Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The Aesthetics of Science Education



The Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel is the solution to the national emergency in education. For more than 30 years, I have used it as the basis of my teaching students from every borough of New York City, and what I have seen happen to their ability to learn is tremendous.

Eli Siegel explained the purpose of education: “to like the world through knowing it.” When students see in the facts about a subject that the same world that can pain and confuse them is made in a way they can honestly respect, they learn eagerly. I have seen students who were furious and on the verge of dropping out, give the world a second chance. They retain what they learn, they pass the course and they become kinder.

LaGuardia High School in Manhattan, where I taught (1991-2004), is a school for students interested in the arts. Like young people throughout America, they are affected horribly by our economic system. The prospect of a well-paying job is bleak. Many can’t afford to attend even local colleges because the tuition is too high and books are expensive. Yvette James,* for example, spent the year selling cupcakes so she could get a dress for graduation. And when I asked Karen Dobbs why she was absent so often, she told me her father had lost his job and her family was forced to move in with an aunt.

Environmental Science & OurselvesI’ll speak today about one lesson, on symbiosis, which I taught in my environmental science classes. The basis of it and all my teaching is this principle stated by Mr. Siegel: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”  The lesson I’ll tell of brought out my students’ desire and ability to learn because they saw evidence that the world has structure that can be honestly liked: it is a oneness of dependence and independence, sameness and difference. The textbook “Biology: The Dynamics of Life,” describes symbiosis as a dramatic situation in which organisms of different species are interdependent on each other for protection, food, or energy.

I asked the class, “What do you think are the possible effects that two organisms can have on each other?” “Positive, negative, or no effect,” Myrna answered. In the case where two organisms of different species have a positive effect on each other, benefit from their interdependence," I explained, "it is called mutualism." And when I asked for an example, Tony spoke about a National Geographic video we’d seen on the tropical rainforest. “How about the ants and the tree,” he said: “they helped each other.”

The swollen thorn acacia tree, which grows in the Costa Rican rainforest, is inhabited by a species of ants, and the tree and the ants completely support each other. The acacia has edible leaves, which make it prey to plant-eating insects. But the ants come to the rescue! Any insect that lands on the leaves is visited by the ants, who nip at it until it flees.

In turn, the acacia tree takes care of the ants. At the base of the swollen thorns, are nectaries that secrete a sugary, rich solution that the ants get nourishment from.  It also provides protein rich, oval shaped structures on the leaves of some branches, which the ants remove and carry as food to their developing larvae. These larvae are housed in huge thorns on the limbs of the tree. “It’s great,” said Manny.

“What opposites are made one in mutualism?” I asked. “Well, they’re both helping each other and getting something too,” Candace called out. Each is an independent organism, trying to survive. To have the ability to help another is an aspect of independence; to need something from that other is dependence.

Then I asked Lydia about the same opposites in us. “How long can you live without oxygen?” “Just a few minutes,” she said. “So we’re completely dependent on oxygen for life. But,” I continued, “does the fact that the world supplies the oxygen we need, enslave us or make us free?” “I think it makes us free,” she said, smiling.

That I could see needing the world as the same as freedom, I owe to my Aesthetic Realism education in individual consultations and later in classes taught by Mr. Siegel. As to how I saw needing people, he asked me: “Do you have a desire to defy anything that comes from someone else?” “Yes, I do,” I answered. And he asked: “Is there any person in this world who couldn’t be useful to you?” No-every person provides a chance, at least, to know more. I began to think about dependence and independence in a new way.

These opposites trouble everyone, and very much high school students. They want to run their own lives, and resent having to answer to anybody, including parents. They also want to feel that they need other people--for friendships, encouragement. Through learning about mutualism, we were also learning how to have these opposites in a better relation in our own lives.

Good Will in Nature?We talked about another pair of opposites: sameness and difference. “What do you notice,” I asked, “about the organisms that are involved in this relation?” “They’re very different from each other,” said Jennifer. We discussed how each, though different, has a similar purpose—to survive—and does so by taking care of the other organism, making it stronger.

