|NUMBER 1758.—November 25, 2009||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
This issue features the lecture Eli Siegel gave on March 6, 1947 at Steinway Hall: Education and Feeling Good. The record we have of it is notes taken at the time, and these are somewhat fragmentary. Yet the grandeur of this lecture comes through, its aliveness, its newness—and its importance.
I know firsthand, through my years of study with him, that Eli Siegel lived the way of seeing education that he presents here. He loved knowledge—that was clear to anyone who heard him speak. And he was interested in every field of thought. His scholarship was vast; it was comprehensive. Whether he spoke about Shakespeare, or economics, or the history of religion, or sociology, or French drama, or the movies, or a little-known American writer of fiction, or the Middle Ages, or the historians of Greece and Rome, a listener would feel, This must be his field of expertise.
He wanted people to be at ease with knowledge, to see it as a friend. I am very moved as I write these words, because Mr. Siegel—representing the way of seeing that is in this lecture—made education warm to me, enabled me to love learning. And Aesthetic Realism can do that for all people.
The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method
Some decades after the 1947 lecture, its approach to knowledge took the form of the Aesthetic Realism teaching method, taught to educators by the consultants of All For Education. I won’t write at length here about the great, kind, documented, continuing success of this method in New York classrooms. That was the subject, in September, of issue 1753 of this journal, which contains a paper by social studies teacher Christopher Balchin. And this month there was the public seminar titled “The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method Brings Out Every Child’s Intelligence—& Education Succeeds!” The speakers were New York City teachers of science, English as a second language, and social studies.
Education today needs the Aesthetic Realism method, achingly and terrifically. In the 1947 lecture, Mr. Siegel says it is necessary to see learning as about ourselves; and that is true now. He, in his modesty, does not say, “I, Eli Siegel, have come to the principle which, after all the centuries, enables people to see that every subject is about them—and to see also that the world they’re in is a friend.” Yet he did come to that principle. It is the basis of the Aesthetic Realism teaching method: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”
From the flyer announcing the recent seminar, here are some sentences illustrating how this principle meets children’s and teachers’ hopes:
There is Tiffany, age 14, who failed most of her classes last year. She began 9th grade angry, calling her teacher and classmates insulting names. Then in her social studies class, Tiffany’s teacher showed how 13th-century China traded with the Western world. He showed it put opposites together: getting crops and trees from the West and giving inventions like the windmill and papermaking techniques to other countries—all via the Silk Road.
Tiffany had been unable to learn because she hadn’t wanted a world she disliked to get into her, affect her; she hadn’t wanted to give herself, her thought, to things from that disliked world. Now she was seeing that those same opposites she had—getting and giving, self and world—were one in 13th-century China, making that country stronger, more itself! And so she deeply changed her mind about how she should meet the world. She began coming to class regularly, treated classmates with genuine respect, remembered facts because she saw them as friendly.
At the heart of the 1947 lecture, though unstated, is another principle of the Aesthetic Realism teaching method: “The purpose of education is to like the world through knowing it.” I’ll comment swiftly on three short poems by Eli Siegel about education, which contain that care for reality.
1) The first is:
Walking on the lawn,
Caused a stir
Among little living things.
One day in college,
Came the dawn,
As he studied Entomology:
Little life in air, in room, on trees.
So life was littler and bigger
A science, the study of insects, enables Edgar to respect more the life in small creatures, and see the world as large. There are playfulness and depth in the music of this poem. And we feel science puts together mystery and everyday life.
2) This poem has us feel mathematics is both exact— reassuringly exact—and also infinitely wondrous:
No one can measure
10 and 9 make 19.
Mathematics, then, is both fact and value—not just fact.
3) “Anonymous Anthropology” is published in Eli Siegel’s Hail, American Development. It is playful, but it has the ethics that education should make alive in us. Education should encourage us to see people as real, as having the same fullness that we give ourselves. This usually doesn’t happen. Even the persons of thousands of years ago, Mr. Siegel says, whose names we don’t know, were individuals, just as we are:
Anthropology deals with people anonymously,
None of whom we know individually.
We don’t know a specific person as to pottery, textiles, utensils, bronze or stone.
