The Solution to the Emergency
By Lois Mason
Eli Siegel has explained the purpose of education: “to like the world through knowing it.” And for 20 years, as a social studies teacher—in the South Bronx, on New York’s Lower East Side, and now at New Utrecht High School in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn—I have seen the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method work, enabling students to learn and retain the facts of history as never before, because they see those facts as related to their very own lives through this principle, stated by Mr. Siegel: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”
Some of the young people I teach were born in Bosnia, Ukraine, Jamaica; some are Hispanic and several African-American. Some have parents from Italy, Germany, Poland, China, Egypt, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Guyana. As the term began, students sat in clusters mainly with others of the same ethnic background. Often, as students came into the class, they argued over seats and pushed each other.
In Bensonhurst some years ago, there was violence between Italian-Americans and African-Americans that got into the news. While today it appears more peaceful, there is turbulence in these young men and women. Like students throughout America, they are confused and angry as they see their parents worried about meeting monthly expenses. Frank Ventura* told me his father lost his job and had to take one that paid much less. “Things are not the same at home now,” he said. These young people are in terrific danger of using the difficulties they meet to be bitter, angry at the whole world and people standing for the world different from themselves, and of retaliating by having contempt.
A Globe and Ourselves
My 9th grade students began last semester in Global Studies by studying maps and globes. And I told them I learned from Aesthetic Realism that a map and a globe, like every instance of reality, put together opposites. Through our textbook we found that the earth is a sphere with a land area of about 58 million square miles—which is clearly very large. Then I placed a globe on the desk and asked, “What does this object—a globe—do to the world?” Julius said, “It makes it smaller!”
"What is the purpose?” I asked. “Is it in order to belittle the world, or is it to see its largeness more? What can we learn using a globe that we couldn't learn without it?” Darrell pointed out, “You can see the relation of different countries in the world on the globe and you can't see them standing on a street in Brooklyn.” “So is the globe small in order for us to see the largeness of the earth, and its diversity?” Surprised, they said, “Yes!”
I told them I learned that these opposites, large and small, are in us all the time. “Have you ever made something that is large, smaller than it is—made the feelings of another person smaller than they are? Is our purpose like the globe’s purpose—to be fair to the meaning, the true size of something; or to lessen its meaning, make it unimportant?” “Make it unimportant, “ said James Vega courageously. Kristen Amato said, “You mean I think about what I want, and what someone else wants doesn't matter? I do that.” “I do it all the time,” said Helen Levine thoughtfully: “to me, my problems are big; my friends' problems seem smaller.”
I told the class that what we are talking about is contempt, which Eli Siegel defined as “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” Contempt is a false and horrible relation of large and small. We puff ourselves up through making other things look puny. Contempt, I said, is the cause of cruelty and prejudice, and we cannot like ourselves for it! The feeling that we are big through having another person look small is what makes a student shove another in the cafeteria, has one student mockingly imitate another’s language or “dis” what that person is eating or wearing.
Every teacher needs to learn from Aesthetic Realism that there is a fight going on in himself or herself between contempt and respect. When I began teaching in 1971, I simply assumed that what I had to say was the biggest thing; I made the feelings of my students miniscule while mine were monumental. My students rightly objected, and my class was a combat zone where I strained to have the upper hand. By the middle of my second year I felt like a failure.
Then I met and began to study Aesthetic Realism, and in consultations I heard criticism of my contempt. For example, I was asked whether I felt I was the center of the world and other people were unnecessary appendages. When I told my students about the criticism I was hearing and asked them for theirs, the atmosphere in the classroom changed—from a combative, demeaning one, to one in which, for the first time, learning really took place for all of us.
“The subject that interests students most, whether teachers see it or not, is ethics,” states “An Aesthetic Realism Manifesto about Education.” “Eli Siegel has defined ethics as ‘the study of what the world outside of yourself deserves from you’”. Last term we saw that the globe, in its structure and purpose, is ethical. According to the Columbia Encyclopedia, “A terrestrial globe is...the only means by which sizes and shapes of continents and oceans can be represented without distortion.” That is, a globe represents the world truly, has us able to see better what it deserves from us—and is therefore diametrically opposed to contempt.
What Makes a Map Beautiful
In the second half of this class, I put a map on the board—a Mercator projection, first come to about 400 years ago by a Flemish mapmaker. Like the globe, a map, I said, also makes the world smaller, but does it do anything else? “It’s flat,” said Ahmed Ali. Yes, I said—“and can you learn things from a map you can't learn from a globe?” One student said you can't carry a globe around, but a map fits in your notebook. Lenny Pasquale said, “You can see the whole world on the map. On a globe you can only see part of it [at a time].” I asked: “Does a map, like this one, flatten the world—for the purpose of our being deeper, more richly exact about its meaning?” They saw it does. “So in its flatness, do we also get a sense of greater dimension?” My students were seeing that the purpose of a map is, through two dimensions, to get to wellrounded, comprehensive knowledge of what the world is. A map puts opposites together!
I asked, “How do we make things flat in ordinary life?” Evelyn Jones said sometimes she gets excited about something in a class, but then tells herself, “What are you getting all worked up about—it wasn't that good.” Vito Angelo said when he really likes a girl, he acts cool—“You can't show them what you feel.” I asked, “Every time we say, ‘This is boring!’
without really knowing something, are we making it flat?” “I did that today,” said Luz Segarra. “How do you feel when you do that?” I asked. “I don't feel so good,” said Luz. “I get tired,” added James. My students were beginning to see that when they flatten the meaning of other things or people, they also flatten their own feelings, take the life out of themselves.
Throughout the lesson my students were excited. There were no blank stares, no heads on desks. They did not interrupt each other or carry on conversations. Almost everyone passed the test on this introductory unit. They remember the names of the different map projections and what they are used for; the names of the oceans and continents; how to locate places using latitude and longitude. During other lessons they often refer to their maps and ask me to put one on the board.
And They Are Kinder!
When the bell rings I have heard, “How come this period goes so fast?” My students are increasingly kind to each other. There is no mocking of each other’s language or background. Instead of forming separate groups, whispering and giggling among themselves, they sit together and help each other, including with language. A bilingual girl, Me Li Xiao, told me that at the beginning of the term she was afraid to talk in class because people would make fun of her, but as the term went on she knew this wouldn't happen. She now participates in class discussions. At the end of the term Annmarie DiMarco wrote: “We not only learn what happens outside of us but we also learn what happens inside of us. I [became] friends with people I don't normally stay with. I respect them more for the person inside.”
There will be no emergency in American education when the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method is standard in every classroom.