Fairer to Knowledge and People
By Lois Mason
In the 30 years that I’ve used the Aesthetic Realism Method teaching social studies in New York City classrooms, I’ve seen how it enables students—including those who previously failed, who are frustrated and despairing—to learn, pass standard exams, graduate. They learn because this method meets their deepest hope: to feel the world is not an adversary, but something they can truly like. The basis is Eli Siegel’s landmark statement “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”
When students see that history is composed of opposites, the same opposites they are trying to make sense of—for and against, justice and selfishness, high and low—they have pleasure learning, remember facts, want to be fair to the subject and to people in history and today, including their classmates and teachers.
Last spring I taught US History to 16- and 17-year-olds at New Utrecht High School in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Most of the students were juniors, but some were seniors taking US History a second time because they needed to pass the Regents exam to graduate.
I could see that these young people did not look forward to learning history. On arriving, they’d spend a lot of time hugging and greeting classmates they might have seen only moments before. It sometimes took them as long as ten minutes to settle down, and when they did, they were lethargic, staring blankly into space, looking out the window, answering my questions with a dull “Huh?” Some were late every day; for example, Amanda Anders.* When she arrived she sat in the back with a girlfriend and they passed notes to each other for most of the period. Other students sent and received text messages on their cell phones during class.
My students, like others throughout our country, are up against a lot. Many families in this once prosperous neighborhood are enduring economic hardship. An increasing number of these young people work long hours after school and on weekends to help meet family expenses. And I’ve seen that students can also use what they learn about aspects of our nation’s history—slavery, child labor, the treatment of Native Americans—to despise the world. “It hasn’t changed,” Adam Rodriguez said. And Juan Vega commented bitterly: “I treat people like they treat me. They don’t show me respect, I don’t show them respect.”
For & Against in American History
In his great lecture Educational Method Is Poetic, Mr. Siegel explains:
The purpose of education is, while seeing the worst in the world and not fooling oneself, as honestly as possible so to organize the world that...one can like it. [TRO 1456]
In the lesson I’ll tell of, about what’s called the Progressive Era, we would be studying some of the ugliest facts of late 19th- and early 20th-century US history. I knew my students felt this time was far removed from them, and the way they would want to learn about it was by seeing what the Aesthetic Realism method makes clear: that the subject did have to do with them, through the opposites; in this instance, centrally through the opposites for and against.
In our textbook The Americans, authors Jordan, Greenblatt, and Bowes write of the Progressive Era:
As cities and industries grew, the need for social reform and government regulation became overwhelming. Certain factories...had become horrors both for the workers and for consumers....It was time for the federal government to intervene. [P. 537]
But far from intervening, the government supported the owners, using the army to put down strikes, brutally.
We learned about the courageous men and women called muckrakers, who fought against the unjust living and working conditions and for justice to people. And my students became excited by the subject and learned it well because they saw it was about the question they and everyone has: How should we see what’s ugly and unfair? Should we use it to hate everything and feel superior? Or can we be against something accurately as a means of being for people and reality?
I put the word muckraker on the board and asked, “What is muck?” “Dirt,” said Mei Li Chan. “Mud,” Olga called out. And a rake, I said, stirs up the dirt. I asked, “Have you ever wanted to stir up dirt about someone?” At first there was silence, but after a few moments hands began to go up. Carla said she had a fight with her best friend “and I told the other girls things she did she didn’t want anyone to know.” Charles admitted, “Sometimes I tell things about my brother so my mom gets mad at him.”
The important question, I said, is, “What is our purpose? When we stir up dirt, or are against something, is it to have contempt, to get a false importance for ourselves by making less of someone else, or is it in behalf of greater justice to people?”
Some of the Muckrakers
Ida M. Tarbell, we learned, wrote History of the Standard Oil Company, describing John D. Rockefeller’s devious, cutthroat methods of eliminating competition. Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, about people who worked in the meatpacking industry. John Spargo described the inhuman conditions children as young as six endured laboring in the mines. Jacob Riis wrote How the Other Half Lives, with words and photographs showing the unbearable conditions in our own city’s slums. These men and women were writing about some of the “worst in the world”—children maimed and even killed by unsafe machines, disease rampant in the city because whole families lived in airless one room tenement apartments in neighborhoods that had no or inadequate sewage.
“Was it only dirt they were trying to stir up,” I asked, “or did these writers want to stir the consciences of people?” The students weren’t sure. I read this from our textbook: “The muckrakers felt that unless people got angry about social wrongs, they would not fight for change” (p. 538).
Those opposites of for and against confuse everyone. For example, there was the way my students could go from hugging each other at the beginning of class to making sarcastic, disgusted comments.
