Education, What For?
By Christopher Balchin
The Aesthetic Realism teaching method succeeds as nothing else can, because it explains what education is really for: “The purpose of education is to like the world through knowing it.” After more than 32 years in the classroom, I have a rock-solid conviction about that explanation. As a social studies teacher, I’m proud to have been able to show students that history is not some remote, dry subject; it’s about what we living now, are in the midst of every day.
My classes have been based on this Aesthetic Realism principle, stated by Eli Siegel: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” When students see that history is made up of opposites—centrally, sameness and difference—and these are opposites they themselves are trying to make sense of, they have real pleasure learning and remembering facts, and they become kinder!
I’ll tell about an 11th grade US history class I taught at the Brooklyn Academy of Science and the Environment. Many of the students came from Caribbean countries, and some from West Africa and the Indian subcontinent. Some were Hispanic; quite a few were African-American. Most of their families were poor. All these students suffered from racism, and most had a very negative view of the US government.
The class of 34 included 15 Special Education students. And before I describe a particular lesson, I’ll say something about four of them.*
Unique Johnson was a handsome, eloquent young man with a reputation for being able to disrupt a class. He would yell and curse at a classmate or teacher, and almost everyone was afraid of him. About history, he said in September, “It’s boring and most of the stuff is useless.”
His closest friend was Stephanie French. At the start of the year they would shout graphic descriptions of sexual activities across the class to each other and seemed to want to embarrass anyone who threatened their supremacy, including teachers. They also frequently called each other “stupid,” and almost came to blows once in the classroom. This team had been going on since 9th grade and no one seemed able to stop it.
Luke Thomas made scornful comments in which he tried to bring down any historical figure who could possibly be respected. Sometimes he would burst out laughing and continue on and on, seeming unable to control himself.
Anna Duval, a senior, was repeating the class. She had failed the Regents exam the year before and was scared that she wouldn’t be able to graduate. Though she could sometimes be very sweet, she’d gotten so angry in previous years that she’d been permitted to take a break and walk up and down the hall when she felt she needed to. Other students made fun of the slow way she spoke and the obvious mistakes she often made.
In “An Aesthetic Realism Manifesto about Education,” there are these explanatory sentences:
Behind “learning difficulties” 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?
I knew that US history could be a means of my students’ caring more for the world and, as a result, learning the subject successfully. And that is what happened as we studied the period known as the Great Depression.
The Fight in History & in Everyone
I told the class what I’ve learned from Aesthetic Realism, that the central struggle in history is an ethical one, between respect and contempt for what’s different from oneself, and this struggle also goes on in every person. That is the fight we would see going on at a critical time in US history as we studied two presidents, Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and how they responded to the crisis that followed the stock market crash of 1929.
We read in our textbook, McDougal Littel’s The Americans (2007), that thousands of banks and businesses failed:
Across the country, people lost their jobs, were evicted from their homes and ended up in the streets....Every day the poor dug through garbage cans or begged....Bread lines, or lines of people waiting to receive food,...became a common sight.
“I see people waiting for food every day,” said Olivia Sanchez.
Further, we learned: “During the early years of the Great Depression, there was no federal system of direct relief—cash payments or food provided by the government to the poor.” In other words, I explained, if you didn’t have a job, you and your family could literally starve. “That’s cold!” Unique called out.
“Yes,” I said. “What do you think the response of a president should be?” Several students said that the president should “take care of the people.” I asked how many in the class knew someone who wanted work and couldn’t find it, and most raised their hands.
In his book Franklin Roosevelt Jack Jones describes how Herbert Hoover “stubbornly refused to give help to the unemployed.” Hoover opposed plans for “a federal unemployment agency...[and] a public works program.” Instead, we read in The Americans, he authorized
up to $2 billion for emergency financing for banks, life insurance companies, railroads, and other large businesses. Hoover believed that the money would trickle down to the average citizen through job growth and higher wages.
Students were outraged. “It’s just like today—they don’t care about the poor people,” Anna said. Luke Thomas shook his head and looked at the floor.
“What do you think of the phrase trickle down?” I asked. Unique said very thoughtfully, “It’s like you’re on the bottom and they’re up there above you.” “So it’s not respectful?” “No,” he said, “that’s contempt.” “Yes, it is,” I said.
Aesthetic Realism describes contempt as the “disposition in every person to think we will be for ourselves by making less of the outside world.” In The Crisis of the Old Order, 1919-1939, Arthur M. Schlesinger quotes Hoover as saying in 1931, “Nobody is actually starving. The hoboes, for example, are better fed than they have ever been. One hobo in New York got ten meals in one day.”
Here we come to the two biggest opposites in history and everyone’s life: sameness and difference. “What way of seeing people did Hoover have?” I asked. “Do you think he saw the people of America, those who were unemployed or hungry, as more like him or more different?” “Different!” they said.
“Is that what made him cruel?” I asked. “Let’s make him useful to us. When we see a person as only different from us, we feel we have the right to treat that person any way we please. Isn’t that what makes any one of us unkind—not seeing another person as having feelings like ours?”
Stephanie bravely said, “I won’t lie—I do that. I can act like people are nothing.” She was the young woman who had been in an intimidating team with Unique. I told her I respected her for saying that. “What you described is contempt. It’s in everyone, and no one can be proud of it. This attitude also stops us from becoming educated the way we want to. Let’s all learn from Herbert Hoover.” She smiled and looked happy.
