The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

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.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Education and Shakespeare

By Eli Siegel

The person who had the greatest desire to be educated, apparently, in the world was English. And whether he went much to school or not (as far as we know he only went to the Stratford school, which was a grammar school and something like a high school), the person who was bent on educating himself is William Shakespeare. You get to many passages and say, How did he come to get interested in this? Why is he so interested in law? Why is he so interested in flowers? Why is he so interested in how a ship is run? Why is he so interested in what can happen to monarchy? Why is he so interested in the teaching of a language, as happens in Henry V, where Henry V teaches Catherine English quite interestingly?

This feeling that the world is to be known and liked, from the common viewpoint of man, Shakespeare was best at. He saw the world as his academy-oyster or oyster-academy. We can feel that in Balzac too, who went into a lawyer's office and a notary's office interested in seeing what he could see. And if he went to church, he was interested in seeing what he could see. In other words, to live is to have an education. Occasionally, your living becomes more conscious and directed and then you're really trying to learn—as, say, a person gets a treatise on "How to Fix the Wiring in Your Home"; it's conscious then.

One of the earliest criticisms of Shakespeare is in Dryden's Essay of Dramatic Poesy. You get the feeling that there was a hell-bent, heaven-sent desire to be educated on the part of Shakespeare. And you feel, even if he had gone to Cambridge the desire would not have been less. So this is Dryden on Shakespeare:

He was the man who of all modern, and perhaps ancient poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul.

To Be Comprehensive

There are some writers who seem to be comprehensive. The writer of ancient times who was, is Aristotle. The nearest in Rome is Cicero: he wrote on philosophy, but not on science; there are ever so many matters in his speeches and in his letters. There is no person just like Aristotle in Roman literature. The person who is given to this largeness in medieval times is non-doubting Thomas—that is, Thomas Aquinas.

And it is surprising how many subjects Rabelais mentions. Both Rabelais and Montaigne wrote on education. The education of Gargantua is a notable part of Rabelais' Gargantua. Then, Montaigne wrote an essay on education. Locke wrote "The Conduct of the Understanding." There are other educationists, one of whom is Comenius. There is Horace Mann in America, who has a high school named after him.

So in education there is a desire to grasp, to include, and a desire to take unto oneself. It's a little bit like seeing a town from a mountaintop, then being interested in the petals near the grass where you're standing. And those, again, are poetic opposites.

All the images of nature were still present to him, and he drew them, not laboriously, but luckily.... 

Many objects are mentioned by Shakespeare. Take, for example, Hamlet. Shakespeare got interested, for whatever reason, in the "porpentine," or porcupine, and he writes about it.

There Were Books

We know that Shakespeare used Montaigne, because in The Tempest there is something almost literal from his essays. We also know that Shakespeare used North's Plutarch, because occasionally there are phrases put into blank verse by Shakespeare from North and Plutarch, or rather Amyot. North had the lovely idea of translating Plutarch from the Amyot French translation of him. Shakespeare was very much aware of Ovid. He couldn't have written his early plays without Ovid. There are various books on the education of Shakespeare, and you see that he wasn't just learned through strolling in the woods near the Avon. There were books he had. The sense of learning is very much in Love's Labour's Lost. He couldn't have written about Holofernes the pedant unless he had Holofernes somewhere in him. And there is all that learned language of Armado and Osric.

...when he describes anything, you more than see it, you feel it too. Those who accuse him to have wanted learning, give him the greater commendation: he was naturally learned.

Dryden makes Shakespeare too much a wonder boy. It happens he read a good deal and, meantime, he looked. He felt that everything about him—and that's the first thing in feeling educated: that everything about you, not only your mind but your toes, is interested in education; your wrist is. We do have the phrase, "Are you on your toes? Then we'll read another passage from Thucydides."

...he was naturally learned; he needed not the spectacles of books to read nature; he looked inwards, and found her there.

Yes, we can look inwards and learn. We can look outwards and learn. We can look to the side and learn. We can even have the upward look, as James says, and learn. Just gaze reverently into space and you can learn something.

Dryden wrote this in the 1660s. And it is about education, because the purpose of education is to learn as much as you can, including whatever you can learn from yourself and by yourself. All education is legitimate, including self-education. But if you can learn from a tortoise, do. Some people have.

"The Greatest of Mankind"

I cannot say he is everywhere alike; were he so, I should do him injury to compare him with the greatest of mankind.

Well, since Dryden, such a statement is looked upon as to be expected. Even now, if anybody said that Tolstoy or Sholokov was greater than Shakespeare, there would be scandal on the collective farm. We know his famous mistakes: the giving of clocks to Roman times, and so on.

He is many times flat, insipid....But he is always great, when some great occasion is presented to him;...others are now generally preferred before him .... 

So persons have bought, slowly. They did buy the four editions of Shakespeare's folio in the 17th century, and they learned from them. They learned in the two ways: they had large emotion; and they also learned about how man could be.

...yet...in the last king's court, when Ben [Jonson]'s reputation was at highest, Sir John Suckling, and with him the greater part of the courtiers, set our Shakespeare far above him.

John Suckling was proud of his learning. He has a book called Fragmenta Aurea, Golden Fragments. —That's Dryden on the insistently educated Shakespeare. He is so insistent on seeing things.  

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