The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Beautiful Teaching Method

Dear Unknown Friends:

There is a tremendous urgency about this issue of The Right Of, because it is about the teaching method America’s schools are desperate for. It is about the teaching method that really works, that enables children, including those in some of the most economically ravaged neighborhoods, to learn successfully and with pride; the method that can stop the horrible racial animosity in the schools of this nation, and has done so with real students in real New York City classrooms: the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method. And this TRO is also a celebration: of how beautiful, kind, glowingly true, steadily successful Aesthetic Realism and its teaching method are! 

We begin with three short poems by Eli Siegel. They say, musically and with charm, something large about what this world is like—the world in which every schoolchild finds himself. And we publish a paper by New York City teacher Patricia Martone, who is also one of the instructors in the most important class for educators in America: The Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel As Teaching Method. Her paper was part of a public seminar titled “The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method Explains Why Students Don’t Learn—& How They Can!” 

As I have already implied, the Aesthetic Realism teaching method is not only true and effective—it is beautiful. It not only enables students to pass courses, do well on exams—it enables students to feel that a fact is warm, that a topic in the curriculum is one’s friend and therefore should be welcomed into one’s mind. 

Eli Siegel is the philosopher who showed that the deepest purpose of every person is to like the world on an honest basis; but that we can go away from this purpose because of another purpose of ours: to have contempt. And he showed that ordinary contempt, the desire to have an “addition to self through the lessening of something else,” is the beginning of all the cruelty that has ever been, including racism. This contempt is also what makes a person unable to learn. 

Mr. Siegel explained that the purpose of education is “to like the world through knowing it.” Part of liking the world is to criticize the injustice in it; and no person was a more courageous, passionate critic of injustice than Eli Siegel. But every item in the curriculum represents the world. And the reason the world as such can be honestly liked, including by a child of 8 who has already endured a lot, is in this Aesthetic Realism principle: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites” (Eli Siegel, Self and World, p. 83). Mr. Siegel writes, in sentences at once scientific and tender: 

The structure of what thing cannot illuminate our own structure? Does not a sheet of paper in its wideness and narrowness bring some essential likeness to us, to ourselves?...Education, principally, is the pleasant finding out of how things can help us know who we are as we see them. 

What Children Long to See

I am a person who knows firsthand how much the Aesthetic Realism teaching method has a child want to and able to learn. I met Aesthetic Realism very early, and it made me love education, from kindergarten through graduate school and beyond. I also saw in Eli Siegel what children long to see but feel they will never see in a person: honesty that was sheer and constant; kindness one could always count on; and a desire to know that was so uncurtailed, it made him at once the most comprehensive of scholars, and the person who understood a child to her tumultuous depths. 

There is no educational method more respected than the Aesthetic Realism teaching method, and Aesthetic Realism is becoming known in America. Like everything big and beautiful that makes for more respect for humanity and therefore cramps the ability of narrow people to have contempt and power, Aesthetic Realism has had enemies.

The resentment of Aesthetic Realism is ugly; but it is also terrifically stupid: it shows a mind disabled, viciously fearful of what is great. 

The Aesthetic Realism teaching method is the greatest friend to education and every child. That is why it is respected and loved—and will be by all humanity forever.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Short Poems by Eli Siegel

In the Uninviting

There is the exciting

In the uninviting.

Coffee

Coffee has aroma

And gives good cheer;

And has represented reality

Year after year.

Study

The tornado

Was bent

On being a tornado,

Not on destruction;

Just as an earthquake

As such

Doesn’t want to destroy anything;

Or a hurricane

To sink anything.


Words Are Their Friends!

By Patricia Martone

“The purpose of all education,” Eli Siegel writes, “is...to find sense in the world.” And he explains that not liking the world is what “makes for the negative educational phenomenon of inability to read” (TRO 12). I have seen the truth of this explanation in over two decades of teaching. And I have also seen, in some of the toughest, most deprived neighborhoods: children can and do learn eagerly when they see, through the Aesthetic Realism teaching method, that this world, with all its confusion, does make sense—it has a structure we can honestly like, the oneness of opposites. 

Many of the children I teach in ESL (English as a second language) classes at PS 97 on the Lower East Side suffer horribly from our unjust economic system. I have seen children come to school ravenously hungry, desperate for the sandwiches and snacks the school provides. For children in this wealthy country to live in crowded, unhealthy, rodent-infested apartments is outrageous. Some of my students live in a shelter for homeless families near the school. 

In TRO #1221, Ellen Reiss writes: 

The profit system has made millions of American children poor; has...encouraged millions of children to feel the world is an enemy. And it is hard to want to take into one’s mind facts, subjects, knowledge coming from a world one sees as one’s enemy. 