Later that day she stopped by my room and said, “I like this class.” When I asked why, she said, “Because I learn.” For such a wild, tough-minded girl, who had seemed completely uninterested in history, to say this, would alone have made my career a success. She is representative of the effect the Aesthetic Realism teaching method can have on students, including those who have had great difficulty learning.
In the midst of this discussion I told the class that I have heard criticism of my contempt as a person and teacher, and want to do better. Some years ago when, in an Aesthetic Realism consultation, I described how I was losing my temper during every lesson and students weren’t listening to me, I was asked, “When you think about your students, do you think about what they deserve from you—or about what nuisances they are, how they’ve wronged you?” And my consultants also asked this surprising question: “Do you think other people have a lot of nerve not being you?” And: “Do you feel very superior to other people?” I had felt that way, which means I’d been like Herbert Hoover. And that was a big reason why the class I’d taught then hadn’t wanted to listen to me. As I spoke about this, I saw that my students were very quiet and seemed surprised. It was a turning point, after which all of them began to listen more attentively and be kinder to each other.
An Election about Ethics & Respect
We learned that by 1930, people were so angry at Hoover that they were calling the shantytowns in US cities “Hoovervilles.” Homeless people called the newspapers they wrapped themselves in “Hoover blankets.” In the poem “Litany of Presidents, Mostly Unfortunate,” Eli Siegel writes with historical insight and poetic music about our presidents; and there is this line: “Among the unfortunate is Herbert Hoover, not able to relate a sense of the world to his own ambition, comfort, coldness, exclusiveness.”
Then, in the 1932 election, the person who was to become one of the most beloved Americans of all won in a landslide. My students were relieved and in awe as we read what the government did under FDR. And they respected him for having big feeling about what people were going through and for wanting to help them. In Eli Siegel’s poem, there is this: “Among the fortunate is Franklin Delano Roosevelt, because there was an impulsion in him to find what people really hoped for.” Arising from that respectful impulsion were the programs that comprised what Roosevelt called the New Deal.
Millions of people had lost life savings due to bank failures. Roosevelt pushed for major reforms, such as the FDIC, part of the Glass-Steagall Act, which to this day protects individuals’ savings. Unemployment had devastated people’s lives and made many, and very much young people, hopeless about the future. We read in our textbook about the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), which took just eight days to create: it put nearly 3 million “young men aged 18 to 25 to work building roads, developing parks,...and helping in soil-erosion and flood-control projects.” These young men lived together in camps and were given free clothing, food, medical care, and education. They were also paid a wage of $30 a month when a loaf of bread cost just 7¢. And my students were particularly affected by the stipulation “of which $25 was automatically sent home to the worker’s family” so that they could survive as well.
“That was kind,” a student said. “Yes. Do we all hope to have a strengthening effect on others?” I asked. “Would it make us proud?” Some students said yes, and I saw others nodding and thoughtful. This was a big change for a class that had been so inattentive, disruptive, and seemingly uncaring.
We saw that underlying all the programs of the New Deal is that oneness of sameness and difference which is ethics: the idea that while every person is a distinct individual, all are alike in deserving justice. We learned that the WPA (Works Progress Administration) gave jobs to more than 8 million people, building 850 airports (for instance), fixing or building 651,000 miles of roads and 125,000 public buildings. Garment workers made 300 million items of clothing for people who needed it. A man is quoted as saying, “It was really great. You worked, you got a paycheck and you had some dignity.” The employer was the federal government. “Why can’t they do that today?” asked Unique in a tone that had both criticism and hope.
Under the Wagner Act, the New Deal protected the rights of working people to organize and join unions. The Fair Labor Standards Act set a limit of 44 hours per week, decreasing to 40 after two years, and, for the first time, a minimum wage. And the class was thrilled to learn about the Social Security Act. Instead of letting people starve, this law provided money for millions in their later years and included money for those who were unemployed or disabled.
Eli Siegel described ethics as the “giv[ing] oneself what is coming to one by giving what is coming to other things.” Through the Aesthetic Realism teaching method, my students were seeing ethics working in our government. Luke Thomas, who had earlier actively tried to show that no American was worthy of respect, commented loudly about FDR, “Yo, I respect this guy!” When I asked the class, “Which way of seeing do we admire more, Hoover’s or FDR’s?” it was no contest. Similarly for “Who would you rather be like, Hoover or FDR?”
This Is What Happened
Through learning about ethics in relation to history, something very important happened to my students. They actually saw themselves as deeply related to two presidents, and became better people as a result. Once, when Stephanie was talking as if no class was going on, Olivia raised her hand and said, smiling but respectfully, “You’re being like Herbert Hoover!” And Stephanie did not confront her as she would have once. Instead, she smiled and started to pay attention.
Unique Johnson, who had been such a menace, began to change because he saw that he, like every person, has a fight between respect and contempt. For the same reason, Luke Thomas and Anna Duval became kinder. Anna, who had been so scared of the Regents, achieved a 95 on it. And she, a Special Education student who worried that she wouldn’t graduate, was held up as an encouraging example for all at the graduation ceremony.
As a whole, the students excelled on the Regents. But what’s even greater is that these young people became more interested in learning, more respectful, truly kinder through the study of a subject—here, US history. This is what happens through the Aesthetic Realism teaching method.