Anthropology, which is in league with prehistory,
Is so anonymous, we don’t know how sad we feel about it,
Until we think about it.
I consider Aesthetic Realism and its teaching method the greatest friend to education, and to every human being.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
Education and Feeling Good
By Eli Siegel
There are quite a few persons who are educated, from one point of view, and who are not really happy about it. Nothing is more important in education than to be really happy about learning. There are people who use education as a banner, for the display of their egos—because if you try to know things that you deeply don’t see as friendly, you either won’t be able to learn or you’ll try to capture them.
Education, as has been said in teachers’ conventions, is a way of “bringing out” a person.* That is true; but the bringing out is aesthetic, because it’s also a bringing to.
Education is a principal form of the self and world relation—like eating, or breathing. It is more conscious, however. The feeling in education is: “I want to make this, which is not myself, myself.” It’s a kind of love.
Without education in the true sense, one can’t really be free. That is because freedom is the ability to do as one wants—but one must know what one wants. The world consists of things to be studied, known, which are also the things to be desired. Without knowledge, then, there is no freedom.
Along with a desire to learn, there is also an unwillingness to learn. This is present in people who write theses, people who are Phi Beta Kappas, all kinds of people. A child, for instance, will not want to learn because he wants to be independent and sees the multiplication table as an interference. The real, honest desire to learn, as a thing good in itself, is a very scarce quality. I have seldom met a person who was happy in learning, truly. I have met many people who were interested in theses and in excelling at brilliant conversation, but very few who joined education with joy, rapture, fun, a good time. Aesthetic Realism calls for persons who are really educated, which means they have an honest good time in learning things.
The outside world becoming oneself: that is what education means. The way a person becomes himself is through meeting other things, as a baby does. This is the only meaning of education. When education comes to mean swallowing learning, conquering marks, it is false; it leads to neurosis.
Contempt Is Against Learning
If we see that in every self is the desire to be nothing but itself, we should ask if that principle is present in education too. Definitely, yes. The lovely, mysterious way a mind can come to be at one with, say, the French Renaissance, is so often corrupted by contempt, by dislike of the world, and comes to be a snobbish, ugly, acquisition of marks and degrees.
In all of us there is a desire to forget what isn’t ourselves. Amnesia is the most melodramatic form of it. But this desire is also why there are many persons who, after they have gotten their degrees, can’t stand to look at their textbooks.
The biggest job that every self faces is to become itself by not in any way playing tricks with what is not itself. Those tricks are various. One set is in the field of education. Education is a way of becoming ourselves through meeting what isn’t ourselves. But people come to associate the new with an interference—a disturbance of an otherwise tranquil self. So we have all sorts of aloofnesses, snobbishnesses, as to things to be learned.
If a person can’t honestly say he likes the world, how can he be really happy in learning about anything? Everyone has a tendency to feel that what is not oneself is an interference. While this is so, it will tincture the process of learning.
There are persons who have changed ignorance into triumph. The feeling there is, “I’m too good to learn those things.” Every person who has difficulty learning has somewhere a triumph in not learning. In people who say they can’t read books, the deepest obstruction is their having changed not reading books into a triumph. Reading books would, they somewhere think, interfere with the pure, unsullied snow of their unconscious. The inferiority feeling has as its other side a superiority feeling.
Wordsworth Tells about Mind
William Wordsworth is very important in the history of mind. He felt that the outside world, with its lakes, trees, animals, somehow corresponds to the human mind. This feeling is part of romanticism. Later it was put in the wild symbolism of Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and then the surrealists. In the Preface to The Excursion Wordsworth writes:
Not Chaos, not
The darkest pit of lowest Erebus,
Nor aught of blinder vacancy, scooped out
By help of dreams—can breed such fear and awe
As fall upon us often when we look
Into our Minds.
Wordsworth is saying that the idea of disorder in the world (Chaos), and the lowest depths, and the worst in the emptiness got to by dreams, don’t fill us with such fear and awe as when we look into our minds.
Unless we’re educated, in the true sense, we’re going to be afraid. Education is a way of making the self and the world a wonderful equivalent. Wordsworth says:
My voice proclaims
How exquisitely the individual Mind
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . .to the external World
Is fitted:—and how exquisitely, too—
Theme this but little heard of among men—
The external World is fitted to the Mind.