I have told my students how angry I am at the way so many people in this country are made to live. And I tell them what I learned from Aesthetic Realism: there are things we should be against, because they’re unfair—but we have no right to use them to be against the whole world. And I’ve asked, “Do you think we need to do everything we can to like the world, or we’ll stop ourselves from growing and learning?” I have seen the look of relief on their faces, and they always say “Yes!” Most of the 5th and 6th grade students I taught this year were in Special Education classes because they had difficulty learning to read. At the beginning of the term, all were reading far below grade level. They were also quick to be insulted, fight, or accuse each other of taking a pencil or crayon. They made fun almost constantly, calling each other “stupid,” “dumb,” “ugly.” 

The Opposites Made Words Come Alive 

Most of my students speak Spanish as their first language. According to the Curriculum Frameworks Guide, an ESL teacher should teach English language skills through “academic areas other than language arts, such as science, math, and social studies.” I chose a science topic for a series of reading lessons. I knew that if these children could see through the facts of science that reality is worthy of their respect because it puts opposites together in a way that is beautiful—the same opposites that are in them—they would welcome new words representing that reality. So we began to study the desert. “What words come to your mind when you think of a desert?” I asked. “Sand,” said Ricardo.* Ana said, “Hot and dry.” Dolores said, “Boring.” “Hardly anything grows there!” said Michael. I asked whether a person also can feel dry and dull—not alive enough. Yes—and Manuel said he’s sometimes very sleepy and doesn’t want to get up in the morning. I read these sentences from their book In the Desert

Before you decide that deserts are just flat and sandy places, take another look. The true adventurer sees beautiful colors, incredible scenery, and an amazing variety of life. 

My students heard opposites in this description. Taniqua said that while there’s a feeling of emptiness, the desert “is also full of things.” José said, “No life and life!” We read about the Sonoran Desert, in Arizona, California, and Mexico, and learned it has more than 2,500 kinds of plants and many different birds and animals. Rafael and Marcos pointed to a giant cactus and asked if they could draw pictures of it later. And the class was very glad when I read to them about the kit fox and the jack rabbit, who are able to do well in the intense heat because their extra large ears radiate heat to keep them cool. 

Seeing the opposites—that in a place so harsh, where food and water are scarce and air temperatures can soar to 130°, there is also something kind, sustaining life—encouraged these young boys and girls to see the world as friendlier: to feel, with all the harshness they met, there were more kind possibilities than they thought. And so with each new object and living being we studied, they wanted to learn the English word that described it! 

I Changed about Learning 

When I began teaching English in 1971, I wanted to impress my students, but spoke in a dry, monotonous way, taking the life out of the subject. My students hated it, and didn’t listen. I am so fortunate that at this time I learned of Aesthetic Realism. 

In a class taught by Eli Siegel which I was honored to attend, he asked me, “Are you sufficiently interested in your students?” I said, “No.” And he continued, “But you act as if you were? Do you think you have learned enough, ...or do you think knowledge is still waiting for you?” I saw I had felt I had learned enough. He explained, “According to Aesthetic Realism, every time we learn about something, we are more ourselves.” When I told my students the next day about the criticism I had heard, they cheered. And the whole direction of my life and my teaching changed! 

Fast & Slow — in the World, Words, Us 

One of the most thrilling points in the lessons I’m telling of occurred as the class listened to this description from Deserts, published by the Wildlife Conservation Society: 

Seeds lie on the desert floor, sometimes for years. When rain does fall, the seeds sprout immediately .... Wildflowers can erupt overnight and carpet the desert with incredible color following a rainstorm. 

I asked, “Are the seeds dormant, quiet, and then very energetic in a way that’s beautiful?” “Yes,” Mark shouted, “it is beautiful! They wait for a long time and then when that rain comes, they grow fast!” We talked about how each of us has rest and motion: we can be quiet, then suddenly want to shout or run—and burst forth like those flowers. 

My students were seeing that the world was like them, through the opposites! During this lesson they learned the meaning of the English words bloom, cycle, drought, erupt, carpet, incredible. Next day they remembered successfully what we'd read, and were eager to read and learn more. 

We then looked at how words too, in their sounds, have slowness and speed. They saw that long vowel sounds are slower than short ones. They liked seeing that bloom, with its long oo, is a very slow word and has the sound of wonder, while rabbit, as sound, jumps, just like the animal itself—it moves fast! 

The children told me they wanted to read better, and asked me to select passages for them to read. They eagerly got pencils, papers, and books for themselves, while earlier in the term they would tell me they couldn’t find anything and wait until I brought materials to them. Now they practiced the words they didn’t know—until they could read them correctly! Ana, for example, who used to put her head on her book and did not want to read, happily learns new words every day. And they are kinder. Recently, when the class went to the Bronx Zoo, Ricardo, who had gotten into fights very quickly with other children, wanted to share the food he had with them. 

These children represent the beautiful effect of the Aesthetic Realism teaching method. Once so cynical, angry, and resigned not to learn, they have a real interest in books. They have seen that their minds can grow and thrive. They can learn!

*The students’ names have been changed