Every Fact Has Meaning
By Rosemary Plumstead
Before studying Aesthetic Realism, while I wanted my students to learn, I myself didn’t see the facts I was teaching as having large meaning and excitement. It was no wonder the young people I taught were bored or furious most of the time, and that I too was frustrated and angry.
Now, after 26 years of using it in my classroom, I am proud to say the Aesthetic Realism teaching method succeeds because it gracefully ends the mind-deadening rift between fact and meaning. When my students—including those who had repeatedly failed or who were bored and cynical—see that facts we study in science show the world has an exciting, sensible structure and is related to themselves, they see the subject as having big meaning. And they learn!
The means is the following principle, stated by Eli Siegel, which I regard as the single most important sentence in all educational methodology: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” This is the basis of every one of the biology lessons I teach at LaGuardia High School of Music, Art, and the Performing Arts in Manhattan, including the one I tell of now, which I gave to three honors classes of ninth graders last fall. It is the grandeur of this method that through it not only do students who were failing succeed—but students who seemed to do well yet were distressed, angry, even cruel, also change. That second aspect is what I will mainly speak of here.
The students in my classes were from different neighborhoods and backgrounds. Some were fairly affluent, but many were from families struggling to make ends meet. Like other young people in programs for the “gifted” and “talented,” many had used their facility at learning facts for an exam and the praise they got, to feel jaded—that they knew it all already and it didn’t come to much. Meanwhile, there were some who, though placed in an honors class, failed in the first marking period and were worried.
In September as I looked out at these young people, I saw many faces that were outwardly cool, even expressionless. Then there were students like Jeremy,* a very bright young man who constantly tried to outdo others. When Anthony, who sat next to him, started to speak, Jeremy would laugh and make fun of him unmercifully. But right after, Jeremy would be in such a muddle that he was literally unable to answer the simplest question.
Kelly and Randall—two art students—rarely looked up during the lesson because they were drawing in their notebooks. When other students commented, Kelly often sneered, looking at Randall and rolling her eyes in disgust. Meanwhile, this young woman who acted so sure of herself was so ill-at-ease with other students that she refused to go to the lunchroom. Her mother told me with great concern that when Kelly came home from school she would be tearful, not want to eat, and be unable to sleep. In the two years that I have taught honors classes, the number of students I have heard of who are being treated for sleep disorders, seeing therapists, and taking antidepressants, has affected me tremendously.
When students use excelling in school to have less feeling for everything, including other people, and think they have conquered the world through conquering a subject, they are having contempt. And the result is large emptiness and agitation. I wanted these students to see that the facts of science are alive, meaningful, and are evidence that the world can be respected—that they themselves were not in some exclusive world where they could feel superior yet also be so pained. And I knew the Aesthetic Realism teaching method was the means of their seeing this.
Reality’s Opposites Are in Our Blood
In a lesson about blood, part of our study of the human transport system, I asked, “When you think of blood, what comes to your mind?” “Fear,” Jamal said; “I think of being injured.” “I get faint when I see blood,” Milagros added. “My hope,” I said, “is that the more we know about blood, the more meaning it will have for us.” I then read this from The Incredible Machine, published by the National Geographic Society:
The body’s river retains an age-old tie to Earth’s waters .... In our blood flows the same balance of minerals and salts that existed in ancient Cambrian seas, a heritage half a billion years old.
“That’s astounding,” Monique said. I asked, “What gives these facts such meaning? Do we feel that something going on inside us, in our own intimate circulatory system, has a relation to the earth and seas outside of us?” Abdul said with excitement, “That’s really something—the minerals in our blood are still the same as a half a billion years ago!” “How does that make you feel?” I asked the class. Kelly was really attentive now, and said with a smile, “Old, but good.” “Does it make you feel proud?” I asked. “Yes,” Nicki said; “it means we go back very far, and I like that.”
I asked the class, “Does this fact show that in every person there is an amazing relation of past and present? After all, it took millions of years for reality to get to each one of us sitting here.” Already, through the opposites of what’s inside the self and the outside world, and the present and past, there was a different feeling in the classroom about facts, and also about one’s fellow human beings. And as the lesson proceeded, my students were much more attentive.
We then studied this fact: all life, beginning as one-celled microscopic organisms, arose in the primal seas. It was easy for food, minerals, oxygen, and wastes to pass into and out of these single-celled organisms. But as organisms came to be more complex, multicellular, it was necessary to get nutrients and oxygen to interior cells and remove wastes from them. We learned that “an inner stream evolved to nourish every cell.” That “inner stream,” originating in the primal seas, was now snugly inside the body, and over time became our highly developed transport system, with 60 thousand miles of vessels carrying blood to 60 trillion cells! I saw on faces that had earlier been impassive and bored, looks of wonder and great pleasure.
As my students saw those opposites of inside and outside, past and present, in blood, they were seeing that they had a relation to the beginnings of the world and to people they had never met. This was a tremendous countering of the snobbishness that hurt them so much—of the false way they had gotten their distinction, through feeling superior and essentially unrelated to other people. I told them I learned from Aesthetic Realism that the world is the other half of ourselves. Our study of blood showed that this is not only a beautiful idea but a tangible fact.
Red Blood Cells: Stability & Change
In The Incredible Machine, we read this about red blood cells, or erythrocytes:
Launched into the bloodstream, each [red] cell will live only 4 months ... before returning to the bone marrow to die. In the second it takes to turn a page of this book, we will each lose about 3 million red cells. Yet during that second the marrow will have produced the same number.
Kelly and Randall were listening carefully and not drawing in their notebooks. And Ronald said as he turned a page of his notes, “I just lost and gained 3 million red blood cells. That’s incredible!” I asked, “Do you think this is a thrilling instance of how the body has stability and change, old and new?” “Yes,” Jeremy said; “red blood cells are dying and being born every second—that’s change—but the number stays constant."
Young people, like teachers, can feel these opposites of stability and change are painfully separate in their lives. There can be terrifying financial instability at home as a parent suddenly loses a job; some students have lived in different foster homes; others live with one parent during the week and another on the weekend. And young people feel they themselves are volatile, change moods suddenly. These same students can feel the world is boring—too stable—that their lives are filled with routine and they’re stuck.
Seeing how beautifully stability and change work together as red blood cells expire and new ones are born, my students were very excited. I asked, “Do you think we see the persons close to us as having what the red blood cells have—a constant relation of something new and surprising, and something old and familiar?” “No,” said Jeremy, who had earlier mocked other students and felt so dull; “I think we see them as ’same old, same old.'” I asked, “Is it true that every day, like the bloodstream, a person adds to himself or herself new thoughts and feelings about the world?” “It’s true!” Angel said. He had been failing at the beginning of the year, and his mother told me she was very concerned about his being so withdrawn and losing interest in school. This was the first time he had participated in class.
As the term progressed, the students changed dramatically. Jeremy stopped mocking Anthony, and began to encourage others rather than ridiculing them. Kelly started listening, became much more at ease, and the sneering team between her and Randall stopped. Her mother told me she’s so grateful that Kelly no longer comes home crying, is sleeping much better, and has really changed. By January, 100% of the class passed the course.
Jeremy wrote that because of the lessons on blood: “I look at other human beings and I think, ’they have the same thing I have.' I even treat people nicer,... because I care about people more. They have something that is so important in their bodies."
I want the students, teachers, and parents of America to know this beautiful, logical, kind teaching method!