Early in my teaching career I was troubled by the way I was for and against my students. I could go, in a heartbeat, from carefully and patiently explaining something to yelling and making demeaning comments, which confused my students and made them angry. Each time, I promised myself it wouldn’t happen again, but it did, and when, in an Aesthetic Realism consultation, I spoke about this, my consultants asked how I saw people as such. Did I feel I was made with a superior intellect and sensibilities? Did I think my students were as worthy of understanding as a person in history—say, Thomas Jefferson or even George III? They asked me to write a soliloquy of a student I was having trouble with, and I saw that this young person had a whole life I hadn’t granted, as real as my own, and that my job was to be for the best thing in him: his own desire to know and be fair. This was the beginning of a revolution in my life and my teaching.
For & Against Are with Self & World
In the second part of the class I read from some of the muckrakers’ writing and we asked, “What was the writer’s purpose?” Trying to see an author’s intent is a technique recommended by the Department of Education as part of its “balanced literacy” program, to promote reading comprehension. And, I believe, it is useful. But the Aesthetic Realism teaching method makes it possible for students to use seeing an author’s intent to know how they want to be in their own lives. Because of this, the muckrakers were a means of my students’ seeing they could be against injustice so accurately that they were for reality.
I read from Spargo’s Bitter Cry of the Children, about boys laboring in Pennsylvania coal mines:
Crouched over the chutes, the boys sit hour after hour, picking out the pieces of slate and other refuse from the coal as it rushes past to the washers. From the cramped position they have to assume, most of them become more or less deformed and bent-backed like old men....Accidents to the hands, such as cut, broken, or crushed fingers, are common among the boys. Sometimes there is a worse accident:...a boy is mangled and torn in the machinery, or disappears in the chute to be picked out later smothered and dead.
There were audible gasps. “Children shouldn’t have to do that!” called out Juan. Amanda had a lot of feeling as she said, “It’s horrible!” Every student was listening attentively. “The subject that interests students most,” says point 18 of “An Aesthetic Realism Manifesto about Education,”
whether teachers see it or not, is ethics. Eli Siegel has defined ethics as “the study of what the world outside of yourself deserves from you.”
That means ethics is a oneness of self and world. My students were thinking about people in the world outside of them—those children—and what they deserved.
As we looked at specific facts that Spargo documents, I pointed out, “You’re getting the dirt—but is it different from the way you described yourselves before?” “Way different,” said Mario. Amira Ahmed said, “We wanted to make trouble for someone; he’s trying to help those boys.” I asked which they wanted for themselves, “mak[ing] trouble for people” or “help[ing] them.” “Definitely helping,” said Amira. And I heard another student say, “Me too!”
There were no notes being passed, no heads on desks. They were eager to hear more. I read from The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair:
There would be meat stored in great piles in rooms; and the water from leaky roofs would drip over it, and thousands of rats would race about on it....The packers would put poisoned bread out for them, they would die, and then rats, bread, and meat would go into the hoppers together.
My students were appalled. “Upton Sinclair is clearly against something,” I said, “but is he for anything?” “Sure,” said Mei Li: “he wants things to change.” And I asked, “Do you think this shows respect for people?” “Oh yeah,” said Charles, and other students agreed.
I told the class that at first President Theodore Roosevelt gave these writers the name “muckrakers” because he felt they were just trying to make people dissatisfied. But when he read The Jungle, it affected him so much that he appointed a commission to study conditions in the meatpacking and other industries, and in 1906 Congress passed the first federal Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act.
A Dramatic Change
I didn’t ask my students to read The Jungle, but some weeks later I noticed that many of them had gotten the book and were reading it. I respect very much how they changed throughout the term. It was dramatic. At the end of the semester they were no longer the agitated and bored young men and women of a few months earlier. And they showed they wanted to be fair to US History and people.
Very soon after the late bell rang, almost all the students were in their seats ready to begin the lesson. Amanda began to come on time and moved to the front of the room. “I’ll talk to Myra other times,” she said; “I want to learn this.” I noticed as the term went on, cell phones did not ring because students no longer had them on, and on the rare occasion that one did ring, the owner just turned it off.
My students’ writing improved tremendously. In early April, Juan Vega, who had done no homework up to that point and had never written an essay on an exam, began to do both.
On the final exam, many chose to write their essay about the Progressive Era. They remembered the names of the muckrakers and described working and living conditions vividly, and they showed feeling about the meaning of the changes that occurred. In June, 97% of the students in my US History classes, including Juan Vega, passed the Regents exam necessary for graduation, many with grades in the 80s and 90s.
I am convinced that through the Aesthetic Realism teaching method, students in every classroom will want to be fair to the subjects of the curriculum—and to the people they learn about and meet.