What Education Is For
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are serializing Eli Siegel’s landmark 1973 lecture Educational Method Is Poetic. And we print too part of a paper that Aesthetic Realism consultant Marcia Rackow presented this month at an Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled “To Manage People, or Understand Them: The Historic & Intimate Debate.”
What Mr. Siegel shows in this lecture is the basis of the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method: The purpose of education is to like the world through knowing it. That, too, is the largest purpose of everyone’s life. Every subject in the curriculum, every fact taught in a classroom, is a means to like the world, because it is evidence that reality is made well: the object of study, like the world it is of, is a oneness of opposites—such opposites as sameness and difference, motion and rest, the known and the unknown, freedom and order. And these opposites are in us—maybe confusingly, tumultuously.
In the part of the lecture included here, Mr. Siegel speaks passionately, with beautiful intensity and sweetness, about the purpose of education. In 2001, schools are in even more disarray than in 1973. So many children in the nation’s classrooms are turbulent, furious. The reason is the first of Eli Siegel’s beautiful “Twenty-one Distichs about Children”:
Bernice thinks a little.
Bernice is two months old; the world is new for her.
Ah, will her parents' angry world quite do for her?¹
The enormous trouble in schools exists because the angry world children see—also selfish world, also insincere world—won’t do for them. And a child who feels the world won’t do, will not be graceful with such representatives of that world as equations, words to be read and spelled, items of science.
The world, to be sure, is not the same as the way people deal with it and run it; but most of us, including children, don’t make that needed distinction. So America’s children have judged the world on the basis of what they see around them. A child can be given 50 tests a week—if she deeply despises the world in which, and about which, she’s told to learn, there will be a profound blockage.
America has reached this state: children have to believe that the adults of this country, including teachers, like the world which education is about—that these adults really think the world is good to take within one’s mind accurately, honestly, and lovingly. But the children don’t believe that the adults who are telling them to learn, care much for reality. In homes, on television, in ads, on streets, children see people wanting to own as much of the world as possible; they see that adults feel it’s a world in which to beat out others and look down on others. Certainly, they see instances of kindness too, and beauty. But the children are deeply furious that the world they were born into is being presented not as something that people care for—and that they can care for—but as something in which to grab, something to fight, something to get away from.
Aesthetic Realism explains that the thing in every person which interferes with learning is contempt: the feeling “he will be for himself by making less of the outside world.” Children see much contempt; and they too have contempt, for people and the world. Then they’re told to do well on tests!
Definitely, the children deserve to live in a nation that is owned equally—by all of them and us. And they won’t trust anyone who doesn’t think so and say so. Economics in America, with many people being poor so some others can be very rich, is simply ugly and unethical. The press and politicians can pretend about this all they want, but in the year 2001 children won’t learn well in school unless they think adults want the world owned well: that is, justly. A child can be selfish and acquisitive himself but still be deeply disgusted by the selfishness and grabbiness of others. And to tell a child who is poor to pass a test, without your making it clear that his poverty is something America should apologize to him for and remedy immediately—well, this is going on in school after school, and it is not only dishonest: it won’t work.
The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method succeeds because it is true: about reality, education, and children’s hopes. Through it, for example, in a science lesson a child might learn that gravitation makes the tremendous opposites sameness and difference one. According to the Columbia Encyclopedia, Newton proved “that all bodies in the universe...have a mutual attraction for each other.” Newton’s law of gravitation shows that all the things of reality are for—are drawn to—what’s not themselves, what’s different! Gravitation, then, shows that the very structure of reality is opposed to an awful thing affecting life in America, racism—because racism falsely uses difference against sameness, uses difference to have contempt. Gravitation is opposed to our own desire to be apart from things, people, knowledge—to make ourselves a different, separate world. Seeing this, a child sees gravitation as a friend to welcome into her mind.
Eli Siegel provided the means for people to see knowledge as dear to them, as about them, as showing a world they can truly like. He himself was at ease in every field of thought. His desire to know was passionate, unending, and beautifully successful.