Education, Large and Warm
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is part 6 of Eli Siegel's historic lecture Educational Method Is Poetic, of 1973. In it he is showing what no philosopher before him saw, and what teachers, parents, and students need to know now for schools in America to succeed: "the purpose of education is to like the world." He is showing that education is poetic (with poetic the toughest, most practical of words), because education is a oneness of reality's opposites. "All beauty," he wrote, in a principle central to Aesthetic Realism, "is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves." In the section printed here, as Mr. Siegel speaks about William Shakespeare, he speaks of education as putting together comprehensiveness and particularity; knowing and feeling; the study of books—and of life, people, objects.
I love this lecture. I love how Aesthetic Realism sees education. And as Mr. Siegel comments here on important writers on education, we are in the midst of one of the most important works on education ever: this lecture itself. His discussion of Shakespeare is great in two ways: 1) in speaking of Shakespeare he shows what education truly is; and 2) he has us feel Shakespeare himself, the living, hoping person. The tremendous quality he ascribes to Shakespeare and illustrates—the drive for knowledge—Mr. Siegel himself had more fully, I believe, than any other person. It made him the most comprehensive of scholars: there was no aspect of reality—from poetry to physics to laughter to the woes of a mother—in which he was not interested. And that interest was never aloof: it was always with all of himself.
The conclusion of his poem "Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana" stands for the way Eli Siegel saw education. He wrote "Hot Afternoons" in 1924, at the age of 21, and it won the Nation poetry prize the next year. Here are the last of the poem's 99 lines; Mr. Siegel was true to them all his life:
The world is waiting to be known; Earth, what it has in it! The past is in it;
All words, feelings, movements, words, bodies, clothes, girls, trees, stones, things of beauty, books, desires are in it; and all are to be known;
Afternoons have to do with the whole world;
And the beauty of mind feeling knowingly the world!
The world of girls' beautiful faces, bodies and clothes, quiet afternoons, graceful birds, great words, tearful music, mind-joying poetry, beautiful livings, loved things, known things: a to-be-used and known and pleasure-to-be giving world.
All the things mentioned in these lines, Mr. Siegel saw as of education. He saw them all as having to do with each other—how is what Aesthetic Realism explains. And he saw them all as representatives of reality, and as means to our "feeling knowingly" the world.
About America's Schools
In these weeks, while we serialize Educational Method Is Poetic, there has been much talk, including from Washington, about the trouble in America's schools. And I have written in these issues of TRO about the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method and its magnificent success in the New York public school classrooms where it is used. I have written about the fact that America now has to be owned justly—by all the people—for children to learn well. I have written about the meaning of public education and the ugliness of turning a child's need to learn into a way for somebody to make profit. And I wrote last week that children need to feel adults truly like the world about which they are asking the children to learn. Now I'll say simply this: The problem of America's schools is not going to be solved by people who think the main purpose in life is to own. It is not going to be solved by people who, though they may have gotten themselves into public office, are deeply against what education is for.
Acquisition, seeing the world and people in terms of how much money one can get from them, is completely opposed to what education really is. "The world was meant to be known, to be felt," Mr. Siegel writes in Self and World, "not to be parceled out into huge segments or lesser segments for the complacent but deleterious delectation of some and the domination and manipulation of others" (p. 279-280). For persons whose main interest is the "parcel[ing] out" and "domination and manipulation" of the world to put on a show of concern about children's education, is ludicrous, cruelly ludicrous. There is only one way for education to succeed in America, 2001. Children won't learn because they're tested often, or because if they become technologically proficient they'll get a job that will increase the profits of some corporate owner. For children to learn well in America's schools they need to feel that the world in its fulness is good to know, and has to do with who they are.
I Heard This As a Child
I quote now, briefly, from Aesthetic Realism lessons my parents and I had when I was a child, because in outline what the children and grownups of the world need to know is in what I am quoting. A month before my 7th birthday, in a discussion of music, Mr. Siegel asked me, "Do you want to be like music?" And he continued:
If people know how to conduct themselves they can be like music. Melody can teach you how to rise and fall and see that you are the same person.
Those beautiful sentences are from my mother's notes; and they represent the basis of the Aesthetic Realism teaching method: when a child sees that the subject before her—music, an equation, a fact in history—makes a one of opposites that are in her, opposites that may fight in her and bewilder her, she sees that subject as lovable and wants to be close to it, know it.
The next sentences are from a lesson when I was 6½, in the 2nd grade, and angry with my teacher, Mrs. Gellert. As Mr. Siegel spoke to me, I was learning about the desire which Aesthetic Realism explains is the most hurtful thing in everyone: the desire for contempt, "the addition to self through the lessening of something else." Contempt is so ordinary—a girl of 6½ has it—but it is that from which all cruelty comes. And I was learning about the one real alternative to contempt: the desire to see another person truly, from the inside—the desire to know.
When Mr. Siegel asked what I didn't like in school, I said, "When the teacher yells"; and in my mother's notes are the following questions and statements of Mr. Siegel to me:
Why does the teacher yell? Life can mix anybody up, including teachers... Do you think your teacher is soft and hard? Do you think she ever cried in her life? Do you even think she thinks she made a mistake?...Do you want her to be happy? She yells because she is unhappy.
Did you ever try to make a person angry—move around, take a long time doing something? People try to annoy each other because they feel if they get somebody mad they are big stuff. We try to have other people happy, but sometimes we want to make them unhappy too. Unless you can say, "I don't want the teacher to yell," when [she] yells you will feel bad....The first thing that is necessary to get along with people is to ask what they feel.
We go from Eli Siegel speaking to a little girl to him speaking about Shakespeare. He was supremely just to both. He embodied, always, education at its truest. My passionate gratitude to him is personal, cultural, and represents humanity.