The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

What Education & the Economy Are For

Dear Unknown Friends:

We publish an article by educator Christopher Balchin, originally of Kent, England—on the great Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method. And I am going to relate the principles behind this method to economics—and the economy from which millions of children are suffering throughout our land.

Eli Siegel is the philosopher to explain that “The purpose of education is to like the world through knowing it.” This idea is fundamental to the Aesthetic Realism method, which has been enabling children of all backgrounds to learn successfully—including children who had been thought incapable of doing so. To like the world through knowing it is why we should learn the alphabet, find out about numbers, continents, atoms, history. To like the world is the purpose of everyone’s life. Meanwhile, humanity has lived for centuries with a system of economics completely opposed to that purpose.

The profit system has not been based on the fact that this world should belong rather equally to every child from birth so he or she can have a full chance to benefit from it. Profit economics has instead been based on contempt. The profit motive is the seeing of human beings in terms of: how much money can I get out of you?; how much labor can I squeeze from you while paying you as little as possible?; how much can I force a buyer to pay for my product, which she may need desperately?

Ethics, Unions, & America’s Children

In 1970 Eli Siegel explained that this contemptuous way of economics had failed after thousands of years. The profit system might be made to stumble on awhile, but it would never recover. The fundamental cause of its failure, he said, was the force of ethics working in history. For example: 1) People on all the continents know more, can produce more things, and so “there is much more competition...with American industry than there used to be.” 2) Unions, by the 1970s, had been so successful in their fight for decent wages—so successful in bringing people lives with dignity—that big profits for stockholders and bosses who don’t do the work could no longer be easily extracted from American workers.

The persons trying to keep the profit system going cannot undo the first of those factors. So they have been trying ferociously to reverse the second: there has been a vicious, steady effort to have workers be paid less and less, be made poorer and poorer. And to achieve this, one has to undermine, even extinguish, unions—because unions are the power which prevents workers from being swindled, kicked around, humiliated, impoverished, robbed.

Meanwhile, there are America’s children. They are literally abused day after day by those persons trying to impoverish the American people so as to maintain the profit system. Many children come to school hungry. Many don’t have warm coats for winter. Home (if a child has one) is often a place of economic deprivation—and the accompanying anger.

Then, there are the schools themselves. In recent decades, as traditional venues for profit-making have fared ill, persons have looked for new ways to use their fellow humans for private gain. Behold—that huge ethical achievement in human history, public education! And the profit-seekers thought, “There’s a whole new industry for us here!” The one reason for the enormous effort to privatize America’s public schools—and that includes through vouchers and through charter schools—is: to use the lives and minds of America’s children to make profit for a few individuals.

This use of public schools is related to the effort to privatize public sector work in various fields throughout America: to have public monies used—not for the American people, not to respectfully employ public sector workers—but to finance private enterprises. And through it all, again, a big aim is to undo unions so workers can be paid less and the money can go instead to some private-profit-maker.

I see the praise of the charter schools and voucher programs as one of the biggest snow jobs foisted on the American people. Part of the trickery is: you withhold funding from public schools so they’ll have big difficulties. Then you say: “See, these schools are flops! Public schools don’t work. Use taxpayer money instead for charter schools and voucher programs.” What the public schools need is better funding and the Aesthetic Realism teaching method. And, of course, we need a national economy based on justice, not profit.

For Education & Economics to Succeed

Through the Aesthetic Realism teaching method, children see that every subject has to do with them, because central to each item in the curriculum are opposites they themselves are trying to put together. For instance, high and low are in geography—and in our own mix-up about superiority and humility. Known and unknown are the very basis of algebra—and we are trying to make sense of how we’re known, yet so unknown, to ourselves. This magnificent Aesthetic Realism principle enables students to learn: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”

The economy America needs is a oneness of opposites too. We and America’s schoolchildren need an economy that brings out the expression of each individual and is simultaneously fair to all people. We need an economy that is aesthetic, which also means ethical.

Published here are two short poems by Eli Siegel, of 1926 and 1929. They are related to the subject of Mr. Balchin’s article—history—because they have to do with time, and the fact that through it, reality can be liked. These very musical poems are impelled by the purpose Mr. Siegel had always: to see any object, any person, with justice that was deep and wide.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Lecture Title

By Eli Siegel

Lecture


Two Poems by Eli Siegel

Trees, Trees, Trees

Trees, trees, trees;

Trees in the centuries;

Millions of trees;

All beautiful,

All beautiful,

All.

