|NUMBER 1325.—August 26, 1998||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
The article by New York City science teacher Rosemary Plumstead printed here was heard first at a public seminar this May titled "The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method Succeeds—and Can End the Failure in America's Classrooms!" That title is true. And Mrs. Plumstead is one of the most loved and respected teachers in America.
The Aesthetic Realism teaching method is an urgent necessity for our nation's schools—and it is also beautiful. This method succeeds where others fail (a fact documented for over 20 years), because its principles are true and beautiful. They are the greatest pedagogical principles in existence, and were stated by the greatest man of thought, and the kindest: Eli Siegel.
In order to end the anguish in our schools—the pervasive non-learning, the racism and prejudice, the hurt inflicted by young people on each other with words and weapons—two things are necessary, both of which only Aesthetic Realism provides. What is necessary is: 1) an understanding of the cause of these matters; and 2) an alternative to that cause, of such scope, accuracy, and beauty that justice to facts and people looks more attractive than injustice.
Eli Siegel identified that in everyone which weakens our minds—the source of learning difficulties, racism, all cruelty. That thing is contempt, the "disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world" (Self and World, p. 15). If we see the world deeply as something to dislike and scorn, we may be unable to welcome into our mind facts about that world, presented in a classroom. Contempt is what makes one an intellectual snob, and also what makes one unable to learn. Contempt goes all the way from ordinary non-interest in another's feelings, to opening fire on people in a school yard—people who represent a disliked world.
There is nothing more important in the understanding of mind than Eli Siegel's showing what contempt is. But he also showed what it is in competition with: the deepest desire we have—"to like the world." To like the world, he explained, is the purpose of education. In this great principle, as Mrs. Plumstead describes, he presented the means for education to succeed—and also for people to be kind: "The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites." Through that principle, an educator, student, person doesn't get some tip or technique in the narrow sense. What we get is the ability to see and feel that every fact in the curriculum is a friend to us; that the world as large, as having thought and culture, is also warm, close; that there is no person or thing that cannot be a means of finding out who we are, and so to understand and be fair to what's not us is the most exciting, composing, and selfish thing we can do. I love that means of knowing which is Aesthetic Realism and its teaching method: the only thing big enough, true enough, and beautiful enough to beat contempt. Every child is entitled to it.
The following short, musical poems mingle science, mystery, playfulness. They are by the person who made real learning possible for every child, because his own desire to know was passionate and unceasing.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
Three Poems by Eli Siegel
The Failure Can End
By Rosemary Plumstead
After more than two decades of successful results—including with hundreds of students who thought they would never learn science—I say with bedrock conviction: the Aesthetic Realism teaching method can end the failure in America's classrooms!
Eli Siegel explained that "the purpose of education is to like the world." And he provided the scientific means through which the world can be liked, in this principle: "The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites." When I learned of it, after I had taught for three years and was close to burnt out, I felt something like what Leeuwenhoek felt when he saw microorganisms in his laboratory for the first time: "Eureka!"
I teach science at Fiorello LaGuardia High School in Manhattan to students of diverse ethnic backgrounds. Many face very difficult situations: illness at home, violence in their neighborhoods, great economic hardship. Jacinta's* mother told me, with anguish in her voice, that there were times when she did not have money to feed her children. I made sure Jacinta got breakfast and lunch at school. But for her family to undergo this horror because of our unjust, cruel economic system is unconscionable!
Every day, I see young people like Jacinta in danger of using injustices they endure to feel the world is a hateful place and that they should despise it. Early in the term, Jacinta refused to take notes and do homework. On every test, she got a grade in the 50s; and though she was clearly distressed by this, she would defiantly rip up her exam and walk out of the room.
Contempt for the world, Mr. Siegel showed, is the big interference with learning. Through the Aesthetic Realism teaching method, every fact in science gives solid evidence that reality has a logical, beautiful structure of opposites; and when my students see through the opposites that—with all the confusion, even cruelty, in the world—reality itself is made in a way they can honestly respect, they want to learn and they do!
The Heart: Power & Delicacy, To & From
I teach Regents Biology to 9th and 10th graders, and I'll describe now a lesson I gave on the heart. We began with these sentences from The Incredible Machine, published by the National Geographic Society:
From beneath the breastbone this fist-sized masterpiece sounds its beat more than 2.5 billion times in a 75-year lifetime. It drives 5 quarts of blood a minute to every cell in the body, constantly cleansing and nourishing with its ebb and flow.
I asked the class, "Do you see opposites in this description?" And Miguel said, "Yes, cleansing and nourishing: the blood removes wastes from cells and brings oxygen to them." Andrea said, "The heart is only the size of your fist —it's really delicate. But it's powerful too—with every beat it sends blood out with force!"
Using a diagram, we looked closely at the heart. And students mentioned other opposites: thickness and thinness, expansion and contraction, solidity and space. For example, we saw that within this muscular organ that looks solid from the outside, there are four open chambers. Taniqua said, "You can see that the atria [upper chambers] receive blood and the ventricles [lower chambers] pump blood out."