I told them this definition of good will by Eli Siegel: “the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful.” “Do you think that something like good will is going on between two beings in mutualism?” “Yes,” they answered. “There are thousands of instances in which this occurs,” I said. Mikhail told how lichen, which lives on bare rock, is formed by a relation of alga and fungus which support each other. Jose thought of how plants provide oxygen for us while we provide carbon dioxide for them. We had a deep discussion in one class about whether the relation between a blind person and a seeing eye dog was an example of mutualism. We thought so.

I asked the class, “How different do you think the world would be if people took good will seriously?” “Very different,” commented Manny thoughtfully. Through the opposites my students were learning science and at the same time, becoming deeper, more compassionate people.

Commensalism & Parasitism TooIn the relation called commensalism, the opposites of sameness and difference, dependence and independence are present differently. In commensalism, the textbook said, one organism benefits and the other is seemingly unchanged. However, we need to ask questions about this.  For example, when a barnacle attaches to a whale, it gets to travel over lots of territory in which to feed, and this has a good effect on the barnacle. Whales are highly intelligent, and if a whale wanted to--it, or another whale--could possibly rid itself of barnacles.  Perhaps the whale even has a sense of pride that it can be a means of such a delicate being surviving and flourishing.

Clearly, this is a thrilling and humorous relation, of sameness and difference between these two beings: both live in the water and eat organisms found there, but a whale weighs as much as 58 tons.  Humpback whales migrate from Alaska to their winter home in Hawaii--over 6,000 miles--while the barnacles weigh only a few ounces and as adults are unable to move on their own.  This relation pleased my students very much. 

There was a great deal of stir in the class as we looked at the last type of relationship, parasitism. In it, difference and sameness, dependence and independence are at war. In parasitism, one organism gets stronger by feeding off and weakening another. In most cases, the parasite damages or causes disease in the host, and it can even cause death.

My students were most interested in the tapeworm, which secures itself to the inner walls of an animal or human intestine and absorbs its food. They looked at slides of a tapeworm, and saw how it works--its four discs on its tiny square head which grasp the lining of the intestine and suck nutrition from it; how it grows segment by segment to reach twelve to twenty feet or more in length.  Ronnie said, “It’s so nasty!” Every now and then I’d hear “yuk” from somewhere in the room. But they were gripped. We were all seeing this tremendously important fact: even something evil can be a subject of knowledge. We were seeing what Mr. Siegel explained: “Reality, says science, is at least good to know.”

“What can we learn about ourselves from these symbiotic relationships?” I asked. “I think people can be like parasites sometimes,” commented Alicia. “In business they can want to get ahead and it doesn’t matter who they step on.” “But do you think there are ordinary ways that we take the life out of things around us?” I asked. “By making fun of someone,” Terry remarked. “Not caring about someone’s feelings,” Jeremy replied. These are instances of contempt, which Mr. Siegel defined as “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.”

“Can these organisms teach us something about how we want to be?” I asked. “Do we want to be strong by respecting what’s different from us, including people, by hoping they are as good as they can be; or do we want to get a false sense of strength through making less of people? The cruelty and violence that make the streets of New York and the halls in many schools dangerous,” I said, “come from contempt”—from the feeling we’ll be more if we lessen someone else.”

When I asked, “Of the three relationships we studied, which one would you be proud to have?,” Ronnie said, “Mutualism”—to the agreement of others.

This lesson affected my students tremendously.  Increasingly they learned with ease and pleasure--were kinder to each other.  Ninety percent of these students passed the course. On Open School Night one mother waited a half an hour to tell me, “My son loves science for the first time, and he’s passing. Thank you so much.” The students have more respect for each other, and for life as such. Julian Thomas wrote: “I used to shoot birds with my BB gun, but since this class I saw they have feelings. I don’t do it anymore.” And Reginald Moore wrote that he thought if all students could learn through the Aesthetic Realism method, “our community would get along better. There would be a stupendous change in society, tremendous improvement.” I am proud to agree with Reginald.