Rhymed Verse

These hours are lovely,

These paper-flutterings are.

So are chestnut-burs,

And her finger-nails, hers.


They Chose Knowing, Not Bullying

By Christopher Balchin

I have seen, with every one of my 31 years of teaching, that the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method does what other methods have failed at: It brings out students’ desire and ability to learn. And it ends bullying—successfully counters unjust anger. I’ll describe some of how that occurred in a course I taught on Participation in Government to seniors at Brooklyn Academy of Science and the Environment.

The young people at the school are of various backgrounds, but most are immigrants, or children of immigrants, from the Caribbean islands. In the class I’ll tell of, students would often get into fights, sometimes almost coming to blows. They would also band together to taunt someone. For example, when Ayesha*, whose first language was Arabic and who had trouble with English, got up to speak, the class would either ignore her or make audible groans. She, in turn, acted above it all and continued to speak at great length, very loudly and rapidly, without even trying to be clear. Several times I heard her exchange furious words with someone.

Students all over America are enraged—and have a right to be—at an economy that deprives them of the future they long for, with a good job, a dignified place to live, even nourishing food. One of my students was living in a shelter. Several described how close family members could not afford medicine for chronic conditions, like diabetes. That young people in this rich nation have to endure such injustices is intolerable to me, and I said so to my class. Meanwhile, in order to respect ourselves, do we need to be angry in a way that is exact? There’s a very big danger of using a particular anger to feel justified in punishing the next person one meets—on the subway, in the schoolyard or hallway.

There was Emilio, who had come from Honduras. He was teased mercilessly about his thick accent and his culture. A young man named Kwame, about whom I’ll be saying more, took the lead in these attacks.

As a history teacher, I knew my students needed to see what Aesthetic Realism explains: there has been a fight throughout history, and also in every person, between contempt—the desire to make oneself important by lessening others—and respect, the desire to know, value, and be just to the world and people different from oneself. I knew that understanding this fight would have my students choose knowing, not anger and bullying.

An Ethical Fight in the Founding of America

When I introduced the subject of the US Constitution, as part of the mandated course on government, Kwame said coolly, “That was only for white people, Mr. Balchin.” It can understandably be hard for a young person whose relatives were slaves to see much good in a constitution that sanctioned slavery. Kwame had come to the US in 10th grade from an African nation, and his classmates, seeing him as different, had made fun of him. Very intelligent, with a tendency to be scornful, he was furious at the United States for orchestrating a coup in his home country, ousting a leader who wanted to bring in land reform and replacing him with a fascist-leaning, pro-big-business stooge. Kwame had endured racism since coming to the US. He had a cynical, laid-back but puncturing sense of humor, and had become staunchly anti-white and anti-American.

I am proud, as a white man who was once prejudiced against people I saw as different, to be able to tell my students what I learned from Aesthetic Realism: that the cause of all racism is contempt, the false building up of self by making less of the world and people different from us. I told them about a time when I was at a boarding school and a young man with darker skin was admitted. I am very sorry to say that I, like other classmates, mocked him cruelly, including with racial taunts. I never thought of that young man as having feelings like my own. Some years later, in Aesthetic Realism consultations, I began to learn about contempt. I was asked, for instance: did I see myself as different from and far superior to “ordinary persons,” who didn’t go to a boarding school and later Oxford? The answer was yes, and this attitude made me mean and often ill-at-ease.

In order for my students to welcome learning about the framing of the Constitution, it was clear that the way slavery was seen at that time had to be addressed. Many of them assumed the Constitution’s framers had simply advocated slavery, and they were surprised to learn that actually a battle on the subject went on. In fact, the first draft of the Declaration of Independence specifically condemned the slave trade. There were laws and rulings against slavery in Massachusetts, Vermont, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut before the Constitution was written.

I told the class that from the beginning there was a battle in America between two ways of seeing: Are we going to take care of ourselves through justice to people; or through making ourselves big by lessening them—which includes exploiting and even owning them? We learned that a leading figure in the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin, who himself had once owned slaves, strongly opposed slavery. He was head of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. Meanwhile, the South Carolina and Georgia delegates to the Convention, in particular, were adamantly against any restriction of slavery.

