The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Right of Every Child

Dear Unknown Friends:

This issue of TRO is about the greatest friend there has ever been to education and every child: the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method. We print a paper that junior high school science teacher Barbara McClung presented earlier this year at a public seminar titled "The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method: Prejudice Ends—in Students and Teachers—and Learning Succeeds!" This ached-for method arises from Aesthetic Realism—the philosophy of unprecedented cultural richness, exactitude, comprehensiveness, and kindness, founded by the person increasingly seen to be the most courageous, passionately just man of thought who ever lived: Eli Siegel. 

In the midst of all the failure and fury that pervade New York schools, it is a fact, documented year after year, that in those classrooms where the Aesthetic Realism teaching method is the basis, learning grandly succeeds, and students become kinder. Through the Aesthetic Realism teaching method, in classes from kindergarten through high school—in Brooklyn, lower Manhattan, Harlem—students want and are able to learn, including students who had given up on themselves and been seen as failures. And it is a fact, as important as any in this world, that through the Aesthetic Realism method, prejudice, in all its hideousness and brutality, ends!

The basis of this teaching method is in three principles: 1) Eli Siegel showed that "the purpose of education "—and also the purpose of everyone's life—"is to like the world" (Self and World, p. 5). 

He showed 2) that what stops a person, of any age, from learning is contempt for the world. So many children in America, walking through the doors of schools, sitting at desks, have come to feel the world is an enemy and a mess. They have horribly been encouraged to do so through an economic system, the profit system, which makes millions of children poor. Not having the food they want and need, or good clothing; seeing their parents humiliated because they can't provide for the family—this is not caused by the world, with its lively curriculum. It is caused by various human beings determined to have a nation owned in such a way that some individuals can be superior to others. But it is hard for a child, beset and robbed by the profit system, to distinguish. 

Other children, who are not poor, also see their parents worried about money, and fighting, and use that to dislike reality. And children use the hypocrisy and selfishness of adults to hate—wrongly—the world itself. 

Then in a classroom, without knowing why, they are deeply against the subjects, facts, words which arise from that world. They do not want to give a home in their minds to items coming from a world they dislike. They can also, without being aware, get a triumph from not letting those items of knowledge into them: from showing "the world isn't good enough to sully me! " That triumph is contempt. 

The Cause of Prejudice

And contempt, Mr. Siegel greatly explained, is also what makes for every instance of prejudice and racism. Prejudice comes from the feeling, "If I can look down at this person representing the world different from me, I'm Somebody: I have the sense I'm better than not only him but this whole crummy world!" 

 3) It is through this vital principle stated by Eli Siegel that students, as Mrs. McClung shows, come to love a subject—and learn it!: "The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites." Students see, through the subject, that this world has a structure which is sensible, beautiful—the oneness of opposites—and so the world gets their respect and care, not their scorn and hatred. They see, for instance, that the drama of less and more in mathematics is like the drama within them: does What's-Not-Me add to me or lessen me? They see in a history lesson that people long ago are like them, not just different; so they are ready to see that a student in the same room whose skin and background are different is richly like them too—not someone to defeat or sneer at. They see through the way one sentence is made more valuable by others it joins with in a paragraph, that they can be more their individual selves through meeting justly other things and people. This principle is magnificent in the history of philosophic thought; but it is also a lifeline and mind-line for every child, stymied, beleaguered, yet aching to learn about and like this wide world. 

Earth and a Child

I love the short poem by Eli Siegel that we publish here. It has us feel, through its words and their beautiful music, the earth is both magnificent and warm. That is how every child deserves to see the world. The earth of America, with its "common hills" and all that earth's wealth, should belong to every child, in common: millions of children should be defrauded no longer. And America's children have the right to like this world, and to learn, through Aesthetic Realism, how. Just as we feel sameness and difference in the rhyme of "everyone" and "done," a child has the right to feel with love and pride that this world she was born into is at once different and the same as herself. 

There is no better news for children and everyone than the fact that—despite bloated egos—Aesthetic Realism is increasingly reaching America, because truth is immortal and Eli Siegel bravely represented it all the time.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


As Is Now Done

By Eli Siegel

These common hills

In smoke 

Near purple 

And fuzzy mountains 

Are friends of everyone, 

Even those 

Who haven't written of them 

As is now done.


Science, Earth, & Prejudice

By Barbara McClung

I have seen in 12 years of teaching junior high school science that the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method is urgently needed because Eli Siegel, the greatest of educators, showed that the structure of the world (present in a tadpole, a cloud, a mountain range) is a thrilling relation of opposites: the same opposites in every student and teacher. 

 I'm going to speak about earth science classes I taught last semester at JHS 56 on Manhattan's Lower East Side to 8th grade students of different ethnic backgrounds: Asian, Hispanic, African-American. As we studied topography, we saw that each of the surface features of the earth is an exciting relation of high and low, surface and depth—opposites brutally separate when a person is prejudiced. 