These fundamental opposites, to and from, make for turmoil in people: what's coming to me and what does another person deserve from me? My students and I were seeing that the heart does a wonderful job with them! When I asked the class, "Do you think all learning is a oneness of receiving and sending forth—we take in knowledge from the world, and this enables us to express ourselves?," Jaime said, "That's true! I like that."
When I first met these 14- and 15-year-olds, they were in a terrific fight between wanting to learn and acting as if they'd been through it all before and it didn't come to much. Manuel stared vacantly into space, tapping his pencil on the desk. Lisa's mother told me her daughter had a very hard time with science and had been diagnosed as having attention deficit disorder; Lisa was a mingling of fear that she couldn't learn and a trying to be nonchalant. Students of different ethnic backgrounds were separate from each other, while some, like Susan and Abigail, whispered constantly. Marion would be near tears after exams, saying, "I studied, Mrs. Plumstead, but I can't seem to remember very much." Yet as the semester progressed, the changes, including in Marion, were monumental.
The Drama of Separation & Junction
One of the awesome feats of the heart, we learned, is that it has two separate paths of circulation passing through it simultaneously. One, by which blood is sent from the heart to the lungs, is called pulmonary circulation; the other, by which blood is sent from the heart to the rest of the body, is called systemic circulation. "What do we see here?" I asked, indicating something on the diagram. Cameron said, "There's a line that goes down the middle of the heart that separates the two sides." "That," I said, "is called the septum, and its purpose is to keep the blood on one side from mixing with blood from the other side. Is there a good reason why the heart keeps blood from these two sides separate?" "Yes," Terrell said, and described excitedly what he observed: "The blood on one side has oxygen and the other doesn't." There was a lively, studious atmosphere. We saw that the separation in the heart is kind—and therefore different from the ethnic separation that can go on in a high school!
We saw that blood lacking oxygen returns to the heart and enters the right atrium. When this chamber contracts, the blood flows through the valve into the right ventricle below, which in turn contracts and sends the blood to the lungs to be replenished with oxygen. Then blood, now with oxygen, is returned to the upper chamber on the left side, where it swiftly passes through a valve to the left ventricle. When this contracts, the blood is propelled with enormous force through the aorta to every cell in the body! Though the two sides of the heart are completely separate, they are joined by muscles that encircle the whole heart. And my students were astounded to see that these two sides actually beat at the same time.
I asked whether we want, like the heart, "to have a good relation of being apart from and also joined to other people and things." Nancy said thoughtfully, "Sometimes I feel close to my friends, and other times I don't want anything to do with them." Other students nodded in agreement. We saw that the heart is efficient because each side is for the other even though they're both separate. They don't dismiss each other; they work together.
We learned that even as the sides of the heart beat together, the force with which the two ventricles beat is different. The reason is in this passage from The Incredible Machine: "The heart must drive blood through our bodies with enough force to send it surging to the farthest capillary; yet it must pump blood gently to the lungs." "That's power and gentleness!" Manuel said proudly, no longer staring into space. I asked the class, "Do we want to feel we can be both forceful and gentle?" "It's hard," Danny said; "you want to be kind, but then people think you're weak and you end up getting pushed around."
These opposites are tremendously important for teachers. Before studying Aesthetic Realism, my energy in the classroom too often took the form of angry intensity, and I would verbally bludgeon my students with facts, insisting that they memorize them because I said so. Later, I would feel I had been mean, and try to act like everyone's buddy. Then, in an Aesthetic Realism class I was honored to attend, Mr. Siegel asked me, "Do you think you see what a true idea of strength is? A person is strong who can most use the world to like it."
I told my class, "What we're hoping to feel is that when we're forceful or strong, we're also kind—because we have the same purpose in both: to encourage another person, make him or her stronger." And, I said, we can learn from the heart—"it's gentle and strong, and has the same beautiful purpose in both: to take care of the human body."
The Victory of Knowledge and Kindness
Through lessons such as these, my students' minds became keener and deeper. In the beginning of the term, only half the class passed exams. As the term went on, students were studying together and even looking forward to tests because they were passing with good grades. Jacinta, who had refused to do any work, started taking notes, asking questions, studying. She had felt doomed to fail; now she was able to pass! Manuel, who got a 45 on his first exam because he found it so hard to concentrate, ended the term with a 70, which he was very proud of. Lisa, diagnosed as having ADD, was able to concentrate and take part in class discussions, asking many questions; she passed with a 75! Marion too, who had wept because she couldn't pass any tests, now did pass—in fact, her grades rose steadily. My students came to love biology.
And they became much kinder as they saw that the heart, with its magnificent structure, is the same in every person, regardless of skin color or nationality. We watched The Heart Knows Better, the 60-second Emmy award-winning public service film produced by filmmaker and Aesthetic Realism consultant Ken Kimmelman. And they applauded when they read these kind words of Eli Siegel on the screen: "It will be found that black and white man have the same goodnesses, the same temptations, and can be criticized in the same way. The skin may be different, but the aorta is quite the same."
Ninety-one percent of my students passed the fall term biology course. Angelina wrote: "I could not do science....So I wasn't looking forward to this class. Then I discovered that I love biology! I learned to respect my body, to respect even bacteria."
The beauty and truth of the Aesthetic Realism teaching method are immortal!
*The students' names have been changed.
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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