Rosemary Plumstead is a consultant on the faculty of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation and has presented workshops for science educators at many professional conferences. This paper was part of a public seminar given at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City. For more information about the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method, you can visit the Foundation’s website at:

*The student’s names have been changed.

Monday, January 24, 2005

The Aesthetics of Science Education

The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method Motivates Children to Learn!
By Rosemary A. Plumstead

For the last 30 years and through the lives of thousands of young people, I have seen how the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method brings out, with tremendous success, students' ability to learn. This kind and scientific teaching method, based on principles stated by Eli Siegel, is true about every subject and fair to the mind of every student. The purpose of education, he explained is “to like the world through knowing it.” And THE biggest interference with learning is contempt—the feeling we will be more by making less of the outside world. It is the desire for contempt that impels a student to see the world, represented by the subjects of the curriculum, as boring and meaningless. And contempt motivates a teacher to belittle a student, to think with disgust, “this student will never learn.” Students and teachers need to learn about the on-going battle in oneself between respect and contempt if education is to succeed!
In this article I describe a Living Environment class which I taught at LaGuardia High School in Manhattan--a school for the performing and visual arts. The students at LaGuardia come from many different backgrounds—some are affluent, others are from families where there is great worry about money. One young man could barely keep his eyes open in class because he was playing in a band late nights to help pay the rent. Students are angry and in despair as college tuition and the price of textbooks soar.
Our unjust economic system, which I abhor, robs people daily of hope and human dignity. 600,000 children in New York State alone are without medical insurance and look to school health clinics for medical care. Young people are right to be angry at the injustices they meet, but I have seen they very often wrongly change a just anger into the victory of having contempt for everything.
As the semester began, many of my students showed they had trouble learning science. Nancy told me with a mingling of triumph and self-disgust, “I never did get science. I don’t really like it.” Alex said with pain and embarrassment, “I can’t keep what I learn in my head and I don’t know why.” When Javier spoke, students made fun of his Spanish accent, and he, insulted, would yell at them and then take the bathroom pass. Daryl sat in the back of the room tapping a ruler on his desk while talking to his neighbors. Sometimes it took ten minutes to begin the lesson.
But I have seen year after year, the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method powerfully succeeds in encouraging even the most cynical student’s desire to learn, because it shows through the very facts of the subject, that the world has a structure that is logical and beautiful. With this great principle by Eli Siegel as the basis of the lessons I teach, my students’ ability to learn biology increases by leaps and bounds: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” As they see that opposites are at the heart of the subject, and that these very same opposites are in them, they feel a wide, deep, friendly, relation to the subject, to the world it represents, and they become kinder to each other.
I. The Digestive System Puts Together Opposites—Beginning with Simplicity and Complexity, Large and Small!
I began the lesson by writing this sentence on the board. “The purpose of digestion is to take large, complex molecules present in food, and break them down into smaller, simpler molecules that can be used by the body.” I asked the class, “As you look at this sentence, what opposites do you see as central in the process of digestion?” Sharon said, “Complex and simple and large and small.” “Yes,” I said. “The food we eat has within it nutrients the body needs, but they’re not in a form that can do us good. What we’re going to see, and it’s thrilling, is that our bodies have the ability to change large, complex molecules within food, into smaller, simpler molecules the body can use.
I asked Sharon, who majors in dance, “Do you think every person is simple and complex?” She smiled and said, “Yes.” “For instance, you’re a 9th grade girl, that’s fairly simple,” I said, “but do you also have a whole range of complex emotions?” “Yes,” she said thoughtfully. “And do you think the art you care for, the dance, is always a relation of complexity and simplicity—for instance, there are complicated movements made up of simpler elements or steps?” “Yes!” she said.
You’re going to see a beautiful relation of the opposites of simple and complex at work in the digestive process, opposites that we can feel tossed about by at any moment of our lives.”