A Having & a Giving
There is an interaction, definitely, between the mind and the external world. The greatest interaction in life is the relation between what goes on under our skin and the great outside world of kitchens, roads, woods, insects. And when the mind truly gives itself to the outside world, there is a having and a giving. The world completes the mind and the mind completes the world. This is education.
Again—to be educated means to have the self brought out; but suppose something in the self doesn’t want to be brought out? Won’t there be trouble? I’ve spoken with people who, though they wanted to learn, associated learning with submission to authority. And so no matter how they tried, when confronted with books or studies, they would get dreamy.
More Interesting Than You Thought
Wordsworth, and every poet who is really that, says, “Here is an aspect of the world more interesting than you thought. I’m going to show you that it can be put into form, and I hope you like it.” The whole history of art is a showing that the world, where it had been thought dull, is capable of all sorts of raptures, colors, forms.
Losing interest in things is like death. The self can be infinitely interested. Wherever we could be interested in something and we’re not, we’re welcoming the Grim and Dull Reaper.
Too often we hate the thing we are trying to learn, because it stands for the world. This is a great part of the reason that education is in such a confusion today.
Art & Science Are Not Separate
At the moment, in the educational field there is a division between the arts and science, between literature and logic. As Aesthetic Realism sees it, the world of William Butler Yeats, with his Celtic mists, is the same world as the world of economics. If imagination is a way of feeling and knowing the world more deeply, and logic is a way of organizing feelings and knowledge— how are logic and imagination in opposition? Is the truth of John Keats in opposition to the truth of Immanuel Kant?
We have to feel that when we reason we’re the same person as when we lean back in an easy chair and have a reverie. To separate logic and imagination is to make the world less. To welcome this separation is to welcome the same thing that makes for mental ailment. In colleges today, there’s no integration between chemistry and a course in Tennyson. Aesthetic Realism, seeing reality as one, makes such an integration.
The Fight about Education
One of the principal things mind consists of is a fight between the desire to give oneself to what is not oneself and the desire to give oneself only to oneself. So we go after books and learning, but at the same time we’re afraid: if so much of the world gets in us, where will we be? This fight has to be understood. A desire on the one hand to affirm his or her individuality by being against others, and a desire on the other hand to learn, can make for a great turbulence in a sensitive child.
People have a difficult time about study because study is the giving of oneself to something new. Something in us says, “Joe, if you give yourself to all this, you’re not going to be so much Joe.” Therefore to learn, in the true sense, the French subjunctive or the economic history of the Roman Republic, these things must seem to be about oneself.
Education is also an attack on ego. We have to see it as such. Education has to attack the narrow self—and the self has to love it.
All for Education
Aesthetic Realism is all for education. It says education should put together the self as general and the self as individual, should put together knowledge and emotion. It says if you can’t feel what you learn is the same world as the world you participate in, there’s something wrong with the learning. If you take a philosophy course, it isn’t just a course—it’s about you. Leibnitz, Descartes, Spinoza, John Stuart Mill wrote about the same world we’re in.
Science is a way of having fun through being exact. The color we see in chemistry should be the color we see in Renoir, or in Dante Gabriel Rossetti, or in John Keats. There’s a poetry to tears and a chemistry to tears, and we should understand both. The truth would be poetry-chemistry or chemistry-poetry.
There’s no war between subjective and objective. We can look at our feelings just as well as we can look at Westminster Abbey.
If we’re not educated, we don’t feel good. That is the relation between Education and Feeling Good. Education is the feeling that what is not ourselves is friendly. Education is chiefly the honest desire to learn. We want to learn to become ourselves. Learning about the atom is a learning about ourselves. Learning about the iron law of wages is a learning about ourselves. It’s also a way of being fair to the world.
Education is the feeling that the whole self becomes itself through meeting what is not itself. Through learning things, one can be happy.
*The word education comes from the Latin educere, to lead out.
1. The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.
2. The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it .... Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.
3. All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.
Editor: Ellen Reiss
Coordinators: Nancy Huntting, Meryl Simon, Steven Weiner
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