While the young people I teach have experienced the cruelty of prejudice, I have also heard them show prejudice, taunting each other in the hallways. I am tremendously grateful to have learned what the flyer announcing this seminar describes: "The cause of both learning difficulties and prejudice is contempt, 'a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not [one]self.' " 

Can we learn from the way the earth is both high and low? We read in Concepts and Challenges in Earth Science about the "three main regions of the earth's topography": plains, which are "not far above sea level"; plateaus, "flat areas of land that are at least 600 in above sea level"; and mountains. 

We saw that the magnificent Rocky Mountains have peaks that soar into the clouds and rise out of valleys. I asked, Are these opposites of high and low also in our feelings? Have we felt high-spirited, happy; and sad, low? Yes, my students said. And do you think a person of a background different from yours also has these feelings and may be confused by them? The class was thoughtful. Do the mountains say to the valleys, "How inferior you are!"? Does a valley say to a mountain, "You don't have the depth I have; you are superficial!"? We saw that these different features of earth don't have contempt for each other: they add to each other. 

What was taking place is described in the flyer for this seminar: "Every time students see through a specific subject that the world has a sensible, even beautiful structure—the desire to look down on, mock, hurt another person representing the world is combated successfully. " 

The Contour Map and Justice

Our group project was to learn how to construct a contour or topographic map, which shows the heights and depths of surfaces on the earth. All the points that have the same elevation above sea level are connected by a line, called a contour line. We can see that a mountain is steep, through lines that are close together; or that it has gentle slopes, through lines further apart. 

In a lab, students loved making their own contour maps. We placed a model of a mountain in a clear plastic box, first marking the side of the box with horizontal lines one centimeter apart to indicate elevations: 100 feet, 200, etc. Then we added colored water, stopping when the water level reached the first marking. We taped a plastic overlay onto the box lid, put the lid on the box, and, looking at the mountain and water from above, we used a grease pencil to trace the "shoreline" onto the plastic overlay. That became our firstcontour line. 

We did this repeatedly: each time, taking the lid off, we would add water until it reached the next marking on the side of the box; then, putting the lid back on, we would trace on it the new "shoreline, " creating another contour line. The class liked carefully trying to reproduce the heights and depths of the mountain. 

I asked, "What happens to these opposites when a person is prejudiced?" "In prejudice," Lei Quan* said, "you insult someone of another race to make them feel low and make yourself feel higher." I read this description of contempt by Mr. Siegel: "a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not [one]self." Sheila Raymond courageously said she had gone after that: "I hurt somebody's feelings and I made her cry. At first I felt big and strong, but after a while I felt very bad." 

It means my life to me that the snobbish way I once saw people was criticized in Aesthetic Realism consultations. Growing up in Connecticut, I cultivated a polite manner while scathingly making less of other people in my mind. This contempt left me lonely, mean, and often depressed. 

I also regret that I saw my students as very different from me—and my superior manner made them angry. There was Carmen Diaz, who could be excited in the classroom, then unexpectedly burst out in anger. Once, when she arrived late without a pass, I told her she couldn't come into the room and began to close the door. She tried to stop the door from closing and called me some choice names. I was furious, asserted myself as right, didn't ask any questions—yet knew there was something very wrong with my response. 

I did an assignment recommended in the great class The Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel As Teaching Method: that a teacher write sentences about how oneself and a student one is having a hard time with are the same and different, with the stipulation that different does not mean superior.  I wrote that Carmen and I both wanted to be seen fairly; both had pleasure learning something new in science; both could get angry in a way we weren't proud of; both were thrilled looking through a microscope. 

I later told the class I was critical of myself and ashamed of how angry I had gotten. I said I learned from Aesthetic Realism that there are two kinds of anger: a respectful anger, on behalf of justice to people and things; and a narrow anger, on behalf of our own comfort and superiority, which always makes us ashamed. I saw relief come over Carmen's face, and there came to be a mutual respect between us. I am tremendously grateful to Aesthetic Realism that I see more every day my relation of sameness and difference to the students I teach, whom I care for so much and who add to my life so richly. 

Pride, Kindness, and Learning

Studying earth science through the Aesthetic Realism method, my students are seeing they are related to the world and all people. They are learning with beautiful success—and the fighting, insults, and cruelty rampant in classrooms throughout the city simply do not occur. Manuel Ortiz, for example, wrote about the earth's opposites and people he'd seen as so different from him—Chinese people, "They have highness and lowness like me. They could have down feelings like me. It makes me feel the same." Sal Doria, who had cynically said, "What good is [education] to me if it doesn't put money in my pocket?," recently expressed sincere regret about joining with other boys last year in calling a classmate names. He loved our study of topographic maps and said that through them he saw things in "a different way"—"respectfully." 

I am so proud and grateful to have seen the results the Aesthetic Realism teaching method makes for: the pride, kindness, and learning!

*The students' names have been changed.