The everyday feeling that these opposites of simplicity and complexity don’t go together can torment people—including students. We spoke about how in life we can feel things are too complicated—we’re complex, other people are hard to understand, it’s all too much, and we can want things to be easy. But then we can feel things are simple in the bad sense—they’re dull. We get restless, and long to meet new things. I told the class, “Well, the digestive process does exactly what we’re looking for—it is a beautiful, simultaneous relation of complexity and simplicity that can show us what we want!”
For example, I asked: “When you eat a tuna fish sandwich, what happens? Your body is going to take in nutrients from it by breaking down the proteins in the tuna fish, the carbohydrates in the bread, the fat in the mayonnaise—to their simplest form—amino acids, monosaccharides, and lipids.” “Then guess what it’s going to do with these organic compounds?” I asked. “It’s going to get rid of them?” Samuel asked. “No,” I said, “These same nutrients become the building blocks of new complex proteins and fats.” “That is so cool,” Miriam said with a look of surprise and pleasure. My students were affected to see how wonderfully efficient the digestive system is as it works to nourish the whole body with all its complicated, diverse parts. It is not daunted by the task—no, it does a beautiful job with both complexity and simplicity during digestion.
As part of this dance, this simultaneity of complexity and simplicity, there are two ways these large portions of food are made smaller: physically and chemically. We read this from the textbook, Biology: Living Systems by Raymond F. Oram:

 Digestion begins when you put food in your mouth…Teeth physically
Grind and tear the food into smaller pieces. This process makes the
Food particles small enough to swallow and increases the surface area
[so] the enzymes are better able to begin the chemical process of digestion.

“As this process continues, literally every inch of the way, I told my students, “ it is a oneness of various pairs of opposites.” In this article I’ll mention only a few. In each instance, seeing opposites they were trying to put together made one in digestion, students liked learning the subject.
II. The Esophagus Does a Good Job with Freedom and Control, the Voluntary and Involuntary

 “After you swallow, “ I asked the class,  “Where does the food go next?”  Looking at a diagram, the students identified the esophagus, which is a passageway from the mouth to the stomach.  And I asked: “Do we have control of what happens to the food anymore?”  “No,”  Daryl said with a look of surprise.  They were glad to see something we can take so much for granted—the movement of food from our mouths to our stomachs, occurs with great order—but it’s out of our control.  The food doesn’t get stuck because of the involuntary, but so precise action of the esophagus.  The way it works is sheer aesthetics—the muscles of the esophagus alternately contract and relax, gently but firmly pushing the food towards the stomach.  This action we learned is called peristalsis.  Upon arriving in the stomach, a hollow organ that churns and mixes the food, enzymes and gastric juices slowly and deliberately break down carbohydrates further and begin to break down proteins.  My students and I were amazed to see that as food moves through the digestive tract, there is a timing that is very precise—a beautiful relation of speed and slowness that allows enzymes to work on the food and good digestion possible.  We saw that the food moves through the mouth and esophagus swiftly—staying only about a minute—but as it reaches the stomach, it remains there about four hours.  I asked, “Why do you think the food stays so long in the stomach?”  Sam said, “It takes time for the enzymes to break it down.” Yes.  If that tuna fish sandwich moved through the digestive tract too slowly or too swiftly we would not be able to absorb the needed nutrients contained in it.  Is this what we want for ourselves, a good relation of slowness and speed, lingering and moving on?

