thank you so much for what you've done for her." Felix, whose mother had been afraid of his anger, started talking with other students and was kinder, less angry, more at ease. He wanted to participate in class. Michael Rosario, who once couldn't read, volunteered to read aloud, and started to understand what he was reading.
The Aesthetic Realism teaching method can bring true success to every classroom.