“Can we see from this,” I asked, “the struggle going on at the time of the founding of this nation? Is that like a struggle we all have: between wanting to be fair to other people, give them what they deserve—and feeling we don’t owe anything to them and in fact they exist to be managed and run by us, including economically?” The drafters of the Constitution did finally agree to the hideous, contempt-based Three-Fifths Compromise, in which, for the purpose of representation and taxation, an enslaved man or woman counted as three-fifths of a person.

When the Constitution was written, in 1787, the slave trade was a multi-million-dollar international industry, and those leaders of our nation who took a stand against that evil were courageous. I asked the class, “Are there some things going on today about which people in the future will ask, ‘How could they let that happen?!’” Yes—like homelessness and poverty, students said. The atmosphere in the classroom by now was much more thoughtful.

Sameness & Change in the Constitution & Us

As the semester continued, my students were increasingly excited learning about how the Constitution was made, including the fact that the Founding Fathers built in a method of change, known as the amending process. “How should we see the fact that the framers of the Constitution thought their work was not the final word?” I asked. “It’s good. They prepared for the future,” Ayesha said—in very clear English!

The class respected the amending process. We saw that it—unlike how we can be rigid and insist on our way at all costs—enables the Constitution to be criticized and change in ways it needs to change, while maintaining its beginning purpose. Using their pocket copy of the Constitution, they described some of the changes made. Pointing to Amendment 13, Kadeem said: “This one says they ended slavery.”

Meanwhile, the fight between contempt and justice went on. When the 13th Amendment, banning slavery, was passed, southern states were furious and immediately introduced the first of the Black Codes. These prohibited black men from voting or serving on a jury, and in some cases sanctioned slave labor even though slavery had been abolished. There were numerous instances of southern state governments or militias engaging in violence against black people.

“They were mad, Mr. Balchin,” Raquel explained. “That’s when they started the KKK.” Yes, and this is why the 14th Amendment was passed. It reads in part:

No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

The 14th Amendment, passed in 1868, has become one of the most important. It effectively nationalized the original Bill of Rights, with its guarantees of freedom of speech, protection against unlawful search and seizure, due process in court cases, and more. The amendment says these rights can’t be taken away from any citizen by state governments. “That’s good,” Kwame said of it: “they’re standing up to the Man!”

We saw that the 14th Amendment puts opposites together. I asked, “Is it tough?” “Yes.” “Is it also kind?” “Yes.” “Were the writers expressing themselves and at the same time fighting for justice for other people? Isn’t that what we want to do?” Students said yes, they wanted to do both. The amendment is strict—in behalf of freedom. It’s one and many: asserts the supreme power of the unitary federal government over the states—on behalf of the over 300,000,000 individuals in our nation.

How the Semester Ended

My students, once angry and cynical, came to love the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment, which enforced it nationally. Some carried their pocket Constitution with them long after we’d finished using it in class. When they made oral, PowerPoint, and poster presentations on amendments and landmark Supreme Court cases, many were passionate and careful.

At the end of the term I was moved when, in a conversation, Kwame said to me quietly, “Mr. Balchin, I’m not a racist anymore.” Emilio, who had been bullied by Kwame and others, wrote, “With no doubt I know this is the class I learned the most, not only academically but in real life. I do now get along with people that I did not get along with at the beginning of the class.” Other students wrote: “I learned that you shouldn’t be cold to people’s ideas,” and “I learned...how caring for other people is a fundamental part of running a successful government.” In answer to my question about what the students expected to be doing in the future, Franklyn, who had often been laid-back and coldly cynical, wrote: “I don’t know, but whatever it is I will be affected, not cold.”

Because of a snow day earlier in the year, the students were called in for an extra day at the end of June. The principal had scheduled an assembly, and Ayesha surprisingly went up to the mike during a lull. She spoke—clearly—about problems she’d had when she first came to the school, and asked, “Is Mr. Balchin here?” I waved to her. She spoke of how much the school means to her, and of her new friendships, and said, “I want to thank you, Mr. Balchin. You changed my life.”

It’s a great thing to hear that said of me. And—joining with Ayesha—I say, as an educator and person, to Eli Siegel, Ellen Reiss, and my teachers in the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method workshop: “I want to thank you. You changed my life.”

*The students’ names have been changed.