I told my students that I once had a hard time with these opposites—that I could talk very fast and move about swiftly, even while I was teaching. My students would get dizzy with the activity!  Then at other times, I would feel sluggish and dull and I didn’t understand why.  Many students nodded their heads in recognition of something they too experienced.  I said I learned from Aesthetic Realism that a person can use both going too fast and being immobile as a way of being unaffected by things and people.  And in an Aesthetic Realism class Eli Siegel suggested I listen closely to Mozart and Debussy in order to hear a beautiful relation of slowness and speed.  And the way I used these opposites began to change in a way that made me relieved and proud.
Aesthetic Realism is the philosophy that has been able to show the fundamental likeness between the arts and sciences.  And teaching science in an arts high school, I see the importance of that fact every day.  For my students to be hearing the arts they study and care for related, through the opposites, to a science lesson is a tremendous thing, bringing out their ability to learn.  I asked the class about the opposites we were seeing in digestion, “How important is timing in music?”  “Very important,” said Danny, music major.  “What would happen, say, to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony—if it was played too slowly or too fast?”  “It would sound awful,” Corinne said. I asked,  “As in the way food is digested, is there such a thing as a right relation of lingering and swiftness in playing any instance of music—a relation that is the same as justice to the piece?”  “Yes,” they said.  My students had looks of great pleasure as they thought about this.
III. The Journey Continues, and We Come to the Great Opposites of Affecting and Being Affected

As the food leaves the stomach, it travels next through the small intestine.  It is called small, because it’s only about an inch wide, but it is nearly 21 feet long in an adult.  We saw that as the passage of food in the small intestine slows down greatly—it takes 12 hours—it is worked on with terrific intensity by the digestive fluids secreted by three accessory organs—the liver, gall bladder, and pancreas.  Bile, which is produced in the liver and stored in the gall bladder, starts working in the small intestine changing large droplets of fat into smaller ones.  The pancreas secretes enzymes that continue to break down carbohydrates, proteins and fats.  Then, after food has been completely digested, is the work over?  No, the body now has the job of absorbing needed nutrients.  And we saw the small intestine is uniquely suited for this task.  Fingerlike projections about 1mm high called villi are located on the lining.  These villi, which are covered by microvilli, greatly increase the surface area for absorption of nutrients into the body.  After digestion has been completed, indigestible wastes move into the large intestine, which is about 2” wide and 5 feet long, where they remain for nearly five hours.  During that time, precious water that had been added to food from the mouth, stomach and small intestine is absorbed back into the bloodstream.  By the end of 21 hours from having taken in a meal, nutrients have been absorbed and wastes are expelled from the body.  Hearing this, the class cheered!

I asked the class, “Do you think there is a beautiful power present in digestion?”  They said there is. Charles commented, “The body changes the food we eat—that’s power.”  Yes, the body has power over the food it takes in, has an effect on it; but at the same time the body has another power: the power of BEING affected as it gets renewed strength from the food: glucose and fat for energy; amino acids and proteins for growth; fats and cholesterol for new membranes.  Every day, people make a dangerous rift between these opposites—a rift Mr. Siegel once described in me, saying that I “associated power with being a hammer.”  This was true; I wanted to have an effect, but not be affected.  The digestive system is wiser!
As we were speaking about the beautiful way the human body utilizes food that comes to us from the outside world, we talked about the fact that the earth can produce enough food to keep every person on this planet healthy and strong.  And we also spoke about the shameful fact that people in this world are hungry, including school children.  I respected my students for the way they showed their feeling about this.  Javier said, “It’s very wrong that some people are so rich and other people are so poor.”  And everyone in the class agreed with him.
The effect of lessons such as these made for enormous change in my students ability to learn.  94 % of theses students, who at the beginning of the semester had so much trouble learning science, passed the test on the digestive system.  They loved being able to identify the parts and describes with accuracy, the job of each organ.   Nancy, who had said she couldn’t learn science had a 55 on her first test, but did better and better as the term progressed, and got an 88 on her final exam.  Javier, who used to leave the room in disgust, soon added greatly to discussions and got the respect of everyone in the class.  And though he began the term with a failing mark he passed the course.  Alex, who had worried about being able to remember the material, after a few weeks had his hand raised to answer practically every question.  His first test grade was 42, but he got an 88 on the test on the digestive system. And all my students became kinder.
I passionately want science educators to learn of the Aesthetic Realism teaching method, so that the schools of New York State are safe, kind, and exciting places of learning!

*This article appeared in The Science Teachers Bulletin, Volume 68, Number 1, Fall 2004.
This is the official publication of the Science Teachers Association of New York State.