They Learn and Are Kinder
By Sally Ross
The students in the biology class I taught last year at Seward Park High School on New York's Lower East Side come from the Dominican Republic, China, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Israel, Thailand, and the U.S. They represent young people everywhere who are crying out for the understanding of themselves and the world that only Aesthetic Realism provides.
Eli Siegel has explained that the purpose of education and life itself is: to like the world.
Point 4 of “An Aesthetic Realism Manifesto about Education,” a document by Aesthetic Realism consultants and urgent for all teachers, states:
The one way to like the world—a world that has wars, economic injustice, and parents that confuse us—is through seeing that the world has an aesthetic structure: it is a oneness of opposites, like difference and sameness, freedom and order, motion and rest, manyness and oneness. Further, these opposites are in us all the time, and we are trying to make sense of them, see them as one.
I once felt the purpose of knowledge was to show how much smarter I was than other people. I love Aesthetic Realism for teaching me that every fact can be used to see the world and oneself truly and to be kind. My students, many of them sixteen and seventeen years old, suffer from our unjust economic system. For example, one student missed weeks of school because she was sick and her family was unable to afford medical care. I am so grateful that because of Aesthetic Realism as teaching method, through science these students can see that the world has a structure they can honestly like. And as students see this, they learn successfully; they also become kinder. I describe here a lesson on diffusion.
Molecules: Free and Orderly at Once
I placed a dish of perfume on the lab table and said, "Raise your hands when you can smell this. Also, watch as other people raise their hands.” Soon the students sitting closest to the dish raised their hands. After a while, others farther away raised theirs.
I explained that molecules move by a process called diffusion. The molecules of a gas, Heimler and Neal write in their Principles of Science, “move rapidly in straight lines until they hit other molecules and bounce off.” This motion is random and very fast—over 895 miles per hour.
I asked, “While the molecules move freely in every direction, bouncing off the desks and walls, did you notice any pattern for how the perfume travelled?” Zhen Fai Li*, sitting in the back, said, “The people closest smelled it first; I just got it now.” “Where," I asked, “is the concentration of perfume greatest and where is it least?” “It's greatest in the dish, and least in the back of the room,” he answered.
Diffusion is the random movement of molecules—always from areas of higher concentration to areas of lower concentration. It shows that molecules are free, spontaneous—and at the same time orderly. These are opposites that cause agony in high school students. They feel they are constantly being given orders, at home and at school, and they have to break loose. Over the years, as I have asked students what they are hoping for, the answer most often is “freedom!"
I asked the class, “How would you feel if you were only free, without any sense of order?” “Confused,” Marie Espinal said; “I wouldn't know what to do first.” “What if there were only order and routine?” “Boring,” everyone said. “So do you think that molecules, which are free and orderly at once, show us how we want to be?” “Yes.”
Welcoming and Shutting Out
We next looked at how diffusion takes place in our bodies. In order for oxygen to enter our bloodstream, the molecules have to cross the air sacs of our lungs. They do this through diffusion across the cell membrane. To demonstrate, I showed the class a large flask containing a clear liquid called phenolphthalein, covered with a thin cellophane-like membrane. As I held the flask over the mouth of a bottle of ammonia, the students were thrilled to see that the phenolphthalein turned bright pink: ammonia molecules had crossed the membrane and mixed with the phenolphthalein.
Everyone wanted to know, how did the ammonia get through the membrane? I explained: the membrane has tiny pores that let certain molecules pass through. When we breathe, oxygen molecules diffuse across the air sacs of our lungs into our bloodstream, and carbon dioxide diffuses out—and this happens instantly. Each time, the molecules, colliding randomly, travel from higher to lower concentrations. This vital process of diffusion, which enables us to take in the world in the form of air and also to absorb our digested food, is a beautiful oneness of opposites: freedom and order, high and low, concentration and expansion.
Korn Kamsimaung wanted to know why the phenolphthalein didn't cross the membrane into the ammonia. The membrane over the flask, like our own cell membranes, is selective, or semipermeable: it allows some, but not all, substances to pass through. Here, the ammonia molecules are small enough to cross, but the phenolphthalein are not. Our cell membranes are freely permeable to oxygen, carbon dioxide, water, and other substances we need to take in and give out continuously. They are mainly impermeable to dirt, certain poisons, and to the cytoplasm inside our cells.
The class was excited to see that our survival depends on the semipermeability of our cell membranes: they are a oneness of welcoming and shutting out. I asked, “What would happen, physically and mentally, if we were impermeable to the outside world?” Carmen Avergas said, “We couldn't breathe or hear. We couldn't learn anything." “And if we were completely permeable?” “We would get a lot of diseases,” students said.
The cell membrane welcomes and shuts out for the same purpose: for the body to be in the best relation with what is not itself. I asked, “What can we learn from this about ourselves as people?” I said that I had learned from Aesthetic Realism that we are making choices every minute either to welcome the outside world or dismiss it. But unlike a cell membrane in good order, which shuts out substances for a healthy purpose, we most often shut out the world in order to make ourselves superior. This is contempt—the greatest enemy to a person's life, the cause of learning difficulties, of everyday loneliness and boredom.
I asked, “When one person has contempt for another, do you think he is permeable to that person's feelings, or impermeable?” “Impermeable,” students said. Being impermeable to another person's feelings—which happens so easily and often—is, I have learned, the beginning of cruelty, including racism. Once we don't want to see the feelings of other people as real, we give ourselves the right to do anything: to make fun of them, be mean to them, physically hurt them.
“Is there anything,” I asked, “it would be good for us to be impermeable to—that we shouldn't welcome?” Drugs, they said, and going along with your friends when they want to do something bad. Through this discussion, my students were seeing that contempt makes a person both impermeable and permeable to the world in ways that are dangerous.
The Opposites, and Respect for People
Teaching a subject through the Aesthetic Realism method is a thrilling experience. It is also urgently necessary. As the term went on and students saw through many aspects of biology how all people are the same and different, how the aesthetic structure of the world is in everybody, they respected and welcomed each other more. They listened better and helped explain to each other the meaning of difficult English words. No longer were there mocking comments about each other's accents, or unkind remarks about a boy in the class who suffered a speech impediment.
Many of my students told me they liked science for the first time. And students who had failed biology previously, passed with high grades. “I like the way you teach,” Angela Ramos said; “I understand what we are learning—the opposites make everything clear.”